Protest outside Nats' summer party a necessary act of defiance in face of welfare and housing reforms 

On Sunday afternoon I spent three hours on the picket line outside National’s ‘Summer Party’ at the Royal Akarana Yacht Club.

About fifty of us from Auckland Action Against Poverty (AAAP) were taking the opportunity to let John Key and friends know what we think of their policies on welfare, unemployment and housing.

We copped the usual abuse at the time -- ‘why don’t you get a job?’ -- and the usual abuse afterwards -- ‘you’re just rent-a-crowd protesting without a point’ … and the rest.

I’d like to assure anyone interested that no-one in our group takes protest lightly. It is an act of defiance in the face of a government which seems to lack a shred of empathy for adults in poverty and which thinks that punitive beneficiary bashing is the only way to deal with those dependent on the state for survival. (If you’re working age, that is – if you’re a superannuitant, this does not apply).

While National has won yet another election and has naturally assumed its mandate to carry on with its welfare and housing reforms, we don’t accept that this means we should just shut up and stay silent until the next round in the electoral cycle.  

AAAP runs a beneficiary advocacy service, helping people who have problems dealing with Work & Income.

On a daily basis we work with people who are denied their entitlements, have their benefits cut off without good reason, are unable to access housing even when in desperate need, and are suffering all manner of demeaning treatment at the hands of the department.

Paula Bennett’s welfare reforms of the previous six years are really coming home to roost.

In August 2014 we ran a beneficiary ‘impact’ at the Mangere Work & Income office.

For three days around 50 of us worked as volunteer advocates helping over 500 people access what they should have been getting from the department in the first place. 

Hundreds more people were turned away in scenes that overwhelmed and depressed us in the extreme. Despite Work & Income putting on up to 30 extra staff and with all our volunteers going flat out, there was no way we could help everyone who turned up.

We are still dealing with the aftermath now – and this is just one out of dozens of Work & Income offices in the Auckland region.

National’s welfare reforms are geared, as Paula Rebstock’s Welfare Working Group recommended way back in 2011, to getting 100,000 people out of the working age benefit system by 2021.

What this means in practice is that sole parents of babies and young children, and the sick, injured and disabled are harassed into seeking paid work, while as of December 2014 there were officially 256,800 jobless people in New Zealand.                

Surely a sane society would put the focus on helping the unemployed into work and education rather than work-testing those who are already finding day to day survival a struggle.

It’s a kind of cruel madness to place paid work at any price as the primary purpose of welfare.

Labour started this drive in the 2000s when it amended the purpose of the Social Security Act to place paid work at its heart, and then instituted the Working for Families 'In Work' payment which deliberately discriminates against the children of beneficiaries. National has built its welfare reforms on the back of Labour’s changes.

In the end, ‘work first’ is simply a crude tool used to punish beneficiaries while creating an ever larger pool of people competing for low wage, part time and casual work  at the insecure low end segment of the labour market.

Unpaid work in the home and in the community doesn’t count.

If the government had a shred of common sense they’d be finding ways of harnessing peoples’ energy instead of punishing them.

Last week, our group hosted a meeting with British professor Guy Standing, co-founder of the international Basic Income Earth Network. He talked about his vision for a UBI, a universal basic income grounded in ‘rights not charity’, enabling all people to pursue a fulfilling life both inside and outside the paid workforce.

There are more opportunities to hear Guy speak while he is still in New Zealand, and I strongly recommend you get along if you have an interest. Guy Standing is speaking:

Wellington: 5.00pm Thursday 19 February at St Johns Church Hall, cnr Willis & Dixon Sts – hosted by the Fabian Society.

Auckland: 11.00am Friday 27 February at Te Iringa Room (WG308), Sir Paul Reeves Building, AUT City campus.

His book A precariat charter: From denizens to citizens is a great read as well, an inspiration for those of us who are looking for new ways forward in the world of welfare and work, taking into account 21st century realities.

At the opening of Parliament earlier this month John Key said he had a simple message about his government’s priority “Carry on making the country wealthier.”

That might be well and good for those who already have more than enough, and for those who believe making life harder and harder for those at the bottom is somehow going to make them better off personally.

However, those of us standing and speaking and sometimes raging outside the Nats’ little party on Sunday are calling out for a different kind of future, one in which all adults and children in this country get a decent chance at even a modicum of dignified survival.

Comments (13)

by Alan Johnstone on February 17, 2015
Alan Johnstone

I can accept that the welfare system can be cruel and faceless at times, it's just the nature of a large department with overworked staff, there seems to be an implication in your post that people are being vindictively refused legal entitlements due to political pressure. I'd be surprised if this was correct.

The problem as I see it is over the past 30 years two forces, globalisation and technology improvements have reduced or removed the need for much of the previously existing low skilled / low productivity jobs in the west. The have either been outsourced to cheaper locales or removed by automation.

This has lead to a ever more stark division between those who add large amounts of economic value and those who lack the skills to do so.

Removing all emotion from this, just because someone works hard, it doesn't mean that they are economically productive. The genie can't be put back in the bottle, it just can't.

The answer can't just be to tax the productive into subsidising the less productive. In a global market place, the productive are mobile.

I don't really have an answer, I don't think anyone does. I don't think we've fully worked through the social changes from the industrial revolution let alone the last twenty years.

i do know that hating people who disagree with with me, and treating them as evil is counter productive. It's not a zero sum problem. 

 

by Katharine Moody on February 17, 2015
Katharine Moody

What I wonder with respect to all the zero-hour employment contracts out there at the moment - (e.g. http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/politics/66273394/government-rethinks-on-zerohour-contracts) does a person on the Job Seeker benefit who presently needs to report for their 'work-ready' testing (or whatever WINZ call it these days) - get to go off that testing/reporting regime (but remain on the Job Seeker benefit) once they have secured a zero-hour contract?

 

by Tim Watkin on February 17, 2015
Tim Watkin

I'd be very surprised if so Katharine. My question would be whether someone on a benefit could turn down a zero hour contract without implications for said benefit.

Alan, I agree that tech and globalisation (both of which have their good points!) have completely disrupted the labour market and we have to find ways of adapting. But part of good government is to find solutions without allowing divides in society to appear and ensuring citizens still enjoy the rights of citizenship, such as a basic level of prosperity. Like you, I have no easy answers, but it's the govt's job to wrestle that genie until it does some good for NZ.

I'd also add the other change in that time is the entry of the market into the public sector (again, not all bad, though arguably worse than the other two). That has meant those with limited skills (or the wrong sort of skills) no longer have a productive job to go to. Without falling into cliche, the Post Office etc created all sorts of jobs for people who struggled to get jobs elsewhere. At what cost?

by Lee Churchman on February 17, 2015
Lee Churchman

The answer can't just be to tax the productive into subsidising the less productive. In a global market place, the productive are mobile.

So what? All the most desirable countries to live in have relatively high taxes with generous welfare systems. People have said the same about Canada in relation to the US for ages. Taxes are lower in the US, therefore everyone good will leave Canada. But it never really happens to any great extent. Canada is a fine place to live with many talented people – it actually has a better overall standard of living than the US. 

This has lead to a ever more stark division between those who add large amounts of economic value and those who lack the skills to do so

Misleading. This assumes that the "economic value" generated by the market is not the same as what is actually valued by human beings. We know this is false because pretty much every advanced society has an extensive welfare state insurance system to correct for the failures of the market to produce what people actually need and want. 

In any case, welfare benefits are extremely productive in that they produce goods that people enjoy. When you pay tax to keep homeless people off the street, you are receiving a benefit for that: nicer streets. If you want to wake up secure in the knowledge that old people aren't having to eat dog food for breakfast or children aren't rooting for scraps in middens, then that costs money, and the only effective way of remedying it is through taxation (charity just can't cut it due to free rider problems). Do you like these things? Well, they cost money and the way we do it is the cheapest and most effective way of securing these goods.

It's infinitely more effective than insisting on personal responsibility – many people on welfare are often on welfare because they are incapable of responding rationally to incentives. Providing incentives to get them off welfare is missing the point – you have to make the incentives so draconian that they make things much worse overall. 

Part of the problem is your conceptualisation of what's actually happening seems wildly off base. If you think of the dole as partly a bribe to stop bored young men from robbing your house, you have it right. It's cheaper and more humane than prison. Worrying about the moral character of people on welfare is classic conservative silliness. Welfare is not a reward and it's not a gift. In most cases it is a mutually beneficial transaction. The fact that people can't see this is due to endless right wing moaning more than anything else. 

by Katharine Moody on February 17, 2015
Katharine Moody

I'd be very surprised if so Katharine. My question would be whether someone on a benefit could turn down a zero hour contract without implications for said benefit.


Yes, good question as well.  Point about these zero-hour contracts, is that on acceptance, statistically/technically, you are employed - given a requirement of the contract is the expectation by the employer that you will be available to work "as and when required"... so how could WINZ legitimately require you to carry on being required to turn up regularly to report in to them .. given you've already got a job.

by Charlie on February 18, 2015
Charlie

Lee: So what? All the most desirable countries to live in have relatively high taxes with generous welfare systems. People have said the same about Canada in relation to the US for ages. Taxes are lower in the US, therefore everyone good will leave Canada. 

That's a poor example, especially when I know several Canadian professionals who do in fact work in the USA because they earn more and pay less tax. There are lots of other factors determining migration between Canada and the US so let's make another comparison. Say France and the UK:

The French economy is in free-fall thanks to Hollande's high tax/ high benefits socialist regime. The French elite are leaving the place in droves, French professionals are moving to London. In fact I work with some French exiles here in New Zealand.

 http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-18234930

http://www.businessinsider.com.au/french-bankers-are-moving-to-london-to...

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2012-05-05/rich-french-consider-l...

So make no mistake: We live in a highly competitive world where we need to continually sharpen our act to stay in the game. Given a dose of Ms Bradford's policies we'd pretty soon face the same situation as France or even Greece. After all it only took 10 years of Papandreou's Socialist policies to utterly destroy that country.


by Lee Churchman on February 18, 2015
Lee Churchman

That's a poor example, especially when I know several Canadian professionals who do in fact work in the USA because they earn more and pay less tax.

Yes, as a former Canadian resident I know that many Canadians do move to the United States – this was a frequent news topic when I lived there. The relevant questions are whether there is in fact a "brain drain" to the United States, and if there is, if Canada should reduce taxes and welfare spending in response. 

To answer the first question, the most plausible answer is "no". Canadians have been moving to the US for economic reasons since the 19th century, but there is no real "brain drain" as Canada attracts enough skilled migrants from other countries (including some from the United States). If that's the case, then it provides no real reason for Canada to reduce income taxes or cut back on welfare spending.

But let's say that the critics are right and there really is a long term brain drain. Well, the fact is that Canada has historically had a higher standard of living than the United States (much more so when you adjust for inequality), so it's just not clear that Canada needs to change even if skilled people are leaving. Skilled Canadians may be better off if they leave to live in the United States, but it does not follow that Canada would be better off adopting US-like policies on taxation and welfare to attract them back. All that would do is lower the overall standard of living enjoyed by Canadians.

The French economy is in free-fall thanks to Hollande's high tax/ high benefits socialist regime. The French elite are leaving the place in droves, French professionals are moving to London. In fact I work with some French exiles here in New Zealand

That's one example. I could point to the Nordics or other northern european countries which have generous welfare states and higher taxes that aren't experiencing the same thing. In other words, this is likely more a French problem than it is a general problem with countries that have generous welfare states. New Zealand has lost many people to Australia, but we're hardly going to the dogs here. 

So make no mistake: We live in a highly competitive world where we need to continually sharpen our act to stay in the game.

No. This is just nonsense. It assumes without argument that the benefits we accrue from attracting skilled immigrants outweigh the benefits we gain from the system of social insurance we call the welfare state. We can see from the case of the US that this is wrong. The US is the wealthiest country in the world by a long way, and it is a great place to be rich (which is why many highly skilled people move there). But it consistently performs poorly when we measure general standards of living. Canada is not nearly as rich, but is much more efficient as a country at turning wealth into well being. What countries like Canada have that the US does not is a more pragmatic attitude towards government intervention in the market. Same goes for all the other countries that do a better than the US job of converting wealth into well being.

Asking us to lower taxes and reduce welfare is just asking ordinary New Zealanders to shoot themselves in the foot to accommodate rich people. I'm sorry, but the answer is "no".

by stuart munro on February 19, 2015
stuart munro

If the Key government were not a comprehensive economic failure they wouldn't be looking to grind the faces of the poor.

The whole point of the market reforms is antidemocratic - to substitute an alternative constituency to the public that will obstruct their unreasonable demands for a place to live and enough to eat. Then the government can blame the people it has betrayed instead of having to suffer their criticism.

Good job on the protest Sue, but next time bring a bit of rope.

by Andin on February 20, 2015
Andin

 "Guy Standing, co-founder of the international Basic Income Earth Network. He talked about his vision for a UBI, a universal basic income grounded in ‘rights not charity’, enabling all people to pursue a fulfilling life both inside and outside the paid workforce."

Thanks I'll try to get along to see him

by Katharine Moody on February 20, 2015
Katharine Moody

Labour started this drive in the 2000s when it amended the purpose of the Social Security Act to place paid work at its heart, and then instituted the Working for Families 'In Work' payment which deliberately discriminates against the children of beneficiaries. National has built its welfare reforms on the back of Labour’s changes.

It is an interesting point about the traditional left/progressive side of politics which seeks to expand its popularity with the 'middle'.  Lakoff is interesting when he states that, "the progressive mindset is screwing up the world" - not progressive values, but the present mindset/frame of most progressives.

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/feb/01/george-lakoff-interview?CMP...

I think that's what Sue is saying about the Clark era.

 


by Lee Churchman on February 20, 2015
Lee Churchman

Lakoff is interesting when he states that, "the progressive mindset is screwing up the world" - not progressive values, but the present mindset/frame of most progressives.

I think he's wildly off base in that article. The problem he's trying to address is that conservatives have decided to entirely abandon reason in favour of an aggressive, post-truth rhetoric (Plato's commentary on the Classical Greek sophists is instructive here). When confronted with this accusation, they simply throw it back at progressivism (not that they really mean it: that's just another rhetorical move). John Key's version of this is simply to repeat again and again whatever his PR consultants have told him will push the right buttons with his target audience. Why wouldn't he? There's no referee to call him on it. This places progressives in an intolerable bind: they need reason, because progressive positions are complex and counterintuitive and require explanation – they just aren't that amenable to emotional button pushing. Frame all you like: greed, outrage and fear are stronger motivators than anything the left have to offer. This is just the new normal, and we better get used to it – although I'm sure that many will still be surprised and appalled when Labour starts bashing the undeserving poor in its next election campaign.
by stuart munro on February 21, 2015
stuart munro

The legacy of untruthfulness is the fruit of post-structuralism. A lot of progressives bought into the tools, and the result has been a complete loss of standards. Go back forty years in journalism - Patrick Gower's admission that he is a thug would've disqualified him from any media frontline role - now anything goes, and anything is crap. This is what de Tocqueville was afraid of - mere demagoguery - fascism. It takes about twenty years and many lives to fix - but the malefactors will lose everything. Unfortunately so will many innocent parties.

by Chris Trotter on February 22, 2015
Chris Trotter

It is risky in the extreme, Sue, to bring superannuitants into this discussion. That they are not harassed in the same way as other beneficiaries is because they receive their support purely on the basis of age. Once you turn 65 you're eligible - nothing further is required of you. This is not the case with other beneficiaries. You could argue that it should be, and I would probably agree with you. But, please, do not say things that could be construed (not matter how unjustly) as "divide and conquer" tactics. Leave that to the likes of David Seymour and Act.

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