Scoop Election 08: edited by Gordon Campbell

WINZ and food banks, and Fiji

April 14th, 2009

[For Fiji click here]

A few months ago, Scoop asked Paula Bennett at John Key’s post-Cabinet press conference whether she saw a pressing need – in the light of the global financial crisis – to relax the criteria for special assistance to families who would become dependent on the state for income support. No, Bennett said, she wasn’t – and now wasn’t the time, she maintained, for ‘tinkering’ with the rules of entitlement.

To which one could only respond – if this crisis isn’t the right time, when would be? The crisis has now arrived. And sure enough, it does transpire that beneficiaries are being denied assistance, and are being shunted off to food banks by the counter staff at WINZ.

Neither the departmental staff – nor the National party – can be entirely blamed for this situation they have inherited. It was the Clark government that replaced the old Special Benefit (which allowed WINZ counter staff some discretion when it came to meeting crisis situations) with the Temporary Additional Support scheme, which offers little or no discretion at all. That change had been the government’s miserly reaction to the Ruka v WINZ High Court decision in 2002 – which had held that the state did indeed have a legal obligation to adequately advise beneficiaries of their entitlements. Labour’s response? To shrink the entitlements.

During economic boom times, only MPs with wide experience in the welfare sector – and that list begins and ends with Sue Bradford – expressed any concern about what the replacement of the SB by the TAS would mean, when times got tough. Here’s Bradford, as reported in the Jobs Letter in 2006

Green MP Sue Bradford is disappointed that Benson-Pope’s “good news” for beneficiaries didn’t cover the fact that the Special Benefit is being scrapped. In its place will be Temporary Additional Support (TAS) which has much more restrictive criteria. Bradford says that under TAS, no matter how severe the hardship, no lump sum payments will be allowed and that a “severe limit” on paying expenses will be imposed. Bradford points out that the system will be much less flexible and restricts case managers’ ability to take account of individual circumstances. In most cases the beneficiary must meet the first $20 of hardship and the payment will usually be limited to a maximum weekly payment of no more than 30% of the main benefit they receive.

Now those chickens are coming home to roost. The welfare safety net for those needing special assistance is plainly inadequate. Bennett and Key cannot continue to act as if the only people who need government help during the financial crisis are the suffering captains in the tycoon sector. Bennett in particular, needs to get beyond photo ops and slogans – and start to show some leadership of her department’s response to what is happening in our communities, as unemployment begins to rise.


fiji coup


Interesting that the outside world – which expressed nothing but contempt for Fiji’s judicial system last year when the High Court delivered a decision it didn’t like – should now be rushing to defend it, once the Court of Appeal gave a decision that it DID like, but which has now been swept aside.

Apparently, under that latest reading of the 1997 Constitution, there was no prerogative power held by the Fijian President, no matter what breakdown in good governance or civil society had occurred. At the very least, this reading would seem to render the 1997 Constitution seriously deficient. Yet to solve the crisis in Fiji and out of thin air, the President was then expected to produce an independent interim regime acceptable to all. Whatever else one might say about it, at least the High Court had tried to grapple with events in the real world.

Tragically, those events have now moved beyond the nuances of constitutional interpretation. The suspension of political and media freedoms is sad, but entirely predictable – the Court of Appeal made its case, but did anyone really think the regime would hand Fiji back to the corrupt old political and business elites from which it sees itself to be the national saviour?

To the likes of Bainimarama, the media (and especially the foreign media) are the mouthpieces of those old neo-colonial elites, and disinterested in analyzing the interests currently in conflict over the country’s future direction. None of which justifies the repressive steps currently being taken – but given the siege mentality of the regime, the prospect that it will be shifted from its course by our current round of hand-wringing is remote. New Zealand and Australia cannot serve as honest brokers in this situation. If anyone can, someone such as PNG’s Sir Michael Somare now seems the only option, but without his script being ghosted from the sidelines.

The reason why New Zealand cannot simply be content to call Fiji names – the Burma of the South Pacific etc etc – is that we have too much to lose. Gilbert Ulrich has already pointed out the circa $500 million in business that Fiji means to this country. Not that this should be an over-riding concern. Yet MFAT seems to have no strategy whatsoever to counter the way China is displacing New Zealand in Fiji economically, diplomatically and, in time, militarily. Any short term satisfaction from decrying the human rights situation in Fiji has to be weighed against the longer term damage of enabling China to increase its clout in Fiji in particular, and within the South Pacific in general.

It may already be too late. By choosing to lash itself to the sorry likes of Laisinia Qarase, New Zealand has put itself on a collision course with Bainimarama from which there is now little prospect of escape.


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    1. 9 Responses to “WINZ and food banks, and Fiji”

    2. By stuart munro on Apr 14, 2009 | Reply

      And the upshot is that NZ’s influence in the region will diminish, while newer players like Korea, Malaysia, and China will become more important. And all this just to preserve the miserable vanity of our incumbant encumbrances…

    3. By George Darroch on Apr 14, 2009 | Reply

      For the record, the benefit is $148.73 weekly after tax for a single person who is 20-24 years and married, de-facto or civil union couple with or without children each. Single 25 years or over gets $178.49 per week after tax.

      Furthermore, that unemployment benefit is only granted after you can demonstrate that your bank accounts are completely exhausted. Which means that fixing the car or any one of a hundred possible necessary expenses becomes impossible to meet. Life is extremely stressful when you’re worrying about every single cent.

      So you’re pretty much in hardship from the very beginning. I know someone on the unemployment benefit at the moment, and they’re having to raid skip-bins for food in order to make it through the week. On an occasional week they can get a food grant, which they use to buy food they can sell to others in order to make enough to cover other basic costs.

      I hate to think what it is like to raise a child under this system. My parents did it, but they had a freehold ramshackle house and a large vegetable garden – both of which are excluded for those who rent.

      The whole system is inhumane, and treats those unfortunate enough to be out of work like dirt. It is to Labour’s shame that they proudly maintained the Richardson system.

    4. By stuart munro on Apr 15, 2009 | Reply

      George, that’s why it’s called the indecent society.

    5. By Jack on Apr 17, 2009 | Reply

      Write your lengthy article in your private
      journal!!! Who cares???

    6. By Susie on Sep 16, 2009 | Reply

      I know the real truth,desperate families on WINZ Benefits are going hungry to feed the children first. Recently I had to repair my car at a WHOOPING cost OF $360.00 which was long overdue. I am temporarily disabled and cannot walk and so therefore rely on the car to get to doctors and the hospital.I went without the car for 2 months and sat inside my home every week as I could not walk and I went out only by cab to my hospital appointments when I had to.I am a mum of 3 teenage children who eat like adults and sadly I am embarrassed to say I have (No nutritional) food in my cupboards. Why? Because I just cannot afford fancy foods.I have begged for food and borrowed food and I have even been told by Winz that I would have to go to the Sallies for food.I do not drink or smoke and I squander nothing and still we are 2 days short of decent food every week. I buy cheap and nasty and span out the meals daily so I’m not a random shopper but we still cannot afford (Fruit, Yogurt..which is a huge luxury, Meat of most kinds..we eat cut up pre-cook sausages, Definitely no personal fancies such as Body spray or colognes) and we hunger for snack food such as Cheese and spreads etc etc…So I paid for the car myself because I had no entitlements left through Winz as I had to repair my (DENTURES) which apparently took up all the advance entitlements I had owing, we where sent to the Sallies.Now the Salvation group explained to me that I could only ask for food (ex amount) of times in a year and I must present a letter of authenticity from Winz stating I AM NOT ENTITLED TO ANY FOOD HELP? I am so ashamed and unhappy, no in fact I’m downright depressed and I cried but hey I’m grateful for the food parcel to feed my children (Or am I?) I waited in the hallway for the food after spilling my sad pathetic story to an unknown counter worker as is the protocol for getting food, and I was honest and told her I live week to week and I have nothing in the cupboards at home…and I mean nothing to eat we were bare bar spices and herbs.So to cut it short I waited and a door opened to reveal a small box of food and 2 plastic bags of hidden contents which were unceremoniously dumped on the floor and my name was called and I retrieved the goods and thanked the (Now closed in my face) door and walked out.Needless to say we were hungry so round the corner we stopped tore open the bags and discovered that for (The entire week) we were going to live off of ..4 expired small chocolate bars,a bag of rice, 2 cans of baked beans,1 small fruit loaf, 2 hotel type bars of soap,1 can of 4 bean mix, a small tied bag of sugar,1 can of 440grm peach slices,and a box of porridge? I broke down and cried in the car and my children cried with me.I am a human being who is in need I like butter and toilet paper and bread and vegs and meat and Im a Kiwi who has worked hard to contribute to my country so Why Why? Today I am on the road to recovery but still unable to work and considering leaving NZ for good.We are still hungry and new clothes are a joke we have nothing new and until I work again we are suffering so “Paula Bennett” wake up to the truth, there are Kiwis suffering below the poverty line and we are one of those families..

    7. By Dr Strangeglove on Sep 24, 2009 | Reply

      Susie you really have my deepest sympathy.
      Lynne Pillay is Labour Spokesperson for Disability Issues and also try contacting Paula Bennett’s office.

      I guess Key and the Chocolate Bush just forgot to talk about the issues of 1 million school age children rendered homeless and the growing hardship the bailouts and this illegal war( with “9/11″ as the driver) cost people.

      Quite frankly, this complete lack of concern is concerning.

    8. By Lisa on Nov 29, 2009 | Reply

      Susie i am really sorry to hear about the situation that you and your children are in. It is really sad that our goverment can donate millions of dollars to other countrys and cant give to our own people who are in real great need. My heart and thoughts go out to you.

    9. By vivienne on Apr 30, 2010 | Reply

      Just read that very said issue regarding food, thought I would add my 10 cents, well if I had that much. I lost my job last year. I have a disability and am searching for work but times are hard. I send off my CV and don’t hear back. I have no financial resources left. I have borrowed money, been given food and robbed peter to pay paul. Yesterday I tried to get a food grant and was denied on the grounds that because I can actually never afford food then nothing exceptional had happened. The winz employee said I should eat and not pay my bills and await prosecution. If I did this, my chances of work are zero. Is this even legal? Today I have to go to the Salvation Army for a food package, hopefully. Meantime, I do have a rotton half a lettuce and a few partial stalks of month old celery. I have a letter from WINZ stating they have given me no support in the past 6 months so this was a first. Who do I write to, to get some justice?????

    10. By An Advocate on Jul 28, 2010 | Reply

      To Susie, vivienne and others:
      Please, contact an advocacy service in your area. Most of these services are free or may request a donation or small fee.

      Google ‘advocacy services’ don’t forget to check nz pages.

      Advocates within these organisation’s, have expertise in many areas with any WINZ issues.

      A group of advocates who come from regions of NZ attend meetings in Wellington. Every 3 months, with reps of Ministry of Social Development. At government level, they are given the opportunity to raise issues and concerns relating to Beneficiaries and Low income earners and how the dept of WINZ deliver their service or don’t deliver their service.

      Hope I have been of help :)

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