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Muriel Newman: Heroes In Waiting

Muriel Newman – The Column February 25th

Heroes In Waiting

This week, the Column looks at how New Zealand’s thousands of unemployed could be used to help in the event of natural disaster or emergency.

The devastation caused by last week’s floods – described as the worst natural disaster since the 1931 Napier earthquake – has shocked the nation. As families struggle to put their lives back in order, most New Zealanders wonder whether more could have been done to help – especially in light of the Government’s initial offer of $20,000 in assistance, which was widely regarded as an insult.

Images of the exhausted workers, who provided civil defence services in each community, illustrated New Zealand’s limited capability to deal with emergencies of this scale. And that’s where some new answers to my written Parliamentary Questions provide an insight as to what might be done to address this problem.

This new information shows that more than 111,000 able-bodied New Zealanders are currently on the dole. Of the 111,458 people receiving all forms of the Unemployment Benefit, 50,348 are short term – having been unemployed for under six months – while the rest are long-termers: 17,200 have been unemployed for six to 12 months, 16,485 for one to two years, 13,176 for two to four years, 13,600 for four to 10 years, and 643 over 10 years.

The fact that 61,000 people have been unemployed for longer than six months – at a time when there is a critical shortage of skilled and unskilled labour – clearly demonstrates that the Government’s welfare policies are not working. ‘Activity in the Community’, Labour’s sorry replacement for ‘Work for the Dole’, is simply not effective – it makes turning up for work voluntary, for a start.

Similarly, Labour’s new ‘Jobs Jolt’ initiative – presented as a tough love approach to force the long-term unemployed into work – has now been exposed as toothless: for instance, Maori living on ancestral land – the group most at risk of long-term welfare dependency – will be exempted from having to move to areas where there are jobs. This essentially means Labour is sanctioning welfare as a long-term lifestyle choice that taxpayers are expected to fund.

New Zealanders deserve better from their government. It is long past time that we stopped paying able-bodied people, who are quite capable of working, to do nothing. In fact, it is patently absurd that on one hand we can have our Prime Minister complaining in her address to the opening of the 2004 Parliament that: “Indeed the demand for labour is so strong that not only do a net fifty per cent of companies report difficulty in hiring skilled labour, but also a net 27 per cent report unskilled labour shortages” while, on the other hand, we have more than 61,000 able-bodied people – enough to fill a city – being sanctioned by the State to waste their time, their life and taxpayers’ money when there are jobs available.

That is why it’s imperative that the Unemployment Benefit is modernised: that the dole is abolished and replaced with a programme of Temporary Assistance for the Unemployed, and time limits introduced to provide the unemployed with a three to six-month period where they are encouraged to actively seek work.

Those who haven’t found a job after that period of intensive job search should then be required to enrol in full-time Work for the Dole, because clearly they are going to need professional help to find employment.

That’s where the present 61,000-strong army of able-bodied unemployed may be able to help strengthen New Zealand’s civil defence networks.

Why not have anyone enrolling in Work the Dole begin with a three-month civil defence-training programme. That programme, run in conjunction with emergency services – Police, Fire and Ambulance – the armed forces, local authorities, social services, voluntary associations and the like, would provide training in the skills that people would need to be able to help in natural disasters and other emergencies.

Such a programme would not only provide New Zealand with a significant resource of trained personnel throughout the country, who could be called on in times of need, but the programme itself would connect job-seekers with networks of support and with employment opportunities that they may not have otherwise had access to.

Given that most people who find employment do so through someone they know, rather than through advertised job vacancies, such a programme would by its very nature assist people into employment. Further, since a proportion of those who have been trained in emergency services would undoubtedly offer to volunteer for the organisations they’re working with, those organisations would receive a welcome boost in local support.

Historically New Zealanders have been generous volunteers, whether in their local communities, or for the Territorials, the Navy Reserves or Search and Rescue. This programme which would strengthen what is already a well established Kiwi tradition, would also have an important spin-off: in times of need, those brave people who work so hard to save, help and support people and property would have a cavalry to call on – those in our communities who have been in need of a job and who have used their time to gain the skills and training that could be of crucial assistance during times of emergency.


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