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Muriel Newman's The Column

The Column - By Muriel Newman

The Wounds of Political Correctness

The Column this week - is the text of a speech delivered to Rotary - looks at the devastating effect that political correctness has had on our society, and asks how we can reverse the damage.

There has been a sea change in politics this year. The Centre-Right is striking back at the damaging, politically correct, racist agenda that this socialist Labour Government has thrust down the unwilling throats of the general public.

While seemingly innocuous when referring to “chairperson” instead of “chairman” or “height-challenged” instead of “short”, political correctness was originally a communist weapon used to intimidate detractors and silence criticism. As such, it has been seen to be a powerful tool.

Take the case of the Government’s PACE (Pathways to Arts and Cultural Employment) programme, a scheme which pays the dole to aspiring artists while they find their ideal job in the career of their choice. Any concerns raised about Labour’s wisdom in encouraging people out of the workforce and onto a benefit brings personal attacks and accusations of “benefit bashing” in an attempt to silence those critics.

Or take the ongoing concerns over Labour’s anti-family agenda, which is undermining marriage and discouraging fatherhood; anyone speaking out against Labour’s approach is labelled a homophobe or as being anti-sole mothers.

Under Labour, political correctness has now gone too far: Christmas parades cancelled for fear of breaching Health and Safety laws, school swimming pools closed down because of the expense of complying with new water quality regulations, police diversion schemes criticised for breaching young offenders’ Human Rights, fathers banned from sending their children Christmas presents by punitive court rulings, naughty kids given labels and medication instead of boundaries and discipline, and so it goes on and on.

New Zealand is also becoming an increasingly grievance orientated, litigious society: employers can now be fined up to half a million dollars if their workers suffer from stress; race organisers can face prison sentences if participants have accidents; and sexual abuse claimants can now claim up to $100,000 in lump sum compensation without any requirement for evidence to be tested or perpetrators charged.

People have also had enough of the growing racial divide – not only the backward-looking and ever-growing Treaty grievance industry, but also the Government’s fixation with pushing Maori privilege at the expense of non-Maori New Zealanders. Whether it is special grants for Maori education or housing, race-based funding for Maori healthcare, local body Maori seats, realigning state highways to avoid taniwha, compensation to local Maori for taking water from rivers, special radio quotas or electromagnetic spectrum bands for Maori, or taxpayer funded koha, a majority of New Zealanders feel the Government has now gone too far.

In this environment, Don Brash’s speech acted like a lightening rod, a catalyst for people to say enough is enough. Like the little boy in Hans Christian Anderson’s fable “The Emperor’s New Clothes” – who proclaimed that the Emperor, in fact, had no clothes – Don Brash’s statement tapped into a mood of pent-up exasperation and created a political storm.

However, it is important to put on record that the ideas in Dr Brash’s Orewa speech are not new. They were articulated by ACT years ago. In fact on 11 November 1998, during ACT’s first term in Parliament, Derek Quigley’s Private Members Bill – to introduce time limits to the Treaty of Waitangi claims settlement process and to remove race-based laws – was debated by the House. During that debate, ACT was accused of being racist and all other parties – including National, United, and New Zealand First – voted against the Bill.

Having said that, ACT recognises that – as a party of new ideas and a party of influence – when our ideas are picked up by the mainstream, then we are being successful.

Further, it is important to remind those who would like to see a change in government at the next election that, under MMP, a single party cannot govern alone. Under MMP, it takes two parties to govern, meaning that anyone wanting a Centre-Right government for New Zealand will need to support ACT with their party vote in 2005.

A Centre-Right government would have as its focus the need to lift our standard of living to provide better opportunity for all New Zealanders. This would be achieved through three major policy changes: lowering taxes, reducing small business compliance costs, and welfare reform.

As a first step, it is imperative that taxes are lowered. New Zealanders are overtaxed, paying some of the world’s highest tax rates. That is evident in the fact that the Government is boasting about a $6 billion surplus. Labour is essentially taking $6 billion more than it needs from working New Zealanders. If GST and stealth taxes – including petrol tax rises, ACC increases and local body rate increases, which have risen up to 300 percent in some areas – are added in, some workers are taking home less than 50 cents in the dollar. It is no wonder that many families are struggling so hard to get by.

If taxes were reduced – enabling families to keep more of what they earn – New Zealanders would have a better opportunity to make choices that are in the best interest of their family: to save for their retirement, buy health insurance, send their children to independent schools, repay their mortgage or pay their student loans.

Secondly, the tax and regulatory burden on small business must be reduced. Small business is the engine room of an economy, creating the nation’s jobs and growth. If small business were to receive a boost by not only lowering tax rates below those of our competitors, but also by dramatically cutting the red tape and compliance costs that are now a significant drain on their productivity, then the sector would thrive and prosper, lifting New Zealand’s economic growth and our standard of living.

Thirdly, we need to overhaul the welfare system so that everyone who is able-bodied and capable of working can contribute. At the present time we have on one hand a labour shortage crisis – where businesses are desperate for skilled and unskilled workers – while, on the other hand, over 111,000 able bodied people receiving the dole.

There are a further 110,000 able-bodied New Zealanders – many of whom could also be working – on the Domestic Purposes Benefit.

In fact, despite the best economic conditions in decades and record levels of unemployment, there are still 370,000 working age adults and 300,000 children dependent on welfare. The cost to the country is $7.3 billion a year, making New Zealand’s spending on cash benefits for working age people one of the most generous of any country in the world. Yet New Zealand is not a rich country, and paying so many able bodied people to do nothing is damaging not only to the country as a whole, but to the individuals themselves.

Take the case of Mike, a young man who left school and went straight onto the dole. Mike spent 13 of the best years of his life stagnating – and I mean stagnating – on the dole. He’s now working, but it wasn’t thanks to the welfare department – or the government – saying ‘enough is enough’. No, it was only when his girlfriend threatened to leave if he didn’t find a job that he pulled his finger out. Within two weeks he had got himself a job. He’s gone onwards and upwards ever since.

There is no downside to getting people who are capable of working off welfare. Working for a living gives beneficiaries back their dignity and self-esteem, transferring them from wealth-takers to wealth-makers. With fewer people on welfare, huge amounts of taxpayers’ money can be saved, to be used for health and education, roads or bridges, or to reduce the tax burden on working families. Less welfare also means a reduction in welfare fraud and in crime, since some seven out of 10 offender arrests by Police are of people on welfare.

Modernising our social welfare system is an idea whose time has come. The dole should be replaced with a time-limited scheme that provides temporary financial assistance to the unemployed for a six-month period while they proactively search for a job. That should be followed by a full-time compulsory Work-for-the-Dole programme for those who have failed to find work. Work-for-the-Dole would ensure that those who are capable of working are actively engaged for 40 hours a week in a programme that helps them develop the habits and skills of the workplace – if they turn up late, their pay is docked; if they don’t turn up, their pay is stopped.

It is time for the DPB to be modernised as well. It should also be replaced by a temporary financial assistance programme, which would have at its heart the proactive support of sole parents with school-aged children to help them overcome the barriers to work that they face. By helping them to engage in Work-for-the-Dole with child care assistance, after-school care, transport help, and the like, they will be encouraged to recognise that it is they – not the taxpayer – who has the responsibility to be the breadwinner for their children.

The Sickness Benefit certainly needs addressing, since the numbers of people moving onto this benefit who are theoretically too sick to work, continue to rise at an alarming rate. This defies our national trend of improving health and increasing longevity.

Sickness beneficiaries should have access to more timely medical interventions – using the private sector if the public sector waiting lists are too long – and rehabilitation so that they can get well enough to go back to work.

However, those who are genuinely incapable of working, should be moved from the Sickness Benefit onto the Invalid Benefit – which also needs reassessment. There is a strong move internationally to encourage people with significant disabilities to participate in society and contribute at their own level, rather than being isolated and locked out. It is surely time to extend that opportunity to New Zealanders as well.

If the benefit system were modernised along the lines described, welfare could be returned to being the safety net envisaged by its founder Michael Joseph Savage: a hand up to work, independence and a better future. It was a system that served us well until it was undermined by the Labour Government in the early Seventies. Back then, for each New Zealander receiving a full-time benefit, there were 28 full-time workers. Today, for each beneficiary, there are four full-time workers. Welfare reform must become a national priority before the burden on working New Zealanders reaches an unsustainable level.

Social welfare should always have been a hand-up, rather than a handout. It is only as a handout that it has become one of the most serious, damaging problems facing our society today. Welfare reform is not just a way to save money, it is a way to save our country’s future.

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