Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

Newspaper Columns

Political Soft Options


Politicians love soft options when problems present. They give the appearance of action. They might (but seldom do) work. But voters aren't scared. Over the years many different governments have tried the quick fix in preference to tackling what gave rise to a serious problem. When inflation came knocking after World War Two, Labour and National only reluctantly controlled the money supply that was its root cause, preferring to impose price and interest rate controls. When they didn't work, ratios were imposed on financial institutions forcing them to invest in government stock. This supposedly took money out of circulation, but governments then spent it. So inflation remained. More price controls. Investment in businesses and jobs then lagged; economic growth slowed; unemployment rose. Robert Muldoon would do anything rather than tackle fundamentals. Remember all that "fine tuning"? It took the devaluation crisis of 1984, deregulation and tighter control of the money supply to solve our systemic economic woes. The soft options had run out years before.

This government's social policies are fast reaching a similar flashpoint. There have always been poor people, but 35 years of incremental decision-making has fostered a growing underclass where all the incentives point in the opposite direction to a solution. Starting in the 1970s politicians subsidised people to breed. The benefit gradually became a career option for some young women. Political parties preached a sense of entitlement, and the state now contributes extra towards housing, food, cars, TVs, you name it. John Key's talk of free lunches for under-nourished children is another step. It further separates parents from responsibility for the children they have produced. The more that headline-hunters expect schools to do in loco parentis, the bigger the problem. In a pertinent article in last Friday's Herald a South Auckland primary school principal complained about the constant political yearning for "quick fixes". She had seen a steady decline in parental responsibility. The brutal reality is that too many beneficiaries lose interest in their children; they are no more than a meal ticket. Some, like the parents of Cris and Cru Kahui, never gave them a start. Theirs was one long party, paid for by the taxpayer who got nothing but criminal fecklessness in return. Everyone was horrified; nobody was surprised. The government did nothing.

Soft options paid for out of the surplus simply encourage more people to opt out of personal responsibility. The gap between a benefit and unskilled work is now so fine that many at the margin "retire". The underclass keeps expanding. We now support second and third generation beneficiaries. They gravitate towards gangs and supplement their benefits by burglary and drugs, usually at the expense of their poor neighbours. Parents see no value in education. Kids drop out of schools or are kept home to mind the surplus children because Mum doesn't feel like it. One 14 year old Maori who killed himself in a motor accident last week hadn't been to school for years. His grandmother said she was relieved he'd gone. More truancy officers won't solve a collapse of parental responsibility. It is stoked by welfare that has produced a culture of domestic violence, graffiti, car crashes and P-related offences.

John Key probably didn't realise the extent to which the media would pillory him over his Christchurch speech. If he had sounded like Don Brash, they'd stamp him, too, as cruel, old fashioned, unimaginative. When he talked about the underclass, identified its symptoms, but not its cause, they labelled him short on specifics. Key's problem is that legions of social workers, unionists and journalists think there are still undiscovered soft options that will transport the poor into nirvana. More social workers; "crisis intervention officers"; special teachers; positive discrimination, and now free lunches. Give us a break!

Until such time as benefits are unhooked from the number of children a recipient has, and the state actively promotes birth control, and requires strict parental responsibility for children brought into the world, the underclass will keep expanding. After an unprecedentedly long period of economic prosperity it is scandalous that such a large portion of able-bodied, working-age people live at the margins, where they are belligerent and bewildered. It is nonsense to argue that jobs don't exist; the modern consumer society breeds them like rabbits. It is the politicians' refusal to confront the real cause of today's underclass that will eventually engulf us all. Sadly, there will be many more Cris and Crus while Labour and National keep searching for soft options, always making the problem worse.