John Armstrong 's Opinion

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Welfare rejig carries whiff of hypocrisy

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Paula Bennett. Photo / Natalie Slade
Paula Bennett. Photo / Natalie Slade

If National is as hell-bent on radical welfare reform as its critics insist it is, then it would surely overhaul the flawed child support scheme with the same gusto that saw it this week offer free long-acting, reversible contraception to mothers on benefits and their teenage daughters.

When it comes to upholding its founding principle of individual responsibility, however, National appears to have one rule for women and no rules for men.

Then again when you are tackling something as politically-charged as welfare reform, it is a lot easier to take the route of least resistance and pander to the public's stereotyping of largely female sole parent beneficiaries than confront the largely male evaders of child support obligations.

It is supreme irony that in the same week debate raged over whether National's budgeting of $1 million for doctor's visits for beneficiaries wanting contraception amounted to social engineering or was merely common sense, legislation easing the penalty regime for non-payment of child support was quietly making its passage through Parliament almost unnoticed.

Decrying National's political game-playing is not saying National is not serious about serious welfare reform. It is.

The current restructuring of the benefit system - which is spearheaded by Paula Bennett but driven by Bill English - is the most concerted effort yet to break the so-called "cycle of inter-generational dependency" since Ruth Richardson and Jenny Shipley tried and failed in the 1990s.

Yet, it is nowhere near on a par with more extreme attempts to cut welfare rolls in the United States through measures like time-limited benefits, caps on family size which mean no assistance for any child born while the mother is on a benefit, and strict enforcement of the payment of child support by liable parents.

Bennett and her Cabinet colleagues have yet to settle on exactly what beneficiaries are likely to face by way of American-style obligations, such as attending budgeting and parenting courses and ensuring their children are registered with a doctor and fully immunised.

Those requirements will be part of a second phase of reform which will see a major revision of benefit categories and put those on the current sickness benefit in the same "job-seeker" grouping as those on the unemployment benefit.

That change will see the former given medical assessments to determine what they can do work-wise rather than - as now - what they cannot do.

Overall, this will eventually see around 150,000 people on the sickness and domestic purposes benefits assessed as work-ready or preparing to be work-ready. They will risk benefit-halting sanctions if they do not comply.

National, to its credit, has accepted welfare reform costs money to save money - more so when the job market is as tight as now.

National has also come to the party despite having little spare cash. It estimates its programme will cost just over $500 million over four years in providing extra childcare, so-called "wrap-around" mentoring of teenage beneficiaries (the group most likely to stay on a benefit for long periods) plus a big boost in front-line Work and Income staff needed to handle the near tripling of the number of beneficiaries who will eventually be assessed as work-ready.

The estimated saving in the welfare bill is around $1 billion over the same four-year period. That is a deliberately cautious projection - and a lot lower than the $1.3 billion annual saving that was projected by the Welfare Working Group, the Government-appointed taskforce which duly produced the blueprint for reform that National was hoping for.

In stark contrast to those rather meagre savings, the amount of unpaid child support has grown unimpeded to $637 million-plus. If penalties for non-payment - the only sanction - are included, the debt stands at a staggering $2.3 billion.

Yet the scheme barely rated a mention in the otherwise exhaustive final report of the Welfare Working Group.

In marked contrast, United States child support enforcement agencies use methods as varied as revoking drivers' licenses and hunting and fishing permits, publicising the top ten "Most Wanted" child support evaders (complete with mugshots), as well as civil and criminal court hearings and ultimately incarceration to persuade "deadbeat dads" to front up and pay up.

In contrast, New Zealand's Inland Revenue-administered collection scheme has become a monster whose monthly compounding penalty regime for non-payment is blamed for devouring liable parents' willingness to pay.

Part of the problem is that child support payments do not go directly to a parent on a benefit. They instead go to the Crown to help fund that benefit, thus acting as a disincentive for the liable parent to continue contributing.

It has not escaped Labour's notice that National's prodding of supposedly work-shy beneficiaries into the jobs market has not been accompanied by tighter enforcement of child support payments.

Labour front-bencher Jacinda Ardern has questioned why nothing is being done to track down the estimated 30,000 or so runaway fathers who have left it to the state to pay for the upbringing of their children.

Welfare reform is also tricky for Labour, however. The party needs to reconnect with male blue collar workers in the metropolitan city suburbs and provincial towns and cities who have deserted the party in droves. They will have few qualms about National's contraception plan and indeed might well applaud it.

Labour's has consequently avoided outright attack. It has instead stressed that contraception is a matter for a woman and her doctor - not a Work and Income case worker. Labour is also asking why free contraception is not being offered to all low-income women through the community services card.

That is a difficult question for National to answer honestly because the blunt truth is that National is contradicting another of its own principles - freedom of choice. No one believes sole parent beneficiaries won't feel pressured by Work and Income not to have any more children.

There are other reasons for such inconsistencies on National's part. Apart from the offer of free contraception and details of funding levels for the overall welfare package, the bulk of last Monday's announcement had been largely foreshadowed.

The talk about contraception was designed to get John Key's controversy-plagued Government back on the front foot and regain control of the political agenda for the first time in weeks.

It wasn't the first time, and it won't be the last, welfare reform is wheeled out to perform that function.

- NZ Herald

John Armstrong

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Herald political correspondent John Armstrong has been covering politics at a national level for nearly 30 years. Based in the Press Gallery at Parliament in Wellington, John has worked for the Herald since 1987. John was named Best Columnist at the 2013 Canon Media Awards and was a previous winner of Qantas media awards as best political columnist. Prior to joining the Herald, John worked at Parliament for the New Zealand Press Association. A graduate of Canterbury University's journalism school, John began his career in journalism in 1981 on the Christchurch Star. John has a Masters of Arts degree in political science from Canterbury.

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