Editorial: Sit down and shut up

By Peter Jackson

Peter Jackson.
Peter Jackson.

No one, surely, is going to contradict John Carter when he says the social welfare system, in all its forms, has failed the Far North, although some will be surprised at just how deep that failure runs.

He is right when he says the current approach amounts to those who do not have an active, productive role to play in the community being told to sit in a corner and shut up, out of sight and out of mind.

That system has worked well in terms of drawing a veil over the level of dysfunction that has taken hold.

Mr Carter is right when he says the worst effects of welfare dependency are invisible to those who lead 'normal' lives, although that might be changing.

The unprecedented level of violence that manifested itself in and around Kaitaia last year should have opened some eyes, although it was largely dismissed as an aberration.

Kaitaia's senior police officer wasn't surprised; he described one killing as a symptom of a level of violence that he had increasingly become aware of since his arrival in Kaitaia.

That violence is not part of most people's everyday lives though.

They simply don't see it, because they don't move in those circles.

Senior Sergeant Ryan made the point last year that while the spate of homicides made a deeply disturbing statement, those who were not involved in gangs or horrifically dysfunctional families had no need to fear that violence would visit them.

He didn't quite say it, but the inference was that there were two Kaitaias, and what is now described by John Carter as a sub-culture only made itself known to the other half in the most extraordinary of circumstances.

Last year the Northland Age invited a number of politicians to make a special case of Te Hiku by declaring it a community where the unemployment benefit would not be paid to those who did not work for it.

The proposition was based on the view that working for the dole would benefit the beneficiary, not least via an increased income (in that a fair day's work deserved a fair day's pay), but more importantly by encouraging them to establish the routines that others take for granted.

Dad would get up in the morning and go to work, returning to his family in the evening a very different man to one who had nothing to do all day.

That would lead the way to other routines, like regular meal times and sending the kids to school.

Any additional costs - and there would be some, by way of 'benefit' levels and the logistics involved in putting people to work - would be outweighed by reduced costs in other areas, like health, policing and all the symptoms of social dysfunction.

The response to that suggestion was silence. Te Tai Tokerau MP Kelvin Davis acknowledged receipt, but no one else managed even that.

Not even Paula Bennett, who, as a bold and visionary Minister for Social Development, had launched Make it Happen Te Hiku, a remarkably innovative invitation to give the community an unprecedented degree of control over how government funding was spent.

Now Mr Carter, with the support of the public policy think tank the McGuinness Institute, has taken that much further.

He, and his mayoral counterparts in the Gisborne and Rotorua districts want to set up 'demarcation zones,' which will allow those communities to control the spending of government funds with the aim of achieving a much more positive outcome than we are currently seeing.

Even if such an innovation was only partially successful it would have to be better than what we have now. As Mr Carter says, the problem isn't a lack of money.

The Far North, he says, is awash with government cash. The problem is that that money is not achieving anything. It isn't helping the people who need help, not least because the plethora of agencies that spend it work in isolation.

There can be no doubt that the government has some interest in seeing this approach adopted.

The key will be finding and implementing local solutions to local problems, as opposed to the current practice of applying blanket 'solutions' from one end of the country to the other.

It is doubtful that anything will happen overnight, but this political willingness to accept that there might be a better way is encouraging.

At the very least there will be value in quantifying current government spending in the Far North (and Gisborne and Rotorua), and examining how that money is spent and by whom.

Even if the greater plan, the devolving of a meaningful level of authority to the community, comes to nought, only good can come from understanding who is doing what, and how those efforts might be co-ordinated.

Be prepared to be surprised at how much government money is coming into Te Hiku. The figures promise to be truly mind boggling.

Mr Carter, who made a formal proposal to the government late last year in an appeal for a new approach, referred then to a 'stock take' of 535 houses in "an area" in the Far North.

Social welfare was paying 536 benefits to the residents of those 535 homes; 132 of the inhabitants were solo mothers.

There were a 45-year-old grandfather and a 49-year-old grandmother who had been charged by police/Corrections 195 and 24 times respectively.

Their five children and their partners had amassed 669 charges.

The five children, one son and four daughters, had produced eight children of their own, none of whom attended school.

That was in one small corner of one Far North community. It will not be unique. Those statistics will be replicated from one end of the district to the other.

And the Far North won't be unique either. Dollars to doughnuts Gisborne, Rotorua and many other smaller communities aren't in much better shape.

Perhaps it is figures like that that have persuaded Wellington that the current system isn't working.

Perhaps that is why politicians have come to the conclusion that something has to change.

The focus now must be on establishing a structure that devolves responsibility to communities, that enables the co-ordination of services designed to improve the lives of those who need help and the communities in which they live, rather than recriminations.

One might be forgiven for wondering, however, how we got to this point with no one noticing.

The figures should have been collated long before this, and it beggars belief that no one within the political or welfare systems had any idea that the situation was this bad.

Tempting as it might be, there is little point in apportioning blame though.

The job now is to construct a local process that really can make a difference, and to persuade the government to allow that to happen.

That might be easier said than done, but the McGuinness Institute is right when it says that the status quo is not an option.

And John Carter is right when he says there is nothing to lose.

The situation that Mr Carter has exposed in this district should be a source of shame to us all, particularly those who have had the job of addressing a level of dysfunction that has no place in what is supposedly a First World country.

We could be on the brink of something special here.

Hopefully, for all our sakes, things are about to change.

- Northland Age

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