AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - MAY 16: Former Green MP Sue Bradford protests at the Sky City Convention Centre on May 16, 2014 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

No hope for progressive welfare reform from this government

The Welfare Expert Advisory Group’s report could have been the backbone for so much more, writes activist and former Green MP Sue Bradford. 

The government’s response to the findings of the Welfare Expert Advisory Group (WEAG), which was released on Friday, is dismal. 

It appears the only substantive welfare reform we can expect during this parliamentary term is the removal of the financial sanction against sole parents who can’t or won’t name their child’s father. That’s great, but that’s it.

Both Labour and the Greens went into the 2017 election promising the elimination of this sanction. It could have been axed as soon as they took power. Instead, it is now clear that the government has deliberately delayed action until the WEAG reported back, just so they could point to at least one reform of substance after the expenditure of $2 million on the working group.

The WEAG report itself could have been the backbone for so much more. Led by former Children’s Commissioner Cindy Kiro, its 11 members and special advisor Michael Fletcher took their allocated task seriously and made a huge effort to carry out the mandate they’d been given in as constructive a way as possible.  

And this is why I am so angry that this government has not had the courage of any convictions in responding to the WEAG’s heartfelt mahi.

Over 200 pages long and with a raft of detailed proposals for reform which go far beyond the 42  ‘key recommendations’ noted in media reports, the WEAG’s conclusions stand in stark contrast to those of Paula Rebstock’s 2011 Welfare Working Group. The WEAG’s call for a fair, sufficient and simplified welfare system that has respect for people at its heart is in direct opposition to National’s commitment to changes that slashed access to benefits and implemented ever finer, more granular ways of harassing and intimidating people trying to get help from Work & Income.

The two other specific actions announced on Friday were the employment of 263 more frontline staff over the next four years and the lifting of abatement thresholds. The first is likely to have been part of staffing reviews anyway, and the second is at such a low level that it will make only the slightest difference to beneficiary income.  

Labour, the Greens and NZ First should be legislating immediately to revoke all the nasty little changes made when National was in charge, as well as a number which – like the naming-father sanction – were actually introduced under Labour-led governments. The big changes recommended, such as lifting benefit levels as soon as possible, should be actioned now, but there are many other smaller things which should happen quickly and without the excuse of involving large budgetary implications, including:

  • The establishment of an independent review and appeal process regarding all Work & Income decisions, including those relating to health and disability.
  • The removal of all the nitpicking and oppressive sanctions which adversely affect the health and wellbeing of many, including the 13-week stand-down inflicted on those who are sacked or leave their job voluntarily, drug testing, and the work assessment for people who are sick, injured and/or living with impairments.
  • The immediate abolition of the requirement for women who have further children while on a benefit from the obligation to be work tested from the time their baby is one year old.
  • The removal of the requirement that people in what are termed ‘remote locations’ are forced to move elsewhere for work on pain of losing income support, a measure which disproportionately impacts Māori living in their home communities.

We are seeing the weakest possible response to the WEAG’s sterling efforts. There is no commitment to any significant change during this parliamentary term. To talk about transforming welfare in three, five or 10 years as Sepuloni does is simply meaningless.

Labour appears to remain bedevilled by the deep-seated prejudices middle-class people hold about beneficiaries, the kind of people who have never had to face the reality of extended periods of life at the mercy of the state’s grim benevolence.

Any beneficiary expecting a sudden onset of empathy from this government can forget about that, apart from those who will directly benefit from the ending of the naming-father sanction. Even that won’t take effect until April 2020 and won’t be backdated. The only option left for those currently or retrospectively affected will be to attempt to claw back unjustly imposed lost income on an individual basis, usually only possible with the support of a legal or paralegal advocate.

True fairness and neoliberalism are incompatible. If nothing else, this is a neoliberal government.

We have seen inquiries which promised major welfare reform before. In 1987 the Lange-Douglas government commissioned the Royal Commission on Social Policy, a costly and extensive exercise. It was an exhaustive look at our welfare system, resulting in a five-volume publication which was literally relegated to use as a door-stopper by some MPs and their staff. I saw one example of this with my own eyes during my early days in Parliament.

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This latest working group has taken its job seriously and worked hard to listen to people and put together a report that indicates a pathway to the kind of transformation needed. But from Labour, the Greens and NZ First, the result is business as usual.

None of the existing lot are going to do anything serious. It would require a kind of courage and commitment not in evidence when it comes to standing up for the rights and wellbeing of beneficiaries. The Greens have a legacy of fine welfare policies and Marama Davidson and others do seriously support the kind of recommendations made by the WEAG. However,  this is not backed up by the practice of the Greens in this term of Parliament, near-silenced in their role as support party, and with a tendency to skitter away from hard battles under any kind of pressure.

If we’re ever going to hope for transformative and progressive welfare reform, it is now clear it will need to be championed by a party that is not yet in Parliament.


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