New welfare taskforce is a slow train... but on which track?

Will the Welfare Expert Advisory Group be simply an excuse for inaction, or an exercise in transformation? Sadly, we will have to wait a while to see

On Monday this week the Government announced the establishment of the Welfare Expert Advisory Group (WEAG). Welfare seems to be one of the last areas of government purview to receive its very own working group, perhaps because Cabinet is acting only because of the MPs' post-election agreement with the Greens rather than from any particular driving motivation of their own.

Still, good on the Green Party for making this happen. I just hope that ultimately the work of the WEAG becomes more than a sop to a junior partner and yet another report consigned to parliament’s very own over-flowing dustbin.

In my pre-Budget article for Pundit I spoke optimistically about any such advisory group reporting back within three months, such is the urgency needed for action. The deadline WEAG members have been given is February 2019. Cabinet will decide on the Government response to their recommendations in March and it is likely that any resulting legislation and/or other financial changes will not see the light of day until after next year’s Budget in May.

This means any real change could be well over a year away.

Meanwhile, those who in various ways depend on Work & Income have no option but to survive within the constraints of nine years of National’s welfare reforms and Labour’s own earlier destructive changes, including its transformation in 2007 of the purpose of social security from a safety net for the most vulnerable to its positioning of paid work as the ultimate goal of welfare.

What this means is that the crippling laws which govern the operation of Work & Income, filled with nitpicking sanctions and a focus on treating many beneficiaries as potential criminals via a focus on  investigating fraud – particularly in the area of personal relationships – continues.

At a minimum, Labour could and should do two things now. First, they should have the nerve to stick to the other key part of their welfare agreement with the Greens by withdrawing the law which means sole parents who don’t name the father of their child have part of their benefit cut each week. Over 13,000 women and 17,000 children are affected by this. 

Second, root and branch culture change should be implemented within Work & Income and MSD, from the top down. I have sympathy for the PSA’s position that the WEAG should have included a workers’ voice, as frontline staff are those most effected by current policy and law, alongside the people they serve. 

Given that there will be such a long waiting period before any action is considered as a result of the WEAG process, the least Government could do is to kick-start culture change. This needs to happen through high quality training and adequate resourcing for staff aimed at ensuring people who come to Work & Income for help are treated fairly and with respect, and that the default position is to give people the full assistance to which they are legally entitled.

When it comes to the composition of the WEAG itself, it’s an interesting mix. It is a large group with  eleven members including:

Professor Cindy Kiro ( Chair) – highly respected  academic and former Children’s Commissioner.

Professor Innes Asher – a senior paediatrician with a long record of professional experience working with children and families and a long-standing advocate with the Child Poverty Action Group.

Kay Brereton – experienced beneficiary advocate, with lived experience in the benefit system.

Dr Huhana Hickey – scholar and activist in the area of disabilities research and advocacy, with lived experience in the benefit system.

Professor Tracey McInstosh – head of Sociology at the University of Auckland with a particular interest in sociology concerning Māori communities.

Dr Ganesh Nana – Chief economist at BERL.

Phil O’Reilly – former Chief Executive of Business NZ and member of the Expert Advisory Group on Solutions to Child Poverty.

Robert Reid – Honorary President of FIRST Union.

Trevor McGlinchey – Executive Officer with the NZ Council of Christian Social Services.

Latayvia Tualasea Tautai – young Pasifika leader from Auckland, with lived experience in the benefit system.  

Charles Waldegrave – Family Centre, Wellington.

I also understand that the Special Advisor who has been appointed to support the eleven members is a respected academic with a long track record of advocating for radical reform of welfare, which is an interesting signal in itself.

There is a huge amount of experience and knowledge among these twelve people and I wish them well in their work. 

Some groups and individuals, including Auckland Action Against Poverty, had supported my nomination as a member of the WEAG. I regret that the experienced, challenging and structurally focused voice that either myself or someone else associated with AAAP may have offered will not be in the room, but am equally confident that those selected will do their best to ‘provide advice… on options that could best give effect to [government’s] vision for the future direction of the social welfare system.’  

I am also aware that the formal terms of reference require WEAG members to seek permission before communicating any aspects of the WEAG’s work in public, including through blogging, media engagement and in academic settings.

Nine months of public silence or heavily vetted comment in regards to welfare may have been a difficult position for an AAAP nominee to maintain. It is as important as ever that with a Labour-led government in power there are some of us who retain the ability to openly critique and challenge from a social justice perspective, rather than leaving that job entirely to the parliamentary opposition on the right.

However, the biggest challenge of all is going to come after the WEAG reports back next February. I am hopeful its members will come up with recommendations to start over with a simple, fair and sufficient system of welfare underpinned by a departmental culture of humanity and respect, and with consideration of longer term options like Basic Income as well.

The big question then will be whether the government will have the courage to make the transformational changes necessary or whether it will simply make a few minor reforms around the edges of a rotten system.