Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

Newspaper Columns


Orewa Mark II

01/02/2005
Oscar Wilde's imperious Lady Bracknell would have told this Labour Government that losing the initiative once at Orewa was due to misfortune; twice looks like carelessness. Yet it's happened. Labour has again been caught looking foolish, frantically erecting straw men with the help of the media, deliberately misrepresenting Don Brash's views on adoption, and making contradictory statements of protest. One minute Steve Maharey calls Brash "an idiot", then wants credit for doing several things Brash recommends. It was the same last year. One standard of citizenship and an end to special privileges for Maori was "racist". Until, that is, Labour deemed it politically necessary to talk about doing it too. Same this year. The hapless minister expects us to applaud his belated tinkering with benefit rules after 5 years as Minister of Social Welfare. It's all part of the Government's strategy: perform cosmetic surgery only when polling shows National gaining on an issue.

Apart from one exaggerated statistic about the number of Maori children on welfare (the correct figure of 30% is still scary), Brash's numbers appear to stack up. Sickness and invalid beneficiary numbers rise while ministers crow about the dropping unemployment figures. Maharey is being disingenuous about them, while the media who are mostly in Labour's pocket, try to help. Fifteen per cent of working age people are still on welfare after an unprecedented burst of economic growth. Maharey could already have reached Brash's beneficiary target if his heart was in it. And there's 109,000 people on the DPB today when there were only 12,600 in 1975. Does anyone believe that a 30-year epidemic of domestic violence caused it, and that more DPBs are the solution, as the Minister implies?

We need to go further than the terminally polite Don Brash. Economically we can't afford so many idle people, and the welfare costs to Police, Education, Health, the Courts, and Correction Services keep growing. The world of welfare has become a national tragedy. As incidents of domestic violence multiply, racing ahead amongst the welfare segment of society, someone in government should have worked out that benefits help create domestic violence, not solve it. Low-lives, many on welfare themselves, batten on to DPB recipients. There is daily evidence of parental neglect on TV. It can usually be sheeted back to welfare. The Cashel Street kids who preferred to live in a building littered with blood and excrement than go home. The Wairarapa tragedies of 2003 where innocent children were murdered. Burglaries, home invasions, drugs. And the constant road carnage where unsupervised teenagers, many of them victims of inadequate parenting, kill and maim themselves, taking innocents with them. Won't we all be surprised if the two discarded Hastings new-borns don't turn out to be from homes where welfare is a multi-generational reality? I will. The huge increase in welfare after 1970 has created this, and sustains it. The Minister wrings his hands like Uriah Heep.

The real question we are dealing with is why today's Labour Party adopts a "see no evil, hear no evil" approach to welfare, and only investigates problems when MPs feel a cold wind up their majorities. The answer isn't hard to find. It's their age. My generation of students was becoming sceptical of Marxist thinking by the 1960s - arguments that portrayed us all as unwitting victims of capitalist greed that caused anti-social behaviour and destroyed opportunities etc. Then suddenly this claptrap was given a new lease of life. Academics, students, a few politicians and far too many journalists found attractive the plot theories of people like Michael Harrington. His 1962 study of American poverty portrayed it as the inevitable consequence of a wicked system. Governments should make amends and pay out for any distress. Personal responsibility for crime, domestic violence, truancy, feckless parenting, school under-achievement - even the indifference of many women to the growing opportunities on offer - went out the door. Sociologists (Maharey), political scientists (Helen Clark and Phil Goff), historians (Michael Cullen), the odd lawyer (Margaret Wilson) became obsessed with their mission to change "the system". After 30 years they'll never learn that there are some things politicians can't fix, and people have to do for themselves.

I hope I live to see a younger, wiser generation of Labourites take a grip on reality and return the party to Peter Fraser's "hand-up, not hand-out" approach to welfare. How much better New Zealand would be if the State fostered it. But I'm not holding my breath.