WikiLeak cable: National goes to bat

January 27, 2005
National goes to bat

SUBJECT: NATIONAL GOES TO BAT

Classified By: ACTING DCM KATHERINE B. HADDA, FOR REASONS 1.4 (B,D)

1. (U) Summary. After a week of press leaks and innuendo,
the 2005 election season swung into full gear with Opposition
National Party leader Don Brash's much-anticipated speech at
Orewa Rotary Club on January 25, unveiling National's
long-promised position on welfare reform. Expectations for
this speech were astronomical after a speech at the same
venue in January 2004 surprised both the Government and
National by resulting in a 15 percent poll jump for National.
While short on specific policy prescriptions, the biggest
announcement in the speech was a pledge to reduce the total
number of beneficiaries by 100,000 within the next ten years.


2. (SBU) Although the speech made it onto the front pages,
public reaction seems well below that generated by last
year's speech. But the message gives an idea of National's
intentions going into the early stages of the election
campaign. By raising the welfare issue, the party hopes to
attract struggling middle-income working families with
children, and to solidify support by traditional National
voters. Learning from last year, the Government responded
quickly to the speech, noting that the number of
beneficiaries has actually declined since Labour has been in
office.

End summary.

Orewa II: Return of the Brash
-----------------------------

3. (U) After a week of press leaks and innuendo, Opposition
National Party leader Don Brash gave a much-anticipated
speech at Orewa Rotary Club on January 25, unveiling
National's long-promised position on welfare reform. Brash
was quick to note that he is not condemning legitimate
beneficiaries, but rather aiming at the widespread fraud he
believes is in the system. Welfare is "a temporary hand up
not an open-ended handout," he said, emphasizing that the
system was out of control. Brash noted that since 1975, New
Zealand's population had grown by 32 percent, but the number
of Sickness Benefit recipients has grown by almost 500
percent, and those on the Invalids' Benefit by almost 700
percent. Since 1999, when the current Labour Government took
office, the population has grown by 6 percent, versus 40
percent growth in the number receiving those two benefits.

4. (U) Expectations for this speech were astronomical: at the
same venue and time last year, Brash's speech attacking
racial preference in Government policies resulted in a 15
percent poll jump for National, surprising both his own party
and the Labour Government. Proving they have learned their
lesson, and leaving no doubt that election year sparring has
begun, Minister for Social Development Steve Maharey
immediately countered this year's speech, pointing to a
reduction in overall beneficiary numbers since 1999, and
highlighting New Zealand's current record low unemployment
rate. He also claimed that Labour was already enacting all
of the "good recommendations" from the speech. The remainder
of Brash's recommendations were failed National policies from
the 1990s, Maharey said. Prime Minister Helen Clark, in a
limited statement, stood by her record, and pointed to a 20
percent reduction of working age benefit recipients during
Labour's 5-years in Government.

Promises Made
-------------

5. (U) While not varying substantially from policies
announced by Party Welfare Spokeswoman Katherine Rich in
2003, Brash did make a new pledge to reduce the total number
of beneficiaries by 100,000 within the next ten years. To
achieve this, Brash focused primarily on more stringent
application of single-parent subsidies- the Domestic Purposes
Benefit (DPB). He also advocated a limited
"work-for-the-dole" program or retraining for those receiving
unemployment, and tougher medical evaluation of those
receiving Sickness and Invalid payments. For employees seen
as risky, i.e. those without experience, with poor English
skills, or with a criminal record, potential employers would
be offered a 90-day "trial period" to encourage greater
workforce participation.

6. (U) Repeating National's mantra of "personal
responsibility" versus an expanding "nanny state," Brash
called for DPB recipients to be ready for part-time work when
their youngest children turned five and full-time when they
turned 14. Brash savaged the Labour Government for allowing
women to have greater incomes if they deny having a
relationship with their childrens' father than they would if
the same couple were married. Brash also stated that under a
National government, single parents on the DPB who won't name
the father of their children would face financial penalties.
Brash also advocated adoption as an option, especially for
teenage mothers.
The Political Angle
-------------------

7. (U) Demonstrating election year sensitivities, Brash was
quick to clarify that National's welfare policies will not
apply to social security benefits for either people over 65
or those physically or mentally unable to support themselves.
He also stressed that National would be supportive of women
trying to leave abusive relationships. With National's
voters statistically older than Labour's, and the overall
speech aimed at working New Zealanders, these clarifications
should reassure National's core constituency. Critics of his
proposals, which include the Green Party, United Future and
social welfare groups, point out that there are few specifics
in the plan, no mention of anticipated costs, and little to
differentiate it from past National policies.

Comment
-------

8. (C) Because of the attention generated by last year's
speech, extensive media coverage and a strong government
response were assured for this one, regardless of topic or
caliber. Despite the initial media blitz, however, voters
had a lukewarm reaction, with newspapers reporting they had
received a quarter of the number of letters commenting on the
speech compared to 2004. This is not altogether surprising,
given the unreasonably high expectations placed on Brash by
the media and his own party. The speech was significant,
though, in that it has countered criticism that National has
been afraid to unveil policies for fear that the Labour
government will hijack the agenda by itself implementing
National's recommended reforms, as happened after last year's
Orewa speech. Whether the Government will succeed with a
similar sleight of hand this time remains to be seen, but
officials' claims that Labour has already reduced the number
of beneficiaries was no doubt intended as a step in this
direction.
Swindells

- Herald on Sunday

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