Benefits, Budgets and b***s***

Are they going to do it?

At long last, isthe Labour government going to significantly increase base benefits and ensure that people actually have enough to live on, reversing the stagnation that’s existed since the horrors of the 90s?

People say the signs are there. I hope they’re right. I desperately hope that after so long, we will see genuine action, a real shift, something that we can hold onto during the lean years when National inevitably get their acts together (sorry, that was an unintentional pun) and regain the Treasury benches.

But the bar is pretty high.

The Welfare Expert Advisory Group report recommended increases to the various benefits of between 12 and 47% (note this is from 2019 and just think about something random like how much housing costs have increased since then.)

The head of the Auckland City Mission put the figure at $200 a week.

Either of those would be pretty amazing, and change a lot of people’s lives. And while I find it a bit gross how often we talk about “child poverty” as though it’s fine for adults to go cold and sick and hungry and homeless in our country, it would do incredible good for thousands of New Zealand children.

It might even be enough to save Jacinda Ardern’s legacy as the Prime Minister who anointed herself Minister for Child Poverty Reduction.

But still … I’ll be a bit angry about it.

Angry because it has simply taken too long. It is year four of the Great Transformational Kindness Ardern Government, and I simply reject the idea that the first three years don’t count because mean old Uncle Winston said “no” and there was just no way to negotiate, bully, build popular support to shift the narrative, or otherwise make it happen despite him. To accept that excuse would render all those global accolades for the PM’s amazing leadership meaningless; and that would be terrible. 

Angry because I know how the story will go. Labour will trumpet it from the rooftops. Look at us, the bold, the brave, the transformational (or whatever word we’re using now), we are the good ones, we understand how terrible poverty is in this country, we are the government who cares and will make a difference, let’s do this, hashtag he waka etc.

And it will be like the last four years never happened.

Because this is one of Labour’s weird psychological foibles: they cannot never acknowledge that their decisions to date are in any way flawed, or insufficient. Until they do a u-turn, and then it’s like it never happened.

That is why even a week before this Budget (assuming this Budget does significantly increase benefits) the answer to any criticism of their failure to substantively deliver on welfare was still “but we did a $25 a week increase. We introduced the Winter Energy Payment. We indexed benefits.”

Sometimes they throw in a line like, “we know we need to do better” or lean hard on the phrase “we’re making progress” so the audience infers that more things are happening behind the scenes. But the overall tone is still: look at what we’ve done! We’ve done the good things! Stop asking questions about the other stuff, it’s so unimportant I’ll ignore it entirely!

There is never an acknowledgement that $25 a week ain’t much; only a Steven Joyce-esque assertion that it’s “the biggest increase made by any government” (biggest doesn’t mean sufficient). There is never an acknowledgement that the Winter Energy Payment is a pretty sad $20-30 a week for only five months of the year. The indexation of benefits – which is good insofar as it stops the increasing cost of living from creating real-life benefit cut, but does nothing to repair the damage done in the 1990s and 30 years of stagnation on top of that –  gets cynically trumpeted as “increases” rather than adjustments.

But here’s the thing: if we get what we want on Thursday, all this will be wiped away like tears in Grant Robertson’s rainy day.

It happened with the hated 90-day fire-at-will “trial periods”, which Labour resolutely campaigned against for years, only to turn around and suddenly decide really, the issue was “fairness”. They ultimately retained the trials for small businesses. 

It happened with the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which saw massive popular opposition, leading to Labour setting down five strong bottom lines prior to the 2017 election. These were possibly mostly met, if you believe Stephen Jacobi, and mostly weren’t if you believe Jane Kelsey, but either way it took Newshub to check because Labour never mentioned them again.

It happened in record time recently with the public service pay freeze: on day one Chris Hipkins was bold as brass, calling out the Public Service Association (the largest union in New Zealand representing more than 75,000 workers) in Question Time thusly:

I’d also say to them that the guidance is consistent with the decision last year by the Remuneration Authority that Ministers and MPs would not be getting any pay rises for the next three years because of COVID-19 and the decision by the Public Service Commissioner, who sets the pay of Public Service chief executives, who will also not be increasing any of their pay.

…directly comparing a pay freeze for staff on $60k+ to a couple of other pay freezes for elected officials and CEOs on $150k+.

Then after the apparently unexpected backlash it became (from Grant Robertson):

“I understand this has caused distress and upset, I obviously regret that deeply, but we are not talking about a pay freeze here, we are talking about a process or guidelines for negotiation.”

It’s not a pay freeze, it’s just guidance, a starting point for negotiation (unless you’re a nurse) and frankly we should be apologising to him for the misunderstanding.

The trick Labour does is not to simply change their minds – anyone can do that, and if it follows reflection, research, fact-finding or a change in circumstance, it’s admirable. No, instead Labour engages in a form of gaslighting – pressuring people to disbelieve the evidence of their own eyes and experiences by insisting that reality is otherwise. We never said 90-day trials were completely terrible, we just want them to be fair. We have bottom lines – no, we just want a fair deal for New Zealand. We’re implementing a pay freeze, take that, unions – the unions are our friends and we love working with them and also never announced a pay freeze (it’s the media’s fault you think so!).

Let’s do this. Actually, we’re not able to do this and never made any commitment to any particular timeframe. 

And so it will be, after  Budget. If (and I still would not put money on it)* the Government delivers a massive boost to benefits, we will be scolded for daring to suggest that the past four years of inaction happened at all, that the WEAG report has largely languished, that concrete steps to implement it have been actively countered,** that the child poverty indicators are going nowhere. “We’re tackling child poverty and ensuring New Zealand is the best place in the world to be a child!” the social media accounts will announce. That will be the new reality and you will be the obstacle to real progress for remembering differently. 

Why does this matter? Because Labour’s consistent refusal to actually be a progressive, transformative, caring-for-people government is a recipe for disaster. It is an open door to National’s penny-pinching benefit cutting ways. It is an excuse for every swing voter to say The Two Parties Aren’t Really That Different, Right? Wouldn’t Mind A Tax Cut Actually. It is tinkering at the edges, leaving the shattered, gutted sense of community and fairness lying on the floor instead of taking the opportunity they were given – four years ago – to reshape this country in a better direction. To actually do all the good things they campaigned on doing! To live the values they happily slap on tea towels and Facebook shareables.

I really hope they start to prove me wrong tomorrow.

~

*Okay, I’ll put $1 on a marginal, but insufficient, increase in benefit levels nevertheless touted as the biggest, best, most poverty-eliminating increase ever, and then next February the Salvation Army’s State of the Nation report will point out that too many families still can’t actually afford the basics and Jacinda Ardern will furrow her brow and insist that those statistics don’t count because the Budget 2021 package hasn’t been fully implemented yet.

**Yes, that is the Labour government pulling the same “fiscal veto” that Bill English used to defeat increasing paid parental leave to 26 weeks. 

2 Replies to “Benefits, Budgets and b***s***”

  1. Thanks Stephanie. Labour has a ‘proud’ tradition of paving the way for National to come in to promote ‘National’s penny-pinching benefit cutting ways’. This happened in 1991 and 2008. Without a change in the narrative it may happen again
    see St John, S and Cotterell, G (2019) National’s family incomes support policy: A new paradigm shift or more of the same? Themed issue: National’s social policy legacy. N e w Z e a l a n d S o c i o l o g y 3 4 ( 2 ).

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