Welfare: even the debate gets privatised

Second Wellington welfare conference in two weeks locks out all but the wealthy or well-funded

Welfare reform is certainly a hot topic on the Wellington conference circuit this month.

The 'Reviewing Welfare & Social Sector Policy & Reform' conference starts today at the Town Hall, 'your opportunity to discuss the direction for social and welfare policy, while networking with like-minded people.'

And just over a week ago the Welfare Working Group hosted a forum at Victoria University aimed principally - as far as I could see, anyway - at convincing the 250 attendees that our benefit system is in crisis and must be brought into line with places like Australia and the UK.

You couldn't get a blade of grass between them in terms of topic.

However, when it comes to cost, the Victoria Uni bash was free to those allowed in the door - while the latest effort comes at the pretty price of $2,295 plus GST.

I don't know who can afford this. I certainly can't, and I doubt there are many beneficiaries, beneficiary advocates, community workers or students with an interest in this area who can either.

One of the key groups of people who should be involved in the current discussions around welfare are those who work every day with beneficiaries and their families.

Yet most of the organisations for whom they work are chronically underfunded, and the chances they'll be able to cough up even half the entrance fee for this week's bun-fight are marginal.

It is ironic that the second, expensive conference offers a far more balanced lineup of speakers from different parts of the welfare debate, while denying many who care passionately about the subject the chance to attend.

Who will get into the room the second time around?

Without doing a survey at the door I have no real way of knowing, but my guess would be that Government departments will be sending a goodly number of policy analysts and funding managers along, as will large NGOs with big Government contracts, plus private sector organisations with an interest in working out whether possible moves to an insurance-based welfare model may provide excellent profit taking opportunities in future.

It feels to me that the two conferences are virtually a metaphor for what the Government is seeking to do.

The first forum was free, but had a rundown feel to it.  Many attendees criticised it for the lack of opportunities for any genuine debate, the imbalance in the range of speakers, especially in the plenary sessions, and the sense that overall it was an opportunity for the Government to push its own agenda down people's throats.

The second conference, on the other hand, has greater balance, more local focus and deeper analysis on offer - but many of those who attended the first forum are locked out by price.

The debate itself has been privatised.

I also await with interest any news of what Paula Bennett might have to say at the opening of today's conference.

On 9 June she startled participants in the Welfare Working Group forum by the brevity of her opening address, refusing to give any details of her policy intentions at all, saying she was there 'to listen' - and then promptly left.

It will be intriguing to see whether the Minister who is leading the whole drive towards what could potentially be the biggest reform of our welfare system in generations has anything of substance to say today, or whether she will continue to allow people like Paula Rebstock, David Caygill, Roger Kerr and the Maxim Institute's representatives to do her talking for her.

It's just a pity that whatever insights on Government intentions Paula Bennett has to share today will be heard only by those wealthy or well funded enough to be in the room.