Anne Tolley should apologise for her own words, if not decades of abuse

(Content note: child abuse, minimisation of violence against children)

The question of public apologies by governments for the wrongs of the past is always contentious. I like to think of it as a subconscious acknowledgement by the people in positions of privilege that if they really had to offer heartfelt remorse for all the sins of their cultural past, they’d literally never be able to stop.

But in this case – a report detailing decades of systemic, horrific abuse of children in state care – there’s definitely one thing Social Development Minister Anne Tolley should be apologising for: her own, personal, deliberate minimisation of what survivors went through.

See, here’s what the report found:

The report finds as many boys as girls suffered sexual abuse. In boys’ homes, cell-like units were often used for prolonged isolation, while in girls’ homes, “assumptions were made of promiscuity”.

In foster care situations, the panel describes stories of mothers who were “street angels, house devils”.

“There was often violence by the foster parents, beatings and housework and kitchen tasks, and verbal abuse. Lack of affection was almost standard,” the report says.

“We heard many accounts of foster fathers who came in the child’s bedroom at night to abuse that child, even when the bedroom was shared by other children.”

And here’s what Anne Tolley has to say about that:

asked if the Government would apologise to the children of these institutions, she said: “No”.

“But I do acknowledge that some people in the care of government institutions were failed and let down badly, and that they still suffer the trauma from that experience.”

“Failed and let down” is one hell of a cold way to describe sexual abuse, solitary confinement and beatings.

If Anne Tolley won’t apologise on behalf of the government of New Zealand for decades of child abuse, she should definitely apologise for being utterly incapable of human empathy.

Another spotlight on National’s gross mistreatment of beneficiaries

It’s the old National Party lie, isn’t it? As reported in The Press:

New Zealand’s social welfare system “dehumanises” people in need, with beneficiaries described as “scared stiff” of Work and Income case managers, new research says.

The report said case managers were “overstretched”.

Tolley said there was “no evidence” of this and in 2014 the Auditor-General reviewed welfare services and found most people found their claims were “resolved fairly”.

She said the Government had reduced the amount of people on benefits, with an 8.6 per cent decline in Canterbury of solo parent benefits.

We’ve reduced the numbers! That’s what’s important! We must be successful economic managers because there are fewer people claiming solo parent benefits and this obviously means people are bootstrapping their way into work!

Except that at this point, if you’re at all interested in NZ politics, you know full well that National has spent the past six years achieving benefit number reductions in one way: making life so hellish for the people who depend on them that they will do absolutely anything to avoid dealing with Work and Income.

We’re talking about people who by very definition are in a vulnerable position. They can’t find work. The jobs aren’t there, or they’re sick, or they have dependent children. They don’t have enough to pay the bills. They’re trying to feed their kids, and they’re coming up time and again against a remorseless, heartless machine which treats them like villains.

I know there are many lovely, generous, well-intentioned people working in our social welfare system. But right at the top you’ve got a government which thinks anyone who isn’t in paid work is inherently a moocher, a parasite, a waste of space. That will always filter down to the front lines, and that’s why you get a situation where people who have to queue for hours just to have the chance to argue for a little bit of help to pay the rent aren’t even allowed to use the goddamned toilet.

Hekia Parata challenges the gender pay gap!

It’s great to see a senior Government Minister addressing serious issues of inequality and structural discrimination in one of our most important professions:

“I’m interested in how we attract the best and the brightest into teaching… I haven’t focussed very much on whether they’re men or whether they’re women but if it is a higher-paying profession, I think that will attract more men,” she said.

She’s got a really good point. Work which our society views as “women’s work” – usually involving caring for others, or children, or more “domestic” duties – is systemically underpaid compared to equivalently-skilled “men’s” work. Primary school teachers start on a whopping $46,000 after doing a three-year degree. Probationary police constables who have undergone 19 weeks’ paid training and need NCEA level 2 math and English get $58,584 more.

I’m not entirely comparing apples with apples there, nor am I saying that police officers don’t deserve to be paid well for doing a vitally important job (would be nice if their senior officers stopped mishandling sexual violence cases, but you know.) But Parata has a really important point: if teaching paid better, it would probably attract “the best and brightest”, and some of those would undoubtedly be men.

Wait … sorry, I’ve got it all wrong. Tracey Martin of NZ First informs me that Parata actually said,

“..if it is a higher-performing profession, I think that will attract more men,” she said.

Yes, the problem is actually that men’s standards are just too high. They want prestige and a sense of contributing meaningfully to their society, unlike women who clearly just want to go home at 3:30 and get really good holidays.

(I can feel every teacher in my family – and there are a few – glaring at me right now!)

If you all just bucked up, ladies, maybe the men would flock to get paid what I got as a receptionist in my first job out of uni. (Graduating in the middle of a recession is super fun.)

But that’s the National government for you, with its typical sneering attitude to teachers. Parata hasn’t quite met the standards set by predecessor Anne Tolley – who once read a children’s book about a rat who “learned to be happy with a lot less” to a meeting of secondary school teachers right before they entered collective bargaining – but I reckon she gets a gold star for effort.

Tory “charity”

(Originally posted at The Standard.)

One of the core differences between the right and the left, it seems, is that the left actually understand that not everything’s about money and not everything can be decided by the market.

There are core services which must be run for the public good. And some of them cost money, and don’t make profit. But the state provides them to ensure some basic needs are met and some basic rights are protected.

But even I wouldn’t have thought the government would stoop so low as to demand that charitable organisations – groups often doing things which should be funded by the state but aren’t – foot the bill for getting police background checks for their workers and volunteers.

Yet that’s what they’re doing. Organisations like the Cancer Society and the Blind Foundation have calculated the additional costs for them at $10,500 and $2,500 respectively. And that’s simply money they don’t have spare.

This is going to lead to cuts in vital services. All for a paltry $2.2 million saving – or less than 2% of the bailout they were pushing for SkyCity. And Anne Tolley expects charities to be grateful it’s not as expensive as it is in other countries!

It’s the ultimate in ideological policy-making: pushing the user-pays model at all costs, to save peanuts and cause who knows how much harm further down the line when charities have to decide if they can keep their doors open.

Labour is organising with charitable organisations to oppose this petty penny-pinching. You can add your signature to Labour’s petition here.

More meaningless numbers

It’s that time of year when the Government trumpets the success of its welfare reforms. Look! they cry, benefit numbers are down! The repressive, labyrinthine, victim-blaming system works!

I’ve written before about the way National have perfected the art of throwing out context-free figures, knowing they’ll be interpreted as “proof” of something.

It always makes me think of another quote from Pratchett:

“Samuel Vimes dreamed about Clues. He had a jaundiced view of Clues. He instinctively distrusted them. They got in the way. And he distrusted the kind of person who’d take one look at another man and say in a lordly voice to his companion, “Ah, my dear sir, I can tell you nothing except that he is a left-handed stonemason who has spent some years in the merchant navy and has recently fallen on hard times,” and then unroll a lot of supercilious commentary about calluses and stance and the state of a man’s boots, when exactly the same comments could apply to a man who was wearing his old clothes because he’d been doing a spot of home bricklaying for a new barbecue pit, and had been tattooed once when he was drunk and seventeen* and in fact got seasick on a wet pavement. What arrogance! What an insult to the rich and chaotic variety of the human experience!”

The point is, the only thing you can really say when you find footprints in the flowerbed is that someone stood in the flowerbed.

And the only thing you can really say when the government cries “there are 13,000 fewer people on benefits” is that there are 13,000 fewer people on benefits. You don’t know why, unless they also produce figures on where those people went – how many moved into permanent jobs (and have stayed in them), or emigrated to Australia, or simply vanished from the records?

And you absolutely do not know that “the reductions we’re now seeing will mean fewer people on benefit in the years to come which means we’re going to see healthier, more prosperous households.”

The only basis for that statement is ideology: Anne Tolley thinks benefits are unnecessary handouts which stop people from being ~incentivised~ to feed their children through work, ergo people not being on benefits must mean economic prosperity.

Or at least, that’s the argument she’s peddling.

But because most people outside of the Cabinet are basically good-natured and compassionate, it works: we assume that benefits exist to help people who can’t work, and they stop getting a benefit when they’ve gone into work. And we assume “work” means a good, steady job. So a drop in benefit numbers must be a positive thing!

If we got the real figures – how many people were forced into terrible jobs, only to lose them 89 days in and be placed on a stand-down, or how many people just gave up and turned to begging, or how many people were so bullied and demoralized by WINZ that they’re making themselves sicker by doing work their doctors say is unhealthy for them – we would have a very different idea of the “success” of National’s welfare reforms.

That’s why they pretend that only the numbers matter.