The case for the New Zealand welfare system


I am writing this in support of the extra assistance and social services available in New Zealand. I am writing because I see people saying that New Zealand should ditch its social welfare network, that people who are offered help have no incentive to help themselves. I want to show that contrary to the beliefs of those people, such assistance is well worth the effort.

From an early stage, when my parents realized I had issues such as hand-eye co-ordination, hearing and speech impediments, I have had to have assistance to overcome these problems. In my early days at Waimairi Primary School numerous problems were picked up. One thing that happened was trips to an occupational therapist that my school organized. To at least one session a teacher also went to see if they could learn anything that would help them spot issues in other students.

At High School it was found that whilst I could answer exam questions, a writing impediment meant I often could not finish answers before time ran out. As a result my marks were often lower than what they would have been had I finished them. Thus a writer was made available as was an extra 10 minutes for every hour of the exam.

In 2000, after finishing High School, I enrolled at Hagley Community College. Back then my G.P. thought because of my blood pressure I could not work full time and should only do something that involved several hours a week of work. Thus I applied for a Disability Benefit. The combination of holding down a 12 hour per week job and having the benefit that I was on, enabled me to go through a Bachelor of Science undergraduate degree in 3 1/2 years. It enabled me to pay off all of my student fees when they were due and not have to apply for a student loan. From February 2005 to the end of 2006 I worked on a Postgraduate Diploma of Science also at University of Canterbury, which was also paid for in full and on time each year.

From 2011, after four years holding down full time work, I had to apply for income assistance after my job ended in the Christchurch earthquake. I decided in a city with not much in the way of jobs going to retrain and did a business administration course that was funded by a study allowance – which actually provided me less money per week than the unemployment benefit.

I am now working on a Postgraduate Diploma of Planning, which I am able to do under my own steam. Out of that I hope to get a planning job at Ministry for Environment, a local council or work for a consultant. Like many others in the wake of COVID19, I have had to reduce the hours I work and my employer was able to qualify for the work subsidy. Without that I would probably have had to drop the Diploma.

Without the support I got from the New Zealand welfare system along the way, I would not have achieved nearly half of what I have managed to in my life. The same goes for a number of friends, who have benefited from the developmental assistance, and are now able to hold down jobs because of it. So before you call for the dismantling of the welfare system in the course of a political debate in the coming weeks, just remember that the purpose of it it is not to give “the lazy”, “the druggies”, and such an easy ride. A few will try to do that, but the vast majority are honest people.

Opposition plan to rein in debt a stretch at best


In 1991, the then Minister of Finance Ruth Richardson presented probably the most infamous fiscal budget in New Zealand history. It was called the Mother of all Budgets. Controversial among even her colleagues to the point that it led to notable members of her National Party resigning from Parliament; from the National Party, the social service cuts that the budget enacted were some of the most savage in New Zealand history.

30 years later, with COVID19 afflicting the world and New Zealand, having managed to largely freed itself from the pandemic, trying to get its house back in order, National Party Finance spokesperson Paul Goldsmith wants another Ruthanasia-esque slash and burn.

I find it quite striking that Mr Goldsmith is so keen on this plan. This is particularly so when one considers that the same party has just indicated it is not keen on the idea of a health system overhaul, which would among other things;

  1. Better allocate funding for projects and resources
  2. Improve efficiency of monies distribution throughout the system
  3. Provide greater accountability to the Government and taxpayer

There are other Government ministries and departments that could do with an overhaul of how they work. One is Ministry of Social Development. I have described the issues facing them in various articles here, but it needs to be said that the legal framework under which M.S.D.’s umbrella agencies such as Study Link, Work and Income New Zealand, Child Youth and Farmily Service need to be reviewed as well.

There is more to achieving savings though, than simply cutting expenditure. If the investment in appropriate services by the Government is not adequate, this can create additional unintended issues by locking up monies by throttling those services. Simple as it may sound, the lack of willingness by politicians to understand this is really quite incredible.

But I do not think anyone should be dreadfully surprised that National are trying failed methods for the umpteenth time to lower debt. The Government of Prime Minister John Key promised “a brighter future” for New Zealanders at large. Whilst it is true that this was certainly the case for the rich top 3-5% of New Zealanders, the vast majority of New Zealanders saw little or no meaningful improvement in their financial situations.

The $80 billion in cuts being proposed by National are – to put it very mildly – deep. Their Treasury spokesperson Paul Goldsmith suggested that within one decade his party would seek to reduce debt to below 30% of Gross Domestic Product.

To achieve that National have two choices:

  • Significant tax increases, or – more likely;
  • Significant cuts to public services across the board

Based on their philosophical stand point and strong aversion to increasing taxes, massive cuts across the board to public services are far more likely. But is it possible that those cuts will be so deep as to cause lasting damage to health, social welfare, education, policing, housing and other areas with a social focus?

Quite.

The last time such cuts were made, they were in the Mother of All Budgets presented by Mrs Richardson in 1991. Ruthanasia as it was crudely named by social activists at the time, was a systematic demolition in a single budget in 1991 of a solidly constructed welfare state. Social benefits were cut across the board; user pays were introduced for many requirements in hospitals and schools; state housing was handed over to companies under Government contract in all but name.

My generation of New Zealanders were in primary and intermediate school when these were announced. Having seen the intergenerational social effects of the framework of the welfare state being so deliberately assaulted, I think the push back would be substantial from both centrist and leftist New Zealand.

But am I sure that National cares?

No.

The slow burning Labour Government


The Government have several substantial projects on the go at this time. All of these are actually quite slow burning in that the time stamp from start to finish will be considerable. A few of the larger ones are:

  • The R.M.A. reform bill that Minister for Environment, David Parker has before Parliament
  • The education reforms announced by Minister of Education Chris Hipkins, which include an end to National Standards, established by National and a revisitation of the Tomorrow’s Schools framework established in 1989 to guide schools into the then foreseeable future
  • Social welfare changes being overseen by Minister of Social Development, Carmel Sepuloni

The Resource Management Act Amendment Bill is the most comprehensive reform of the R.M.A. in its history. The Act which was introduced by Labour in 1990 and finished by National in 1991 when it entered law has been dogged by controversy since Day 1, with the Green Party saying it is not strong enough whilst the A.C.T. Party has campaigned for its abolition – with no suggestion about what may replace it – and National have campaigned for a thorough streamlining of it. In the 28 years since it became law, the Act has doubled in length with both Labour and National led Governments adding half cooked amendments to it that have failed to address the core problems. With the dissolution of Parliament for the elections just weeks away I doubt that this will be passed before the election.

Many of the problems blamed on the R.M.A. actually have nothing to do with it and are more the product of a poor understanding of how the Act works. Common problems keep coming out time and again, such as Section 92 requests for more information. These stem from the council with whom a resource consent application has been lodged not been given enough information about the application to make a judgement. Others stem from councils not appropriately notifying a consent application – something that should have been publically notified might have been partially notified or not notified at all. Again, not the Act’s fault that the council made the mistake.

Chris Hipkins and his Labour Party colleagues railed against the National Standards when they were in Opposition. Too complex; children that young should not be examined academically like that; sent the wrong messages to students and parents alike. Like many I am not sorry to see the National Standards go, but I would hope that the equally useless National Certificate of Educational Achievement will follow it out the door and be replaced with an assessment regime that has both internal and external assessment for all courses.

I had experience with Unit Standards in Year 12 and Year 13 Tourism; Year 12 history and Year 11 Maths. You cannot blame the system prior to N.C.E.A. for my results. I was a student with a minimalist attitude who did what I had to pass and not much more. I thought it was a fair system. Some say that the grading was not fair, and perhaps that is true – I do not know why grading was introduced in the first place; if the pass rate is too high then perhaps the assessment is not sufficiently challenging for that year group.

The 1989 Tomorrow’s Schools blueprint was considered visionary at the time of its release. However the learning needs of students, the challenges they face and the diversification of communities that schools serve mean that its time has come to be replaced or comprehensively overhauled. Mr Hipkins has announced his intention to revisit T.S., but no big announcements have been made yet.

Perhaps the biggest question mark is over the reforms announced by Ms Sepuloni. I have heard little about their detail, which is concerning as we approach the end of her first term in office. We have no idea whether Ms Sepuloni intends to tackle the inept and outdated Work and Income New Zealand, which one of the small parties outside of Parliament – Prosperity Party – said they would support the breaking up of. Nor do we know whether any major reforms that come will tackle the monstrosity that is the legal framework of our social welfare system, which is rigid, encourages a toxic culture in the umbrella agencies it was designed for and whose Social Welfare Act has not been substantially revisited since 1956.

Labour are by far the better performing of the big two parties in Parliament. However their policy programme is rather slow burning. I had thought that at least one of these – among other major reforms – would have been passed through Parliament by now. It is fair to say that with COVID19, the Christchurch mosques attack, that Labour have had their hands full handling other crises. It is also true that three party coalitions can be unwieldy things. But that – in particular in Ms Sepuloni’s case – does not mean that the tempo cannot be cranked up a bit.

N.Z. in lock down: DAY 44


Yesterday was DAY 44 of New Zealand in lock down as we fight the COVID19 pandemic.

This has been a highly contentious week for the Government as a number of legal and procedural challenges to how it is handling the COVID19 emergency have come out. There are two particular issues that I want to mention in this article:

  • A challenge to the legality of the LEVEL 3 and LEVEL 4 lock down is underway
  • The Government, following a trend set several Governments ago – and which has been going on for at least my entire adult life – has done a massive document dump to distract New Zealanders

Many New Zealanders – but certainly NOT all – probably do not care too much at the moment about the perceived illegality of LEVEL 3 and LEVEL 4 lock down. They are just grateful that the Government has taken firm and decisive action to minimize COVID19.

But certainly not all New Zealanders are in that category. Nor should people be. If the lock downs were illegal, then that points to failings by the Clark, Key/English and now the Ardern Government to make sure that the legal grounds were proverbially rock solid. I doubt though that one could justify some of the suggestions that have been made by the most aggressive right-wing commentators, including sending the Prime Minister to trial. But there would be an absolutely expectation that the Government would make appropriate amendments to legislation to ensure that this cannot happen again.

My concerns in this case stem from a grubby tactic that successive Governments have used and which seems to be finding rare consensus across the political spectrum when it comes to condemnation of it. I am talking about the habit of massive document dumps on Friday afternoon’s where, perhaps under pressure as it has been this week, or because they think no one will be paying attention as they look forward to the weekend – or hoping that if anyone IS paying attention, that they’ve forgotten by Monday why they were grumpy on Friday. It is not new. The fifth Labour Government of Prime Minister Helen Clark did it. The fifth National Government of Prime Ministers John Key and Bill English did it. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s Government is just the latest.

Because of the latest use of this tactic, I wonder if a Cabinet Manual update is needed to provide guidance on how and when the Government should release documents in the manner that it tends to. I certainly believe it to be a questionable tactic and New Zealand political commentators across the spectrum seem to think that it should be frowned upon.

More critically it reinforces in my mind why New Zealanders need to be taught civics in high school. I personally see no reason why it cannot be taught. People might say “oh, but you are teaching politics”, to which I reply, how do they expect to learn about the political and legal systems if they are not properly taught?

N.Z. in lock down: DAY 7


Yesterday was DAY 7 of New Zealand in lock down as we try to fight the COVID19 pandemic.

This is a somewhat shorter post today as much of what I have been thinking about in the past 24 hours has been about setting priorities for the next few weeks. In the last three days at home I have been largely concentrating on my university study and assessments. So, I thought I would give you a students perspective on the shut down.

I was meant to be going to a block course next week on campus at Massey University. Two weeks ago, when the Government imposed restrictions on gatherings of more than 100 people, it was no longer feasible to proceed with a block course for 82 students, plus tutors, plus guest lecturers, the block course was cancelled. Shortly after that departments started moving to on line teaching to minimize the contact and subsequent spread of COVID19. Then before the end of the week, with an announcement of a lock down now a question of when, the assessment schedule started to get pushed back.

By the time Monday last week rolled around, Massey was effectively shut, or shutting. It was really now just a matter of seeing what the Government of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern would do. We got our answer on that same day – a 1.PM announcement that New Zealand would be in compulsory lock down from 2359 on Wednesday. For many students though, study was the last things on their minds as they tried to get their domestic lives in order before everything except essential services stopped working.

In two chaotic weeks, Massey had gone – and I suspect other universities were the same – from functioning near normally to completely closing its campus, moving everything on line and cancelling exams in favour of other assessment methods. The two weeks in which thousands of students had not got much study done and in which class conversations had switched from course material to COVID19, were written off by the University and everything put back two weeks.

At this stage no one knows what Second Semester will look like.