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Laying Down The Welfare Challenge -- Muriel Newman

Laying Down The Welfare Challenge

Friday 9 Jul 2004 Dr Muriel Newman Speeches -- Social Welfare

Speech to the Whangarei Electorate Committee; Whangarei; Friday July 9, 2004.

There are three key reasons behind the ACT Party's long-held belief that welfare reform should be a key priority for any New Zealand government. Those reasons are:

Firstly, an effectively working welfare system provides strong assistance to those who are unable to fend for themselves, while requiring that those who are able-bodied get a job. This builds on the overwhelming evidence that welfare - in the long-term - harms adults and children.

Secondly, welfare reform would lead to a dramatic reduction in crime, child abuse and educational failure - as well as easing the demands on health and housing services. Sadly, there is a relatively small number of families which have been involved in the welfare system for generations, and who lead such chaotic lives that that they generate high levels of demand and involvement with 10-20 different social service agencies at one time.

These unstable families usually have many children to different fathers and a history of transience, poor money management, high alcohol use and violence. Helping them to take personal responsibility for earning a living, and for bringing up their children properly, will not only bring about dramatic improvements in their lives and those around them, but will ease the burden on taxpayers as well.

Thirdly the welfare system, in conjunction with our family laws, have created an epidemic of fatherlessness. These are significantly contributing to New Zealand's growing social breakdown. While the consequences of this have been reasonably well documented, a new research paper - just published by the National Centre for Policy Analysis', by political science lecturer at Howard University in Washington DC Dr Stephen Baskerville - provides a potent reminder of the problems and the risks to children and society.

Dr Baskerville writes that fatherhood is rapidly becoming the number one social policy issue in the US, and that the growing physical absence of fathers from their children's homes are encouraging social pathologies more readily associated with child abandonment.

Virtually every major social pathology - including violent crime, drug and alcohol abuse, truancy, teenage pregnancy and suicide - are strongly associated with fatherlessness. A majority of prisoners, juvenile detention inmates, high school dropouts, pregnant teenagers, adolescent murders and rapists all come from fatherless homes.

Researchers have found that the likelihood that a young male will engage in criminal activity doubles if he is raised without a father, and triples if he lives in a neighbourhood with a high concentration of single-parent families.

The connection of social pathologies with fatherless homes is so strong that some researchers have concluded that the likelihood of a child's involvement in crime is determined by the extent of both parent's involvement in their child's life, rather than by income or race.

Dr Baskerville's analysis shows that, while fatherless families are a growing problem - because of the negative effects on children and society of living without fathers - the principle cause is not bad behaviour by the father or the fault of fathers, but government policies with respect to family law and the availability of welfare.

None of this is to say that a single parent struggling on their own to bring up a child does not do a sterling job but, on the balance of probabilities, children from families without a dad face far greater obstacles and difficulties than children with two parents.

In light of the commitment by National Party leader Dr Don Brash last weekend to address the causes of crime, including the links to welfare and to fatherlessness - no doubt to be repeated at National's conference this weekend - I would like to challenge National to join with me and make a promise to New Zealand that welfare reform and family law reform will become priorities for a new National-ACT Government after the next election.

With 87 percent of National Party members preferring ACT to be the support party in a new government, I would like to ensure that these two issues are as widely accepted as being important priorities by National, as they are by ACT.

While welfare reform is recognised by most New Zealanders as being a priority area - especially in light of the Labour Government's soft approach to welfare - problems in family law, which Labour has refused to address, are just as urgent if we are to prevent greater damage to children.

Further, I would like to see a commitment by National that, within the first parliamentary term, the new government would table a law to introduce joint custody or shared parenting as a proactive way of reducing the alienation of fathers and the growth in fatherlessness. Such a new law would be based on the commonsense notion that, just as two parents are equal before a relationship breaks down so too, they should be equal afterwards - except in the unlikely event that one parent can prove that the other is unfit.

That change would ensure the upholding of what I believe to be two basic human rights: firstly, the right of a child to have the support of both parents and, secondly, the right of a parent to remain involved in their child's life.

If the National Party gives its commitment to taking action in these areas of welfare reform and family law reform as priorities, then we could have confidence that the relentless growth in fatherlessness would be checked, the damage to children reduced, and that - in the not too distant future - we could once again stand proud and tall and claim that New Zealand is a great place in which to bring up our children.

For more information visit ACT online at http://www.act.org.nz or contact the ACT Parliamentary Office at act@parliament.govt.nz.

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