Scoop Election 08: edited by Gordon Campbell

On welfare bashing, and driving up a dead end in Afghanistan

August 9th, 2010

The government’s welfare working group has dutifully delivered the findings the government wants to hear. To Paula Rebstock and her colleagues, being on welfare is primarily a failure of attitude by beneficiaries – and has little or nothing to do with failures by government or business to create jobs, or with cutbacks to Social Welfare staff, or with any other structural factor beyond the education system – which gets a few lumps for not providing business with the kind of drones it needs to fit into the job slots available, assuming such slots existed, which they currently don’t.

There is a peculiarly airless quality to the working paper, driven as it is by ideology and not by any discernible engagement with New Zealand, 2010. Because the panel pays so little attention to events in the real world – newsflash : the job market has not yet recovered from the worst economic recession since WW11, and that global recession seems about to recur – it could have been written at any time over the last four decades.

The scare scenario that it offers to justify change in welfare policy is bogus: if nothing is done, the working paper says, the welfare system that currently costs $6.5 billion could end up costing $50 billion which would be unsustainable. Duh. But that would only happen, it also concedes, if everyone currently on a benefit stayed on it for life. Yet that doesn’t happen. The vast majority of those on the DPB use it – entirely as intended – as a temporary shelter until they find work. The $50 billion scare number is a dishonest attempt to get headlines by libeling people on the DPB, and on other benefits.

The reality is far less dramatic. Elsewhere within the working paper, the level of those reliant on welfare is predicted to rise from 13% now to 16% in 2050. That’s only a three per cent rise spread over 40 years, in the context of an ageing population that will inevitably generate more people on sickness and invalids benefits. So, where’s the crisis? In that sense, there isn’t one. ‘Crisis’ is a word that I would reserve for the health system, under Tony Ryall. A ruckus over welfare is merely a political diversion from the debacle unfolding in health.

If we truly want to get people off welfare and into jobs, here’s a revolutionary notion – let’s create some jobs ! At present, as Sue Bradford has pointed out, there are 255,000 people in this country who are wanting work, but who currently can’t find it. We don’t have a welfare crisis, we have a jobs crisis. Why on earth would the working party – or the government – think that it is a good and timely priority to add to the numbers already seeking work, by pushing more people out to look for non-existent jobs?

The driver here is ideology, not reality. The Key government seems to believe that being on welfare is caused by a failing in the person concerned, and by their enablers in the medical and education system. This is a ideologically blinkered approach that sees society as essentially individualistic – one looks in vain in the working paper for any recognition that getting people back into work involves a triangular partnership between the individual, government and the private sector.

Back in April, Scoop examined in depth the welfare insurance system in Canada, that Rebstock seems so smitten by. In practice in Canada, this has led to a tightening of eligibility and the shedding of government responsibility for welfare – and not so incidentally, the scheme has also served as a mechanism for improving the state of the government’s books. Most of the benefit costs of welfare are not only transferred out of the state system, but the fund that builds up also gets counted as a plus on the books, thus potentially lowering the cost of borrowing. No wonder the government is keen on it.

If a less doctrinaire approach was being taken, Rebstock and Co would be looking for ways in which government could create jobs – by say, investing in state housing construction, given the pressing social needs in this area. It would be looking at the staffing levels in Social Welfare and learning from the job placement and medical treatment programmes for the long term unemployed that drove unemployment benefit levels down to record lows in the mid 2000s. Clearly, if the government really wanted to improve welfare outcomes, it shouldn’t be firing the Social Welfare staff who made those previous gains possible. It would also be looking at the nationwide provision of affordable childcare – and the working party would be condemning the government policies that are actually driving up costs in this area. But this working group is not engaged in a genuine consultation. It is on a journey towards pre-determined solutions.

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Afghanistan

So John Key thinks we have to stay in Afghanistan to make the country a ‘stabilised place’ lest it once again become a breeding ground for global terrorism.

Several questions arise :
1. Is our effort succeeding – is Afghanistan now a more ‘stabilised place’ than it was a year ago? (Obviously not.)
2. If not, and if local efforts to contain the Taliban are going backwards, is our commitment to stabilize Afghanistan open–ended? Will we have to keep our troops in Afghanistan for decades until it becomes ‘stabilised‘?
3. Somalia used to be a breeding ground for global terrorism. Yet we control that threat from outside Somalia, not from within it. Why can’t we do the same from outside Afghanistan – as even US vice-president Joe Biden has been urging via his “From the Sea” containment policy?

Just asking. It is no discredit to the memory of the soldier killed last week to question whether we should be there at all. The Dutch – who had 24 troops killed during their deployment – have just decided that the Afghanistan mission is not worth the waste of any more lives. What does John Key know that the Dutch don’t?

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