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History Never Repeats

“History never repeats, I tell myself before I go to sleep.” Someone needs to sing that classic Split Enz riff to Paula Bennett – loud and clear.

Max Reid
May 25th 2016

Why? Because her latest valiant, though misplaced, effort to do something constructive in terms of addressing New Zealand’s growing rates of homelessness has been tried before – and failed.

In 1982 I was completing a degree in Industrial Relations at Massey University. One of the key case studies we examined was the threatened closure of Patea freezing works in South Taranaki. Our case study indicated that the outlook for the Patea community, should the works close – as they subsequently did – was grim.

Cut to late 1985, by which time I had undergone something of a sea change career-wise, and completed the requisite theology degree and training to become a Presbyterian Minister. As with other professions (such as teachers, for example) Presbyterian ordinands were effectively ‘placed’ into their first parish – in my case, the Patea Presbyterian-Methodist Church. On opening the envelope informing me of this match, my first reaction was to wonder if Patea still existed as a viable community. Our Industrial Relations case study three years earlier had certainly called such a reality into question.

Despite my initial reservations, my two years living amidst the people of Patea was wonderful – a time I look back upon with real fondness. No surprise, then, to hear the recent RNZ National news clip suggesting that Patea was becoming something of a mecca for Aucklanders looking to relocate to somewhere more affordable.

That, however, is in stark contrast to the situation in the early ‘80s. The then National government was very much under the pump in terms of New Zealand’s burgeoning unemployment rates. Patea, however, had its own issues. Many of the freezing workers had left the town to seek work elsewhere, including the then new (but also since closed) Oringi freezing works in southern Hawkes Bay, or to those in Bluff. A significant number of state houses in Patea were left vacant, and increasingly run down.

In what now might be called a ‘Paula Bennett moment’, the then Housing Corporation and Department of Social Welfare swapped information. They identified Hamilton and (ironically, given their current surplus of vacant state houses) Palmerston North as two cities with long state housing waiting lists. With input from the DSW, the waiting lists were scanned to see who could potentially be relocated to Patea, without exacerbating Patea’s aleady disturbing unemployment rate – that is, those on superannuation, the sickness benefit, or single parents. Those identified were essentially told that they could continue to languish on the waiting list, or get a state house in Patea next week.

On the basis of this inspired trategy, some 40-50 families relocated to Patea over a period of six months. By the time I arrived in late 1985, the fabric of this small rural service town had dramatically changed. With a population of less than 1,500, it could claim the dubious statistic of having 80% of its residents living on benefits of one kind or another.

It is difficult to image the impact upon a community that such an influx of financially and socially disadvantaged families can make. It is a reality that, as a local minister, I lived with daily – providing whatever support and advocacy I could. Around the same time as I moved to Patea, the community also gained a new sole-charge policeman – Chester Borrows, now the National Member of Parliament for Whanganui. Chester and I became good friends – in part because we found ourselves dealing with – at times visiting together – the same families.

Hence my advice to Paula Bennett: take heed of that Split Enz song: “Don’t say the words you might regret.”

Max Reid, since leaving parish ministry in the late 1990s, has spent the last 20 years working social services and health management. He is currently chief executive of Kidney Health New Zealand.

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