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John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Child poverty report must not be ignored

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Prime Minister John Key. Photo / Michael Craig
Prime Minister John Key. Photo / Michael Craig

Yet another damning report on child poverty; yet another announcement of a further piece in the welfare reform jigsaw to draw attention away from that report's bleak contents.

How much longer can National keep pulling that particular rabbit out of the hat every time the political going gets a little rugged?

The answer is for as long as the tactic works. Forget civil liberties. Cutting the benefits of the unemployed if they refuse or fail a drug test when that's a requirement of a job offer hits all the right buttons with the wider electorate. It's something National was always going to save for a rainy day.

You would, therefore, have had to come down in the last shower to believe it was mere coincidence the Government confirmed that drug testing would go ahead on the same day a major report on child poverty was released.

This crude attempt to stifle the work of an expert advisory group reporting to the Commissioner for Children, Russell Willis, was particularly cynical.

But National was on a hiding to nothing.

Before winning the 2008 election, John Key tramped up and down McGehan Close, a street in a lower socio-economic part of Auckland, talking about providing "the ladder of opportunity".

According to the advisory group's report, child poverty has since risen to near the 25 per cent mark. It's still less than the nearly 30 per cent level of the early 2000s before the introduction of Labour's Working for Families income assistance programme. But it is an increase, nonetheless.

The Prime Minister might have quibbled with the figures. Treasury research presented to the Government's own ministerial committee on poverty, and supposedly using the same measure, shows a slight drop in relative poverty after 2008. But Key chose not to argue, possibly because more recent statistics on incomes produced by the Ministry of Social Development and incorporating the impact of the global economic downturn for the first time back the advisory group's findings.

The ministry's annual household incomes report registered a 3 per cent drop in median household income between 2009 and 2011. One of its measures of inequality rose to its highest level ever.

What is not clear - and what will worry the Government - is whether that is just a one-off or the start of a trend.

Key instead took a pot-shot at the advisory group's recommendation of a universal payment to young children regardless of income, calling it a "dopey idea" that would make the rich even richer when the Greens raised it in Parliament.

If the suggestion is dopey - the advisory group argues it has been successful elsewhere in the OECD in alleviating child poverty - it's the exception in a report otherwise impeccably credible for its thoroughness, the rigour of its analysis and, crucially, its pragmatic, dispassionate and impartial tone and innovative recommendations.

With the likes of Business New Zealand's Phil O'Reilly on board, the advisory group cannot be dismissed as some lightweight outfit running a left-leaning agenda.

The report's impact is intensified by being part of a mini-avalanche of both official and unofficial reports on child poverty and inequality currently in the public arena.

Also of note has been the telling comparison between New Zealand and the Netherlands produced by the Every Child Counts coalition which includes Plunket, Barnardos and Save the Children.

Then there's the Government's very own green paper for helping vulnerable children, which makes scant mention of poverty as a contributing factor.

It consequently looks lightweight in comparison to the advisory group's report to the Commissioner for Children.

The latter report not only puts pressure on the Government to produce something of real substance in writing the more detailed white paper which will follow the consultation exercise of the green paper.

It also sets a very high benchmark for the ministerial committee on poverty, set up at the instigation of the Maori Party as part of its confidence and supply agreement with National.

If it does nothing else, the advisory group's report would be a success if it remedied the most obvious deficiency in the whole debate which has enabled successive governments to duck the issue: the lack of an official measure of child poverty.

Without an official measure, politicians can pick and choose figures to deny there's a problem. Without an official measure, they are less accountable. They can avoid, as National has done, setting targets for a reduction in child poverty.

Under its "Better Public Services" banner, National has heavily promoted its five-year targets for ministers and their respective departmental chief executives.

These include supporting vulnerable children by increasing the participation rate in early childhood education, increasing infant immunisation rates and reducing the incidence of rheumatic fever, and reducing the number of assaults on children.

Glaringly absent is a target for reducing child poverty. That is not neglected by the expert advisory group which sets a target of a reduction of 30 per cent within ten years.

Moreover, the group warns that failure to reduce poverty could make it very difficult for National to reach its own targets, presuming it's still in Government in five years.

Accordingly, the group's report recommends making the setting of targets for a reduction in child poverty a statutory requirement. It stops short of making it legally binding to meet those targets, saying such things as sudden economic shocks are beyond a Government's control. However, it recommends the Minister of Social Development be required to report to Parliament annually on progress in meeting poverty reduction targets.

In short, the advisory group is saying the time has come to grasp the nettle - that cutting the huge bill the state faces every year from the consequences of poverty can be reduced. But that requires the spending of more money in the short term on such things as a much expanded programme of state house construction.

It's an argument that National has accepted in welfare reform - that if you want to get sole parents back to work, for example, you have to provide suitable child care.

However, the political payoffs from being seen to run a carrot-and-stick welfare policy are much more tangible. For a party whose prime object is to get the Government's books back to surplus, the spending of money has to bring a worthwhile political dividend in the short term.

For that reason, National will continue to tackle only the more politically noisy and troublesome manifestations of child poverty. Not surprisingly, it does not look kindly on those reminding the public it is doing only that.


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- 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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