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On first reading, Don Brash's prescription for remedying New Zealand's "entrenched welfare culture" sounds tough. But how tough is it really?

Dr Brash's speech certainly plunges deeper into the politically hazardous waters of welfare reform than any previous National leader, with the arguable exception of Jenny Shipley, has been willing to dive.

But then Dr Brash had to be contentious last night if he was going to breathe life into a largely dormant debate and successfully marginalise Labour as "soft" on welfare reform.

His intention is to drive a wedge between two key Labour constituencies - the low-paid and beneficiaries - and force Labour to come to the defence of beneficiaries.

His weapon is a full-scale onslaught on the domestic purposes benefit, a clever tactic given that Labour's reluctance to be drawn into responding to Dr Brash's agenda must bow to its natural instinct to protect women suffering financial and other pressures.

Dr Brash's speech was crafted in such a way to ensure this happens.

In contrast, other beneficiaries got off relatively lightly. Dr Brash only promised a watered-down version of the work-for-the-dole scheme which National introduced when it was last in power.

What is radically new is the suggestion that women on the DPB who continue to have children should not be compensated with additional support payments. Perhaps most provocatively of all, he floats the possibility of DPB children being adopted out, particularly the babies of teenage girls.

Yet, when it comes to the exact detail of what he is proposing, Dr Brash is far more circumspect.

His requirement that those on DPB with primary school-aged children be available for part-time work resurrects previous policy.

And, in the case of mothers on the DPB who keep having children, Dr Brash's speech engages in much soul-searching before determining there should " be no automatic entitlement to additional state assistance".

He is vague in declaring those seeking the DPB who refuse to name the father of their child will suffer "a significantly more substantial financial penalty" than now.

How much in dollar terms? Dr Brash isn't saying.

He is punting on his target audience of low-wage "kiwi battlers" not getting hung up on such detail and instead responding to the broad sentiment of what he is saying - particularly his simplistic, but alluring plan to cut beneficiary numbers from 300,000 to 200,000 within 10 years and give them the money saved through tax cuts.

However, given numbers on the unemployment benefit have already fallen dramatically and Dr Brash is offering few solutions for cutting sickness and invalid beneficiary levels, the brunt of the 100,000 reduction will have to come from the 109,000 people currently on the DPB.

That will require tough policies implemented with a firm hand.

It all adds up to a delicate balancing act for Dr Brash. He must talk tough to get voters' attention. But not so tough he upsets people's comfort levels too much.

For National knows it would take only a few loose words for the debate about about forcing those on the DPB into work to end with National being slammed for victimising society's most vulnerable.