John Key's heart of darkness

Key announces ministerial group to advance welfare reform – welfare to form key part of National's 2011 election campaign – beneficiary bashing to the fore, again

John Key's announcement that a high powered Ministerial group is to be formed to advance the Rebstock welfare reforms confirms that beneficiary bashing will lie at the heart of National’s election campaign this year.

As I said in our Auckland Action Against Poverty media release last night, "John Key is dog whistling to the darkest part of the New Zealand psyche, inviting people to join him in a spot of blood sport with beneficiaries as the prey."

I can already guess the reaction of some readers, who will join all those fine people in a poll currently running on Stuff in thinking that the Key/Bennett reforms will be a good thing.

But I ask, how many ordinary New Zealanders really do support:

  • Forcing mothers on welfare back to work when their baby is one year old. Key has said they won’t take the original 14 week option, but one year is the backstop Welfare Working Group recommendation, and I reckon that’s what National will adopt, in a bid to appear compassionate.
  • Requiring almost all people who would currently be eligible for the Invalids and Sickness benefits to be work-tested in the same way as the unemployed. This will hugely increase stress, fear – and further illness – among an already highly stressed population of people who are injured, sick, and/or suffering from major impairment.
  • State interference in women’s reproductive lives through case managers ‘encouraging’ the use of "free long-acting reversible contraception".
  • Much harsher sanctions on people who don’t meet the latest toughest requirements, with no thought for the impact not only on the adults involved, but also on their children.
  • The introduction of widespread forced 'work for the dole', undermining the jobs and working conditions of those fortunate enough to still have paid employment.
  • Use of widespread alcohol and drug testing as part of the work-testing and sanctions regime.
  • A publicity campaign aimed at beneficiary ‘fraud and abuse’ – just like the ‘dob in a beneficiary campaign’ of the late 90s.

…..and much much more – for full details, see the Summary of the Welfare Working Group report.

In the new world order as laid down by Paula Bennett – and unfortunately instigated by Labour in the 2000s – paid employment is seen as the Holy Grail of our welfare system.

However, there is not a sign, not a button, in either the latest Budget or in the Welfare Working Group report, of any work being done by Government on creating and maintaining jobs for the 271,000 people who the Household Labour Force Survey classify as jobless right now.

And I simply don’t believe Bill English’s twice-repeated prediction – shown up with hilarious accuracy by the Standard blog last week – that 170,000 jobs are going to eventuate from both the 2010 and 2011 Budgets.

On TV last night, John Key said, "The current system is broken and it’s not working. When you have an increase from 2% of the working population in 1970 to 13% today, I think that tells us there are too many New Zealanders of working age on the benefit."

Too right there are John – but it’s not because they’re lazy bludgers, but rather because Labour and National Governments in the 1980s and 1990s deliberately created mass unemployment through their economic policies; and because in 2011 our unemployment rate continues at comparatively high levels, disproportionately impacting Maori, Pasifika and young people.

The LEED (Linked Employer-Employee Data) survey released last week, while slightly behind the times, shows that for the March 2010 quarter filled jobs decreased by 1.4% in that year.

The May 2011 HLFS confirms that our unemployment rate continues at 6.6%, up 0.5% over the year, and that’s excluding Canterbury because of difficulties collecting statistics in the wake of the earthquake.

I am pretty certain that if we’d had a complete survey, including Christchurch, the true unemployment rate would be substantially higher.

And just today we hear that the Government employee subsidy scheme in Christchurch won’t be continued.

That’s rather unfortunate, to put it mildly, for the businesses and workers who have been depending on the subsidy to keep going in the face of one of New Zealand’s biggest ever natural disasters.

I hope some of you will join me in asking National a couple of basic questions during this election campaign.

  • If your goal is to push 100,000 sick, injured and disabled people – and sole parents – off the welfare rolls, where are the jobs going to come from when we don’t have work for over 271,000 jobless people right now?
  • Why are you making ultraconservative welfare reform a key part of your election campaign if it’s not simply to appeal to that old New Zealand love of beneficiary bashing?

Any pretence that these reforms are about fairness or compassion is nonsense.

As Gordon Campbell says in an excellent summary on Scoop this morning, ‘If John Key is the face of moderation, there’s not much left on the margins for the extremism of Don Brash.’

I sincerely hope that over the next few months the majority of New Zealanders won’t continue to be fooled by John Key’s crocodile smile.  Underneath, sadly, he has the soul and aspirations of an investment banker – a heart of darkness.