John Armstrong on politics
John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: National's stance on welfare not as tough as it seems

Prime Minister John Key. Photo / Janna Dixon
Prime Minister John Key. Photo / Janna Dixon

Tough on welfare? National might want voters to think that. But the party's latest move on welfare reform is also carefully framed to make some of the claims from National's critics that the package bullies and punishes beneficiaries sound rather shrill.

Those claims will certainly be levelled at the most striking element of National's overhaul of the benefit structure - a new requirement that sole parents who have an additional child while on the benefit be subject to part-time work testing once the child turns 1.

This stick - designed to break the cycle of intergenerational welfare dependency - would affect around 4800 beneficiaries a year out of a total of nearly 330,000.

Another seemingly significant step is placing the 58,000 people currently getting the sickness benefit in a new category of jobseeker support, along with the 57,000 on the unemployment benefit and 11,000 of those getting the domestic purposes benefit.

This group will be expected to be looking for work and available for work subject to their capacity to work.

However, sickness beneficiaries were already subject to such work-testing and they will still be able to get "temporary exemptions" if they are deemed not fit to work.

The welfare working group - which recommended the more work-focused welfare system which National has picked up - said in its final report back in February that it has estimated that 37 per cent of beneficiaries were already expected to actively look for work. A rough calculation has that figure rising to around 53 per cent under National's latest changes. But that presumes zero exemptions.

The policy typifies National's overall election strategy so far - maintaining momentum through drip-feeding policy to demonstrate the party is focused on the issues that matter to voters, while at the same time not overly scaring the horses.

The working group also recommended increasing the sanctions on beneficiaries who do not meet their work obligations.

However, National is sticking with the graduated sanctions applying now and which begin with a 50 per cent cut to a person's benefit on the first failure to comply with work-test rules.

Neither has National (sensibly) followed the suggestion of the working group that targets be set for reducing the overall numbers of beneficiaries. Instead, National is claiming the changes will cut the numbers by 46,000.

That remains to be seen. It depends on jobs being there to fill. National is still holding firm to its Budget-time forecast of 170,000 more jobs over the next four years.

What is indisputable is that National is serious about welfare reform. There is more policy to come. However, the party is feeding it out in bite-sized chunks which the electorate can digest without feeling National is merely beneficiary bashing for electoral advantage.

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Just over 400,000 people saw all of the leaders' debate on Monday, while close to another 600,000 tuned in at some stage, according to TVNZ audience research. The figures are on a par with the first leaders' debate in the 2008 campaign.

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- NZ Herald

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