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An Audience With ACT's Welfare Guru Muriel Newman

An Audience With ACT's Welfare Guru Muriel Newman

Interview by Kevin List

Muriel Newman ACT MP and Welfare Spokeswoman

ACT New Zealand Deputy Leader and Social Welfare Spokesman Dr Muriel Newman is this weekend (August 14) hosting a symposium on welfare reform. As well as a number of former Cabinet Ministers from the fourth Labour Government (Roger Douglas, Michael Bassett) there will also be speeches from a former Minister in the Blair Government, Frank Field MP, and hard hitting author (Once Were Warriors) Alan Duff.

Scoop dropped by the ACT offices in the hope of a free cup of coffee and a chance to get the inside running on ACT's welfare policies, by way of a chat with Dr Muriel Newman.

Dr Newman has herself had experience of New Zealand’s social welfare safety net. In the Mid-1980s following 18 years of marriage, Dr Newman found herself on the Domestic Purposes Benefit (DPB).

Although on the DPB for only a short time the experience is often mentioned in Ms Newman’s speeches as a dark time, when, but for the offer of a job in retail and the support of her family she may still be languishing.

Scoop: So you, yourself were on welfare?

Muriel Newman: In the mid-80s after 18 years of marriage, and that had broken down, I was on the DPB for a short space of time with two young children. I guess it gave me an insight into the trap of welfare because it was not easy to get off it…Altogether it was not a nice place to be and when I came to Parliament and got the numbers, and had a better overview of what was going on [with welfare]. I realised what a trap it had become for so many individuals and families. And of course now it is intergenerational.

Scoop: Did you have a doctorate at that stage?

Muriel Newman: Yes.

Scoop: Do you think that helped you get off the benefit - the fact you had studied and had a doctorate?

Muriel Newman: Well I went into retail, which had nothing to do with my degree.

Scoop: But your employers obviously thought – there’s Dr Muriel Newman she is a go-getter, she has got a doctorate. Do you think that helped?

Muriel Newman: Yeah, I’m sure it did help. And also having a strong family around me. I’m sure it all did help. And that is why I say, that I was fortunate in a way. I had the strength to do it [get off welfare] and a lot of people don’t. This is where you need a system that actually gives people a hand up. The problem with our welfare system at the moment is that it gives people a cheque. But it doesn’t necessarily help them to overcome the barriers that they face. If they [welfare recipients] even think about becoming independent of the state it is too hard. That is why I’ve always focused on a welfare program that actually physically gives people a helping hand that some need and some don’t. But for the ones who need it, [the helping hand] boy do they need it!


Goldenhorse and the PACE Scheme

Goldenhorse's Geoff Maddock Playing At The Zaoui Concert

Scoop: I saw an item on the Sunday program three weeks ago which featured the New Zealand rock group, Goldenhorse. One of the main creative forces behind the band Geoff Maddock was still on the dole and had been for some time. What do you say to him?

Muriel Newman: Well the problem with the PACE scheme is that it essentially provides an opportunity for people who have been in the workforce and doing their art on the side to go and do their art full time. But there are no time limits and there is no requirement to move off it. So, for the individuals it is probably quite good. But then you have got to always remember when you’re working in politics and in public policy you’ve always got to remember who pays the bills, and it’s the families who are struggling like hell to get by who are having a hard job paying their tax – they don’t mind paying their tax to people who need, who genuinely can’t look after themselves. But they worry when their money is going to people who are able-bodied who could fend for themselves but they’re obviously using taxpayer funding while they try to position themselves for a better future. And there’s no problem individually trying to position yourself for a better future, but the question is should those struggling taxpayers be the ones who pay the bill?

And the way I look at it, I would say to that person, how does he feel about going and knocking on the door of his neighbours and the people down the street and saying, “look I want you to fund me $200 a week so that I can be a better artist.” You know, we’ve got a system now that separates people from the struggling family that pays…but you’ve actually got to remember them.

Scoop: He (Geoff Maddock) was on national TV saying he was on the dole, didn’t have any money, but what would you do - because there is a band that has sold 30,000 CDs?

Muriel Newman: Where is the money for that? We saw that - and we said where is the money?

Scoop: I presume they got a really bad recording contract…

Muriel Newman: There’s questions there, that’s for sure.

Scoop: What would you do about it? Would you cut off his benefit? What happens then?

Muriel Newman: No, no, take a real life example of somebody I know, well, I know of him, he happens to be the friend of a friend of my son whose, it’s his brother, it’s a long line away but I know who he is.

He’s a young guy, 18-years-old, who is on the artist’s dole and he gets $200 a week, cash in hand, and I said to my son the other day, you know old thingameejig, what’s he doing now? [He replied]Oh, no, he’s still on that dole, and I said well, you know, is he trying to get a job and he said no, he’s really happy.

Now, what I say is that that benefit is destroying any incentive of these young men to get ahead.

Scoop: Is it destroying the guy from Goldenhorse’s incentive to get ahead?

Muriel Newman: What I would say to the guy from Goldenhorse is that the welfare system should be a hand up. Now if you’re on the dole and you’re able-bodied, then you shouldn’t be on the dole in the long-term if you’re able-bodied, it’s as simple as that. If you’ve got lots of problems that need overcoming, sure be on it a bit longer, but the point is he should be involved 40 hours a week.

That’s what I’d do with him, put him into a 40 hour week programme of work, education, training, job search, CV writing, interview skills – skills that actually would be designed, or a programme that would be designed, to help him to get a job that he needs. That would help him to achieve his goals – so his path would be quite different to a person who aspired to be a personal assistant. But for him, he should actually be out there doing stuff for 40 hours a week.

Scoop: I presume that’s the whole point of the PACE scheme, is that he is presumably out there for 40 hours a week aiming to be a rock star, selling 30,000 CDs, he says that pretty soon he’ll be off the PACE scheme. For those 30,000 CDs the money’s gone back into NZ – to pay NZ sound engineers, NZ mixers… it’s all gone into NZ and they’ll be selling their album offshore soon?

Muriel Newman: But why does the struggling taxpayer have to fund him? What right has he got to say 'hey you, family out there, I’m able-bodied, I could work, but I don’t choose to because I’m busy trying to achieve my dream, my goal'.

I think what the Government has done is put in a programme which shows how friendly it is to the arts which is part of its constituency base, but I actually think it’s destroying some people’s lives. The guy you’re talking about might use it really well and end up by making that leap frog into a far-better opportunity than if he struggled his way up the usual way. But I know the young guy who I was talking about that my son knows – I can tell you that his life chances have been compromised by this dole because what that guy is not doing is getting himself involved in an industry or a base that will make him start at the bottom, because it always does and work his way up and by the time he suddenly realises, well shivers, this isn’t actually taking me anywhere, two years might have gone by, five years…



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