Gordon Campbell on Paula Rebstock and her new welfare reform platformMay 16th, 2012
Clearly, the government now thinks the public mood in this recessionary climate is so hostile to beneficiaries that it can afford to indulge its own worst impulses towards them. There are so many outrageous aspects to the appointment of Paula Rebstock and a raft of like-minded business and insurance types to a brand new quango to oversee welfare reform, it’s hard to know quite where to start. Evidently, in these hard times we can still afford to spend $1.1 million to service a board of bureaucrats to oversee the upcoming welfare changes – which is a job we already pay Social Development Minister Paula Minister over $200,000 a year plus perks, to do. Plus her advisers, plus her department and its well paid chief executive. Isn’t this their job, to oversee the policy outcomes that they initiate? What are we paying them for? Evidently, when it has the right ideological flavour, duplication and waste are OK with this government.
Secondly, despite being hired to oversee a reform process that will impact heavily on the most vulnerable people in society, not even one of the appointees possesses any actual working experience with the welfare sector. All they have is business expertise in other parts of the economy, including the insurance industry that informs Rebstock’s publicly stated personal vision for the path that welfare reform should go down. So in terms of hands on experience, Rebstock and Co will be bringing a collective working ignorance of the existing welfare system, and an apparent bias about its future direction. Hey, but since the people on the receiving end are only beneficiaries, this kind of social experiment is acceptable, right?
Which takes us to the final list of objections. By bringing in people who have only business and insurance expertise, Bennett is signalling that it is only business outcomes that matter. That’s how the US welfare reform process (that she seems hellbent on replicating here) has managed to get the welfare rolls down, even in the midst of a recession – because the business methods deployed don’t care about anything except business outputs. The wellbeing of the families involved – or of their children – is barely relevant to delivering a product to market in the cheapest possible fashion. Whether the measures in place happen to alleviate poverty for instance, is all but irrelevant to the business model. So we’re really talking about structural change here. The reforms are about instituting in New Zealand a hitherto alien investment approach to welfare, and replacing the sense of a welfare system geared to social need.
Sure, there is a place for efficiency and business expertise in welfare – but only if these are pursued in tandem with goals like poverty reduction, or if used to support those with disabilities, or to assist beneficiaries who are simultaneously seeking work and raising a young family, on their own. There is nothing about the composition of this board to suggest that social and economic goals will be combined, and plenty to suggest they will be separated out into silos. Nothing surprising I suppose, in seeing a National government revert to welfare bashing. The only difference this time is that the enforcers will be packing business degrees.
Mitt Romney, Jerk
Interesting post by Michael Tomasky this week on the likeability chasm between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney at this point in the presidential election cycle. Obama leads Romney by 60 to 31 on Gallup’s polling this week on the candidates’ “likeability” factor. Romney is not disliked simply because he’s rich – as Tomasky says, Americans like Bill Gates and they liked Steve Jobs. But the big difference, as he points out ….is that Gates doesn’t comb his hair much, and Jobs famously wore sneakers. In other words, they didn’t flaunt. They didn’t have an elevator for their cars or if they did, they didn’t crow about it. They didn’t say they liked firing people, or that they thought corporations were people. And they didn’t advise people who wanted to get ahead to just go ahead and borrow $25,000 from their parents and start a business of their own.
Mitt Romney has done all those things. So it’s not that he’s rich that’s the problem, but that he’s a rich jerk. Now, you might say that politicians don’t need to be likeable, and sometimes they do need to make decisions that won’t make them popular. To get to that position though, they first need to be elected. In presidential contests, likeability seems to matter. As Tomasky says, Michael Dukakis and Bob Dole both suffered from their respective woodenness and crustiness, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton were liked by large swathes of the voting public, and Jimmy Carter virtually smiled his way into the White House in 1976. George W. Bush, for all his supposed likeability in Middle America, was something of an outlier on this point. He was ahead by around 10 points on likeability going into his 2000 contest with Al Gore, but in the end, he had to rely on a partisan Supreme Court to hand him the Presidency. Initially in the 2004 race, Bush trailed the supposedly effete candidate John Kerry on likeability, and even though Bush eventually won on election day quite handily, the two candidates were almost equal pegging on the likeability issue throughout the campaign.
I also liked Tomasky’s conclusion :
No human being is one dimensional. I’m sure there are plenty of people in the world for whom Mitt has performed kindnesses. I expect we’ll be getting to know every single one of them in these next few months, too, in heavily filtered television ads in which the men wear proletarian flannel and the women’s St. John blazers are kept safely in the closet. All I can say is they’d better be more likeable than their candidate—for his sake. In the meantime, there’s something very reassuring about this country reposing in those numbers, that the black guy with the weird name who’s been called everything under the sun is twice as likeable as the rich white guy. This is the America that drives the wingers crazy, but that the rest of us—the majority—live in, and love.