The Welfare Working Group report is much worse than I had imagined. But I think some folk are getting carried away when they put the extreme recommendations down to a nefarious National Party plot.
When you sit at one end of the political spectrum, rather than near the middle, it is easy to ascibe all sorts of evil motives to the actions of your ideological enemies.
So if you’re well to the left, you may believe that the government is run by a group of men who meet in smoke-filled rooms with members of the Business Roundtable, plotting the dissection of the welfare state and the dismantling of all protections against rapacious capitalism. Every move made by the government is designed to weaken the power of the workers and the poor.
The frankly brutal recommendations of the Welfare Working Group will fall into this pattern. John Key will probably disavow much of what the Working Group has to say, saying it is just too radical. But this is part of the game. Have an appointed group make shocking policy proposals, then assure the public that they go too far. When you make the changes you actually intended to make, they will seem moderate by comparison. This is called bait and switch.
This theory gives too much credit to the government. Politicians may have interests, and may have particularly strong views on matters such as welfare. But when they make appointments to a panel they don't know exactly what the people they're appointing are going to recommend. Politicians may choose people who are ideologically or politically aligned with them, but that is only natural. When someone agrees with your world view you're more likely to consider then a safe pair of hands. Still, the end product, their final report, is something the politician has no control over.
Most of the people co-opted onto the various taskforces and working groups set up by National are smart and professional folk, even if in many cases their viewpoints are anathema to a good number of us. They're not passive plants doing John key's bidding. Why would they come up with policy proposals knowing that they will see people laughing or shaking their heads? It's more likely that they are simply unaware how crazy they sound.
Anyone who thinks that "bait and switch" makes the government look good when it finally acts needs to seriously reconsider their views. Take the example of the 2025 Taskforce. Don Brash's report read like a Roger Douglas wishlist. Had John Key implemented even a fraction of the proposals he'd have been vilified. He was forced to publicly disavow much of what was on the report. He said it was too radical. Commentators and columnists then took him to task for either not following through with much needed reform, or for appointing a mug like Brash in the first place.
If bait and switch was in play with the Brash report then it failed badly. Key came out of it looking a bit stupid. So why will this tactic now work with the Welfare Working Group?
Why won't the proposal to make some mothers seek work when their babies are only 14 weeks old not make John Key look like a heartless bastard?
The fact that the Working Group would come down hard on beneficiaries would not have been a surprise to the people that appointed its members, though, even if the recommendations possibly went beyond what was anticipated.
A quick look at the
backgrounds of those on the Working Group shows that the deck was always stacked against beneficiaries.
there are members of the group who are probably just ideologically opposed or plain
indifferent to the idea of a welfare state. Like Paula Rebstock. She is
trained as an economist and was formerly the head of the Commerce
Commission. She undoubtedly knows lots about markets and economic
matters. But she seems to have no background or experience in welfare
Or Profesor Des Gorman, a health academic. He
is former working class lad who now wears a Rolex and drives a Porsche.
It’s possible that because he’s managed to make good he figures there’s no excuse
for others not to. He sounds a bit like John Key: happy to talk up his working class roots, while desperate to distance himself from them in every other respect.
Then there is Catherine Issac, former ACT Party president. Need I say more?
group also included a number of heads of private welfare or service
providers. These organisations are funded by the government to provide
social or educational services to beneficiaries. These organisations stand to benefit
considerably from any move by the state to push people into jobs or job training, or off benefits.
group includes Enid Ratahi Pryor. She is the CEO of a Maori social and
health service provider. Her organisation was chosen in 2009 to trial
the outsourcing of social services to private providers.
there is Adrian Roberts, founder and Managing Director of In-Work New
Zealand, a private provider of employment services for people on
benefits looking for work.
member of this group of private service provider heads is Sharon Wilson–Davis. She is involved in the
hospitality industry, and is the CEO of the Tamaki Ki Raro Trust, which
is the provider of training and education services to communities.
All of the organisations these people head stand to benefit considerably from a push towards getting beneficiaries in work and off welfare.They may have meant well, but it is hard to see how their views can be truly impartial.
There are a couple of others in the group who may have provided some counterbalance, though I really don’t know enough about these people.
Professor Ann Dupuis. Her Massey University bio says “Ann teaches courses in identity and culture in Aotearoa-New
Zealand , gender and sexuality, globalisation and the sociology of work.
Current research focuses on urban housing intensification, urban
governance issues and social entrepreneurship.” I have no idea what most
of that means, so I’m not clear on whether she brought any balance to
And Professor Kathryn
McPherson, who is Professor of Rehabilitation (Laura Fergusson Chair),
AUT. She trained as a nurse and has a background in studying rehabilitation
for people with chronic conditions. She ought to have provided useful
input on sickness and invalid benefit issues at the very least.
So perhaps there were a couple of moderate voices on a panel clamouring for reform and for the dismantling of the welfare state. We shouldn't be surprised by the fact that we got a prescription for "get tough" policies.
But disavowing some of the group's recommendations doesn't allow Key to sneak some change under the radar. It just makes him look weak. He appointed these people, didn't he? How does rejecting many of its proposals make his government look any more credible? Bait and switch? Hardly. More likely Key just got sloppy with his appointments.