It helps when you are going somewhere to know where you are going and why. Therefore, it is important to fix the fundamental “aims and principles” of the social security law as soon as possible.. Those of today have taken us a long way in the wrong direction. As the Irish might say, if you want to get to a better place, better not start here.
The Wellbeing Expert Advisory Group (WEAG Report) Whakamana Tāngata: Restoring the dignity of social security in New Zealand underscored this point, strongly advocating that before reform we need to agree on new “aims and principles” for the welfare state. It has taken the government more than four years to even begin to deal with this problem and the signs so far are not promising. Despite the careful and painstaking work by WEAG following wide consultation, this was apparently necessary. to produce a brilliant report “The Foundation for Change Amending New Zealand’s Social Security Act 2018: the next phase in New Zealand’s Welfare Overhaul Work Programme”. With many large color images of smiling, diverse but healthy New Zealand families, the spinning machine is well-oiled. The background is less impressive.
The report is not yet publicly available, but forms the basis of a limited consultation process before being considered by Cabinet. The proposed “goals and principles” are a tinkering with the current discredited goals, nothing to do with the substantive review demanded by WEAG or supported by CPAG.
We must remember that the Labor Party itself was responsible for the current breakfast of the ‘Purposes and Principles’ section of the current law. The Labor Party introduced the amendment in 2007 which emphasized the primacy of paid work by making outlandish claims, for example that “work in paid employment provides the best opportunity for people to achieve social and economic well-being “. Social security had to be there only after people turn to their own resources. Its purpose was to alleviate (reluctantly) difficulties, not to provide results and security of belonging and participation. Paid work presented 9 times.
The national opposition in 2007 could not believe his luck. In the Chamber, Anne Tolley, rubbing her hands with joy, said ecstatically:
“National supports this bill which is going to select committee. Why the hell wouldn’t we? We have been saying for seven years that we wanted to strengthen the provisions of this bill. It’s really just a damp rag of a bill designed to look like the government is doing something, but it’s actually not doing much at all.” Hansard 2007
Labour’s changes to the law, paved the way for National (2008-2017) to further undermine the welfare state emphasizing the primacy of paid work and minimizing community responsibility and unpaid care work. Being ill or disabled was no longer a reason for not having a “paid” job. Recipients were subject to new planning and activity requirements, which meant that if they did not start planning paid work, their benefits could be reduced.
A further dismantling of the welfare state was encouraged by the 2007 goal““allow, in certain circumstances, to provide financial support to individuals to help alleviate hardship”. This has led to increasingly strict targeting of welfare with stiff penalties for non-compliance. Poverty was used as a weapon to achieve desired behavior and an ugly culture developed in WINZ. For example, their powers to determine a relationship; its nature, its starting point and the advisability of continuing. Sanctions were imposed for breaches of the rulebook rule alongside an appeals process stacked in favor of MSD and unmonitored by an outside body.
Another unpleasant feature of the 2007 changes National exploited was the expectation that before asking the state for anything, people would have to turn to their own resources. “…that they must, where applicable, use the resources made available to them before applying for financial assistance under this Act”.
The culture took hold that if the recipient had borrowed money because they could not survive on a benefit, such loans could be treated as income reducing the entitlement to the same benefit. CPAG was involved in a case (Mrs. F) in which a family loan resulted in a five-year review of a single parent’s expenses and the establishment of a $127,000 benefit overpayment debt. A High Court decision was needed to overturn this decision, but there was no review of the practice and the implications for others similarly affected, but without access to pro legal resources. bono to support an 8 year fight with MSD.
It is therefore with some surprise that the latest efforts to rewrite the “Objectives and Principles” retain “where appropriate [beneficiaries] shall use the resources available to them before seeking financial support under this Act”.
The primacy of paid work is moderated slightly to “employment, if any, provides the best opportunity for people to achieve well-being”. There is no visionary statement about the purpose of social security that is not just to alleviate real poverty when it occurs but to prevent it and activate participation and belonging in society. On the contrary, the best that can be gathered in the 2022 report is “Social security contributes to the well-being of the community by providing support to reduce poverty and hardship”.
It is shameful that the work of WEAG is invisible, and even more time is expected from former WEAG members and voluntary organizations like CPAG to engage in a so-called consultation on what looks like an exercise in creating work.