Toby Manhire

Toby Manhire on New Zealand

Toby Manhire: Benefit-slaying Nats starting to look plain nasty

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Social Development minister Paula Bennett. File photo / NZPA
Social Development minister Paula Bennett. File photo / NZPA

The other day on breakfast TV, that nice Petra Bagust accidentally bade farewell to "Paula Benefit". On the sofa opposite, the Minister for Social Development didn't look the least bit bothered. Indeed, Bennett seems to rather like the moniker. I half expected her to lean over and demand she be given her full title: Paula, Benefit Slayer.

The latest burst of headline-hungry welfare slaying targets (again) parents - including sole parents. Fail to keep any preschool child aged 3 or over in certified education for at least 15 hours a week and your benefit could be cut by as much as half, comes the warning, part of a list of "social obligations".

But hang on. Consider this view: "As we are pushed to increase women's participation in the workforce, we need to ask who will be raising our next generation ... I advocate for choice - for women to work part-time or full-time in paid work, or not at all, or to stay home and raise their children ... A good government does not come into people's homes and tell them how to raise their children."

A powerful argument, and - you know where I'm going with this - an argument made by Paula Bennett, in her maiden speech to Parliament in 2005.

But the other cause for alarm in this latest salvo is the impact on children. Slash a parent's benefit and you hurt their children - children who, chances are, already have it extremely tough. To argue otherwise is fantasyland.

If the measures put in place to enforce parents' "social obligations" end up punishing children, the most vulnerable, powerless and voiceless of all, it will increasingly look as though the state is betraying its own social obligations - including, by the way, its obligations under the International Convention on the Rights of the Child.

That child poverty is the great moral stain on New Zealand was laid shamefully bare in the release a fortnight ago of a paper issued by the Children's Commissioner. The Expert Advisory Group on Solutions to Child Poverty estimated 270,000, about one in four, children live below the poverty line. The main advice of one of said experts - a universal child benefit - was laughed off by the Prime Minister as "dopey".

And on the very day the consultation paper was published, Bennett leapt for the "crackdown" loudhailer and bellowed: "Drug tests for jobseekers!" Calculated to get Middle New Zealand chuntering in agreement, the success of the measure could no doubt be measured in the warm glow of radio-talkback approbation. But that stain, that child poverty thing, doesn't go away.

The benefit slaying choreography has seen a string of announcements. Punitive measures for parents who don't put their kids in preschool and for jobseekers who refuse drug tests followed the imposition of a stigmatising "welfare card" for young beneficiaries, and the provision of free contraception for teen beneficiaries, with its concomitant whispers that young women who decline contraception could one day face penalties.

Individually, these are workaday populist policies. Taken together, and topped with the minister's unrepentant release of beneficiaries' private details, it all assumes a different, demonising air - the most draconian casting of beneficiaries since the efforts of Ruth Richardson and Jenny Shipley in the 90s.

Every announcement is framed - much like the Paula Rebstock-chaired welfare group recommendations that provide their philosophical spine - as an "encouragement" for beneficiaries to enter the workforce. But this is encouragement by pitchfork. And with every fresh push that pesky question keeps cropping up: yeah, but where are the jobs?

The benefit slaying process is calculated to appeal to New Zealanders' staunch sense of fairness. But the it's-not-fair-you-taking-my-tax face of fairness has a flipside. Because it's not fair, either, to deny anyone a reasonable chance.

A decade ago, in Britain, a senior MP in the opposition Conservative Party, then deep in the doldrums of more than a decade out of power, got to the root of their problem. They were perceived, she said, as "the Nasty Party". They were regarded as "unrepentant, just plain unattractive".

The New Zealand National Party in 2012 are not the Tories of 2002. But their unrepentant, punitive campaign against beneficiaries, combined with a refusal to face up to the severity of child poverty, is beginning to make them look awfully nasty.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

Toby Manhire is also a columnist for APN's Listener magazine.

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