Paul Little at large

Paul Little is a Herald on Sunday columnist

Paul Little: Boffins tot up our benefit blues

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Paula Bennett decided to consult the Aussies. Photo / Michael Craig
Paula Bennett decided to consult the Aussies. Photo / Michael Craig

It's been suggested for some time now that Social Development Minister Paula Bennett is being deployed strategically to divert public attention from matters that could be embarrassing to the Government - such as its inability to keep New Zealanders in New Zealand, a reason to justify its asset sales programmes, or the speed of progress in Christchurch.

This strategy now appears to have been finessed to the point where she is required to come up with ways to divert attention from her previous diversions.

In the week that the odious policy requiring parents on benefits to get their chimneysweeps-in-waiting - sorry, children - into some sort of care and themselves into some sort of work when the youngsters turn 3 hit the news, she has come up with a world-beating piece of, "Hey, look over there".

With all the grace of a cat dragging a dead rat on to the dining table and dumping it in the trifle, she told us she has just found out that if all the people on benefits stayed on benefits until they were 65, the cost to the country would be $78 billion.

At 65, as she neglected to point out, everyone goes on to the biggest benefit of all, national super, already costing $9 billion a year or half the social welfare budget. Grim news, although the minister managed to introduce some humour. Rather than providing employment for local bean-counters in tracking down this number, she sent the task overseas to Australian consultants Taylor Fry. How droll.

Perhaps no New Zealand company could be found willing to dirty its hands with such an obvious assault on some of the most vulnerable members of society. The Australians were paid about $1 million to bother their calculators for as long as this took. The consultants also concluded that people who enter the welfare system aged younger than 18 cost the most over their lifetimes. So the earlier a person goes on a benefit the more that benefit will cost if they stay on it. Those must be some boffins they have at Taylor Fry.

Bennett is not, as she is often accused of doing, attacking beneficiaries themselves. She is merely pointing out that their insistence on feeding and clothing and getting medicine for themselves and their children is dragging the rest of the country down.

God willing, Bennett stays in her role for many glorious years to come. Otherwise the Government will have to look for other ways to get people off benefits, such as removing the need for people to go on them by stimulating the economy to provide jobs, providing better life skills education, better preventive health, better facilities for early childhood, better parental education and any of the other obviously dignified, often low-cost and humane solutions available.

Meanwhile shocking figures from the OECD's annual report on education have caused widespread embarrassment. It appears we spend about 20 per cent of our public budget on education, among the highest percentages among "developed" nations. We are also ahead on spending as a proportion of GDP, and we are doing well in term of results - brains for bucks, as it were.

This is bad news for many people. For bleaters, it means one less thing to whine about. For sensitive souls, it means the distressing sight of politicians taking credit for something to which they have no right - you can blame departmental bureaucrats, a history of prioritising education spending and thousands of devoted teachers for this result.

And for John Banks and charter school advocates it means that the thing he is trying to fix wasn't broken in the first place.

- Herald on Sunday

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