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. 

Mother’s Day

(Content note: infertility, mental health, motherhood)

My first post about our ~parenting journey~ is here.

Mother’s Day has never been the most problematic artificially-hyped-to-sell-stuff-parental-celebration holiday for me. I grew up ~without a father~ (he bailed; his loss) so it was always the unthinking way we/marketing departments assume that everyone has A Dad to celebrate, and the consequent erasure of dudes who play an amazing role in kids’ lives, which irked me on an annual basis.

But once we’d started trying to have a baby, and the years of it just-not-happening ticked over, Mother’s Day took on a more personal impact. I wanted to be a mum, and it felt further and further away every year, which was only added to by the doom-and-gloom messages that are constantly around about Women’s Fertility Crashing And Burning Further And Further Every Day You Age Past 35 27 23 18 your own birth.

(This cropped up again last week when TVNZ Breakfast were doing a series of stories on infertility, which were really important but also managed to screen each morning at exactly the time I was feeding the baby and trying to find something to watch on TV. Here’s the thing: the “at 35 your fertility dies” trope is not exactly scientific and we need to have way better conversations about why people actually delay having kids – even if you don’t have to pay tens of thousands of dollars for fertility treatment.)

A part of me assumed I would just never be a mother. Even once we had the resources to do IVF, the odds felt too great. If the grand narrative of my life was going to go one way, it just felt far more likely I’d end up with She Desperately Wanted Children But Could Not Conceive than the Hallmark/Lifetime/TLC movie After Years And Against All Odds, A Miracle.

I’ve had anxiety and depression all of my adult life, so the horrible little voices at the back of my brain telling me I’m doomed are so familiar it’s almost comfortable. And they just got louder every time the TV filled with images of blissful mums-and-bubs and saccharine time lapses of The Most Important Relationship You’ll Ever Have.

(Shout out to the current Pandora jewellery campaign for casting a mother and daughter so close in age appearance that I still can’t quite parse the timeline of your ads!)

Often it felt like a grand signal from the universe to just give up. Because the odds are so against you. Because the obstacles are so real and so high. Because if it doesn’t happen – especially after putting yourself through the ordeal of IVF – haven’t you just wasted years, and money, that could have gone to something better, something more productive?

(I still haven’t even begun to unpack the way my brain obsesses about “productivity”.)

I have many friends who did exactly this. Drew the line in the sand and said, enough. But always with a huge amount of sorrow. That was why we struck that deal with ourselves: three rounds. Enough to say we tried, we gave it our best shot, but it wasn’t meant to be and let’s now focus on what the rest of our lives look like without children.

I honestly don’t know right now if I would have been able to stick to it, or how long it would have taken me to let go, if I could even let go. I didn’t have to find out. We got very, very lucky.

So this year, I celebrate my first Mother’s Day. But not just that: it’s my mother’s first Mother’s Day as a grandmother. My grandmother’s first Mother’s Day as a great-grandmother. As horribly commercial and transparent as it is, that feels very important. At the same time, it brings up everything I’ve been through not just over the past year, but all the years of trying before that, and all the years of wanting and hoping before we could even try. I’m an only child: if I didn’t have a baby, my mother would never be a grandmother. I’m the eldest of my cousins and none of them seem to be interested in having kids any time soon: would we ever have gotten that gorgeous four-generations-in-one-photo?

(And again: let’s talk about how saddling young people with hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt, in order to get jobs with no long-term security or career path, while housing prices skyrocket, might have the teensiest impact on why millennials and zoomers keep Putting Off Having Children, yeah?)

It should feel like a happy ending. It does. But at the same time I don’t know when I’ll ever stop being just a little bit in mourning for all the grief and stress and painful, painful absence that this day represented for me for so long.

So this one goes to all the people who are still there. Who want to be mums, and can’t for whatever reason, and have to deal with the unthinking assumptions of our culture not just on this day but every other day of the year. It sucks. It doesn’t necessarily get better. I know there’s nothing that can really soothe that hurt because even holding onto hope feels like self-harm sometimes. Look after yourself.


I wrote the above a few days ago. Today, Michelle Duff published an incredibly important article about the Corrections department’s practice of shackling and handcuffing prisoners as they are giving birth, or breastfeeding.

It was probably a mistake to read that on my phone, with baby in arms, right after a feed.

Like I said on Twitter: everyone involved in this – the officers in the room, their direct supervisors, their direct supervisors, and anyone else who had knowledge of this and did nothing to stop it – needs to be fired, possibly into the sun.

It is simply unacceptable that we keep getting these stories coming out of Corrections. It is simply unacceptable that Corrections, and its Minister depending on where we are in the media cycle of any given scandal, thinks they can treat the public like marks who’ll swallow any horror if it has the phrase “security concerns” slapped on it.

This practice is against Corrections’ own stated policy and yet, AND YET,

Children’s Commissioner OPCAT inspectors found prison officers had varying interpretations of when prisoners were “pregnant” or “giving birth”.

ARE YOU KIDDING ME?

The officers involved in these situations are either ignorant of the basics of their own jobs, or know they’re doing the wrong thing. Either way, they have no place holding those jobs. And their senior leaders, including Kelvin Davis as the Minister responsible, need to stop pretending there’s some third option where oopsie, well-meaning people with the best of intentions just accidentally did a human rights violation oh well let’s commission another review to tell us what we already know: Corrections is not fit for purpose. It is not keeping New Zealanders safe by repeatedly and deliberately brutalising prisoners and lying about it to the public. It is not delivering care to the people it laughably euphemises as such. When pregnant, labouring people are shackled like animals and bullied in their most sensitive moments, Corrections is actively undermining any chance for those people and their families to rehabilitate, to build positive relationships, to feel like they can be a part of our communities.

This cannot be reformed without drastic and immediate action. Call it some kind of transformation rooted in kindness and strengthening the Māori-Crown partnership.

So, Kelvin?

Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis was not available for an interview.

Oh.

My submission on the sex and gender identity statistical standards

… wow that’s a mouthful. Also, hi from my very defunct personal blog!

There are only a few days left to make a submission on Statistics New Zealand’s consultation on (see above long title!). This represents a really important step for recognising the very real diversity of gender, including people with no gender, and giving everyone the option to see themselves reflected in government data and decision-making – while ensuring that data is only collected when necessary (gender: not really relevant to my bank account).

I’m not going to lie, it’s a technical document with a lot more nuance than a simple, “Stats NZ are going to put a gender question in the census, what do you reckon?” Which is why it’s awesome that Gender Minorities Aotearoa have put together a really comprehensive guide to the questions and considerations you might want to include in your comments.

You can be as short and sweet as you want, of course! But frequently in these kinds of consultations, especially when there’s a lot of submissions (casts a sidelong glance in the vague direction of the United Kingdom of Great Britain, Northern Ireland and Rampant Transphobia) the responses get summarised or boiled down into “themes” that are common, so being really clear about why you support the standards, or why you think they should be changed, could make a difference.

And a cautionary note! It may be randomized, but at least when I filled in the submission my tick-boxes went from “strongly disagree” on the left to “strongly agree” on the right – and I’d clicked a few wrong before I realised! Thankfully you can go back and correct those if you need to, without losing the comments you’ve added.

I’m also quite proud of what I wrote in the final comment box, so I thought I’d reproduce it here in case it inspires anyone to make sure their voice is heard in support of our diverse whānau and robust data-collection. (And for my own personal edification when I look back on this in five years and think wow, I can actually write kinda well! #ImpostorSyndrome)

I support the submission of Gender Minorities Aotearoa. Stats NZ should ensure its expert advisory group be expanded to include Gender Minorities Aotearoa, ensure more participation of trans women and takatāpui. There needs to be meaningful integration of te Tiriti o Waitangi in all statistical standards, and in this instance, better recognition that the divisions of sex, gender and sexuality they codify take a very Pākehā lens.

I also wish to raise my concerns about a coordinated campaign to oppose these standards, and any inclusion or recognition of trans, intersex and nonbinary people, which has likely resulted in this consultation being overrun with submissions by anti-trans campaigners from outside Aotearoa New Zealand. These campaigners present a strict binary idea of sex and gender entirely rooted in sex assigned at birth and archaic ideas of womanhood.

As a cisgender heterosexual woman, I cannot state strongly enough that my womanhood is not threatened nor diminished by acknowledging that I am fortunate to have a gender identity and way of expressing my gender which aligns with what a doctor saw when I was born and had recorded on my birth certificate. My rights and my ability to fight for those rights is neither threatened nor undermined by allowing trans men and women, nonbinary and intersex people, to accurately describe themselves and see themselves reflected in the data used by government to make decisions which affect all our lives.

The Human Rights Commission’s PRISM report of June 2020 states “A human rights-based approach to data collection requires data to be collected for each specific population.” Though there are areas for improvement, Statistics New Zealand has developed a strong set of standards which allow for accurate data collection for everyone, regardless of sex or gender, and I urge SNZ to disregard the voices of those who are motivated by a desire to erase all gender diversity and deny the reality of our takatāpui, trans, intersex and nonbinary whānau.

Take a few minutes to do your submission now. The Stats NZ submission link and all relevant documents are here. 

The Gender Minorities Aotearoa submission guide is here.

The Human Rights Commission’s PRISM report is linked from here.

What we do

With the horrible, tragic case of Grace Millane in the news, we’ve been talking a lot about what women do – and what we shouldn’t have to – to be safe in our country. So I wrote on Twitter:

My mum wants me to text her when I’ve gotten on the bus. My coworker says she’ll stay up until I let her know I’m home safe when we share a taxi. I message my partner to say where I am and what time I expect to be home when I go out.

I make eye contact with security cameras. I still carry my keys between my fingers and find excuses to turn my head when someone’s walking behind me so they don’t realise I’m looking at them and listen to hear if they speed up when I speed up.

I’m nearly 35 and I’ve spent my life knowing that these things are, at the same time, what I must do to keep safe, yet will not keep me safe. That I’m considered ~crazy~ for doing them and yet will be asked why I didn’t when something happens.

I have no pithy call to action tonight, just a lot of sadness.

And many people responded, women and men. I wanted to record those responses here.

I did this just two nights ago texting my husband to tell him I had to walk 5 minutes alone to my car after an event. Held my keys in my hand. Let him know when I’d made it safely.

I do all of these things regularly.

My daughter rings me and talks to me as she walks to her car.

I always ring my husband and he talks to me until I am in the car.

Currently awake waiting for wifes next location update. Tautoko.

I do exactly the same things.

It’s better to hold your keys like you would a knife than have them between your fingers. Its what I do

I’m 60 and the streets are no safer for women than they were when I was in my teens and the police still tell women how to stay safe and to watch out for each other, rather than direct a campaign at the men who attack women, and tell their mates to watch out and stop them.

I still do these things. I was taught them in my late teens . I am over 60 . I should feel safe. I still think zbout where and how I park the car. So it is lit at night . That I am not trapped between the car and a wall or fence when I open the door .

That the house is completely locked at night. That the curtains are drawn

Same here, always phone hubby when I leave work on a late shift, speak to him until I get on the bus and always have my phone ready and my keys out! Hate it! I’d love the freedom to go running after work in the dark but it’s just not safe…how is that right or fair?

These things are so ingrained that I didn’t actually even realise I do them, but I do. And you’re right, these actions are unlikely to stop me being hurt by someone with intent. I’m over it not being understood that women experience this world in a different way to men. It sucks.

I do this with my mum as well – no matter what time of night it is, she’ll always answer too.

There’s an effect on freedom. My wife calls when she’s waiting at the bus stop late at night… I worry about my female flat mate who works late in the city centre and walks home. They’ve very different lenses to experiencing public life than mine and it ain’t right.

How fucking sick is this. Our intimate partners know we will call but it isn’t something we discuss.