Question 12: How did the government justify the 1991 benefit cuts? What did the government say about welfare recipients then?

12 Aug

Beneficiaries were demonized to blame the victim not the system for rising unemployment and more people being forced onto some type of benefit to survive. The very existence of the welfare state came under attack.

In the 1990s the then National Social Welfare Minister and later Prime Minister Jenifer Shipley sought to justify benefit cuts by demonising the benefit recipient and blaming them for society’s social ills. In 1992 she wrote: “the welfare state itself through its mechanisms, produces young illiterates, juvenile delinquents, alcoholics, substance abusers, drug addicts, and rejected people at an accelerating speed.” She counterposed “rampant welfarism” to “individual initiative and effort.” In 1996 even the then head of the Social Welfare Department Margaret Bazley linked sole parenting to “at risk” children.

This became a common right-wing theme at the time but was completely without any factual basis. Bazley’s own department’s research found little evidence that being on welfare was causal of problems for children. Only 6 percent of beneficiaries’ children come to the Child Youth and Families Service notice. The report concluded: “The results thus provide no support for stereo-typed notions of the children of beneficiaries as being highly likely to come to the attention of the CYFS. Indeed, the results establish that only a small minority of these children come to notice.”

But facts did not deter Bazley and her ilk. The very title of the “Beyond Dependency” conference organised by the Social Welfare Department in 1997 was designed to promote the view that receiving a benefit was some chosen addiction rather than a necessary safety net to protect working people in the face of a ruthless restructuring and rationalisation of business at the expense of our wages and jobs. It aimed to blame the victim not the system which has destroyed so many jobs. Margaret Bazley’s contemptuous attitude to the “clients” she supposedly served came through in a revealing interview with her at the time by Gordon Campbell in The Listener. Campbell asked Bazley if welfare “dependency” was caused by the mindset of the poor – or had the numbers risen because economic change has wiped out thousands of low-skilled manufacturing jobs? “Do you think that’s it?” she replied. “I don’t see it that way. I think that what we are dealing with is the evils of the welfare state.” Just like what happened in Russia, she continued, after several generations of communism. Indifference among those who could help, apathy among the downtrodden. “We’re seeing the same thing here, with the welfare state.”

At the “Beyond Dependency” conference Blazey said 25 percent of children in New Zealand have no parent in paid work, with the figure for Maori children 48 percent and for Pacific Island children 45 percent. This she claimed is causing an intergenerational dependency problem, so now “we have got children whose only fantasy, whose only dream, is life on a benefit.” The focus, she said, had to be on “the people who have lost their living skills, they’re living in a chaotic state. They don’t go to bed at a decent time, they don’t get up in the morning, they don’t get their kids to school, they don’t feed them, they don’t give them lunch so those kids are doomed to that same lifestyle.” Bazely denied there was a problem of a lack of jobs. “I think the reason that they are not in jobs is not because the jobs aren’t there. It’s because other people are more attractive to employers.” A hint of what Bazley has in mind for beneficiaries was given by those she invited to speak at the conference, including Jean Rogers, representative of the US state of Wisconsin which cuts off benefits for mothers after 12 weeks – before they have finished breast-feeding!

It is doubtful if the National politicians actually believed their own propaganda. They knew they couldn’t create the necessary jobs, or make them secure enough, to eliminate unemployment. In fact the free market system they are so attached to needs unemployment to police the employed. North and South magazine reported in an election special for the 1999 election that “In a candid, if callous, interview for a recent Canadian television documentary on New Zealand’s reforms, Jenny Shipley told interviewer Eric Malling that taxpayers might have to carry the present group of unskilled beneficiaries forever. Malling was incredulous and asked if that meant those people were being written off. Shipley replied: ‘You can’t change what you can’t change, and I think that politicians and the community need to be honest about that. They have had their jobs destroyed, not by governments but by modernisation, by computer technology, by many of the things that have happened in agriculture in New Zealand. And so we must carry them.’ She did pledge that the government would try to save the next generation.”

Similar completely spurious arguments are being raised today by defenders of lower minimum wages. Business Round Table Chief Executive Roger Kerr quotes Professor Judith Sloan (a “labour economist” and member of the Don Brash-led 2025 Task Force which recommended a cut in the minimum wage for younger people) who wrote: “The causes of unemployment are well understood with labour market inflexibilities and perverse welfare incentives being the main culprits.” Kerr then adds in brackets “A growing economy helps, but is a less important factor”. Kerr then adds: “Sloan noted that labour and welfare policies can be changed ‘unemployment is essentially a political choice.’”

National’s Social Welfare Minister Paula Bennet has resurrected this approach to beneficiaries today. She has appointed a “Welfare Working Group” to advise her on changes to the system. It has former Act president Catherine Isaac on it – who is coincidentally also the wife of Roger Kerr. As Gordon Campbell also notes in his Scoop article: “What also seems extraordinary is that some members of the working group – eg Adrian Roberts and Enid Ratahi Pryor – are also current contractors with Social Welfare. As such, they are involved in business relationships with the same state welfare system whose rules they are being asked to evaluate, with a view to change. How can they help to devise solutions to welfare dependency without being seen to be generating more business for their own enterprises? Answer: they can’t.” One of the two “scientific” advisors appointed to the panel is Peter Saunders a former Director at the right wing Centre for Independent Studies think tank in Sydney. Campbell checked him out and concludes:

“Saunders, if I can put this succinctly, is a nut job. He writes fiction as well as right wing opinion pieces for the press in Australia and Britain, even though it can be hard to tell the difference. Let’s start with the opinion columns. In 1994, in his review of Charles Murray’s notorious book The Bell Curve on the alleged links between race and intelligence, Saunders concluded that social class, not race, was the real determinant of IQ: ‘Britain looks surprisingly like a society divided into classes on the basis of talent.[!] The pattern of social mobility is broadly consistent with what should happen in a perfectly open society with recruitment based solely on intelligence.’ The working class, in other words, are innately more stupid. No wonder more of them end up on welfare. Especially the sole parents.

“In this Sydney Morning Herald article published last year, Saunders gave passing mention to changes in sexual morality and family norms, before quickly moving on to finger the real culprit for the rise in solo parenting : the welfare system itself. ‘By making sole parenthood more financially viable, [former Australian Prime Minister
Gough] Whitlam inevitably also made it more socially acceptable, even attractive, as a lifestyle choice. Today, single parenthood has become “normal”, and a key reason for this is that the welfare state supports, enables and endorses it. In this, as in other areas of welfare, when government pays money to people in need, it inevitably increases the number of needy people. This is the central paradox of the modern welfare state, and it helps to explain why the numbers have risen so dramatically.’

“I’ll spare you the nostalgic praise for Margaret Thatcher, for whom a smitten Mr Saunders continues to hold a serious torch. For an even better sense of this expert that Paula Bennett is urging her working group to consult, we should turn to a novel called The Versailles Memorandum, that Saunders published late last year. To put it kindly, the book is a mélange of right wing paranoia, and Islamophobia. It describes itself this way in its publishing blurb: ‘The year is 2046. Across the United States of Europe, millions live under Sharia law in Special Islamic Zones. Four European cities have been contaminated by radioactivity from dirty bombs. In the Middle East, Israel has been incinerated by nuclear war. In the East London Special Islamic Zone, Aisha Sharizi is on the run from the religious police after having an affair with a kuffar boy. In Sydney, the body of a former cabinet minister is fished out of the harbour…’ etc etc According to an admiring reviewer on Amazon.com, the book is “as important as Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged in its warning of the fate that awaits us if we do not act to fight the tide of liberal-left thinking…”

(Part of a series of extracts from “Exposing Right Wing Lies” by Mike Treen, Unite National Director)

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