Comments from the Prime Minister suggest that the government's willingness to act tough on welfare may go a lot further than many expect
What is the real Key agenda on welfare reform?
It could be a lot scarier than media commentators and the public think.
So far, knowledgeable types on the parliamentary circuit, for example John Armstrong in a recent article, question whether tough recommendations from the Government Welfare Working Group will actually ‘sit easily with the Prime Minister’s more centrist disposition.’
How centrist John Key actually is on welfare is now very open to question.
When Anglican Bishop Muru Walters took part in a church leadership delegation to the Prime Minister in late November, he presented Mr Key with a copy of the first report from the Alternative Welfare Working Group: Welfare justice in New Zealand: what we heard.
The second indication of what the PM might really be thinking comes from further feedback from the same meeting, picked up by myself on the Wellington grapevine last week.
Among other comments made to the church leaders that day, John Key is reported to have said, “If we cancelled welfare to 330,000 people currently on welfare, how many would starve to death? Bugger all.”
Clearly the PM does not personally give a damn about the fate of working age beneficiaries – or their children.
From the point of view of the rich, anything that doesn’t benefit them is not sustainable.
This Government appears to neither know nor care that it is not welfare expenses that are likely to spiral out of control between now and 2050, but superannuation, health and Government financing costs, as per a 2009 report from Treasury itself.
Benefit levels are already too low for most people to survive on without a pile of supplementary allowances, and without going ever deeper into debt.
For anyone who doubts this, consider living on rates such as these (if you’re not already):
single 19 year old on unemployment benefit: $161.76 per week;
married couple on sickness benefit: $194.12 per week;
sole parent on DPB: $278.04 per week;
married couple on sickness or unemployment benefit: $323.52 per week.
Yet Mr Key appears quite relaxed about taking things even further.
Without any welfare in this country, the scenario is likely to look something like this:
Charitable organisations expected to feed the ‘deserving’ poor – aided perhaps by a return to the Victorian workhouse system;
Further budget blowouts on police, justice and prison budgets, as people engage in all manner of crime simply to feed themselves and their children;
A huge increase in illhealth and addictions among the destitute and their families, in some cases leading to death – but meanwhile creating a massive burden on health and child welfare services already creaking at the seams;
Beggars in the streets, homelessness at levels we can’t imagine, and -- for some -- starvation.
Because I trust my sources, I believe that at heart, John Key really would be quite comfortable with such a dystopian future.
Of course, he won’t go there yet. I have enough faith in the good hearts of most New Zealanders to believe that the electorate won’t put up with it.
However, what his comments to the church leaders signify is that he is serious about cutting welfare costs by cherry picking whichever recommendations of the Rebstock Welfare Group will best meet his goals when that group makes its final report in February 2011.
Jim Bolger was a National Prime Minister who presided over some of the worst attacks on beneficiaries in recent times. He is also a sincere Catholic, and eventually he dropped Ruth Richardson as Finance Minister and softened down some of his policies, reputedly in part because of pressure from church leaders.
Whether Bolger did enough in the end to redeem himself is not something you or I will ever know, but there is no hope of this happening with John Key.
He is a man without visible values, a gambler who only knows and cares about the game.
The possibility of divine intervention looks remote, unless it comes from Bill English, who as far as I know is still a devout Catholic.
The problem is that we have a PM who believes in nothing more than maximising self fulfillment through money and power, and whose current life consists of playing games with our money and our lives.
It is terrifying that we are at the mercy of a gambler who is willing to take a punt on whether people will starve to death if he reduces or cuts off income support altogether.
Policy making in a decent, fair society shouldn’t be a series of gambles – it should be based on objective analysis and sound policy advice, just what the Government isn’t getting from Rebstock Welfare Working Group.
For those of us who care about what happens to those who have least in our society, these are ominous times indeed.