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Poverty and Political Correctness Gone Mad

Human Rights, Poverty and Political Correctness Gone Mad

Friday 3 Sep 2004

Dr Muriel Newman - Speeches - Other

Speech to Whangarei Electorate Meeting

This week the Human Rights Commission published its first report on the status of human rights in New Zealand. "Human Rights in New Zealand Today" drew on feedback from a nationwide process of public consultation, as well as data from Government agencies and public servants. The report is the first step in the development of a "New Zealand Action Plan for Human Rights" expected later this year.

The UN General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights -the basis of human rights laws - in 1948. New Zealand's Human Rights Commission was established in 1978. Costing $7.5 million a year to run, and employing some 65 staff, the Commission has never really gained New Zealanders' full acceptance.

In particular, some of the Commission's early discrimination cases, against employers, won it few friends - a situation that continues today. It still seems ludicrous that if you are an employer wanting to hire an experienced, middle-aged woman for your sales team, human rights laws prohibit you from advertising for such a person; instead, you have to advertise generically, raising the hopes of all applicants, while knowing that the person you will eventually hire will just happen to be experienced, middle-aged and female.

To most New Zealanders, many of the restrictions imposed by human rights regulations seem like political correctness gone mad. Part of the problem is with the way that human rights laws are developed: a desirable behaviour is elevated to the status of law - without the safeguard and scrutiny of the exhaustive Parliamentary process - then passed onto judges and the courts to monitor for compliance. Such backdoor law-making is bound to create controversy, and a deluge of litigation - as well as a stream of unintended consequences.

Today's announcement that five prisoners have just been awarded $130,000 by a High Court judge, in compensation for a so-called breach of their human rights while in solitary confinement as punishment for bad behaviour, has just taken political correctness to new heights. Coming atop the Human Rights Commission's identification this week that the over-representation of Maori and males in our prisons is discriminatory, it is no wonder that calls for the Commission's abolition continue unabated.

Modern human rights are dogged by a fundamental conflict between the Anglo-American tradition of citizens' right to be protected from the coercive power of government - through the protection of free speech, respect for private property and the enforcement of the rule of law - and the European concept of citizens' rights to be entitled to government benefits in the form of education, health, housing, social security and other open-ended claims.

This conflict will, I suspect, become more apparent as the Government moves to address one of the major concerns relating to children identified in the Commission's report: "Research indicates that three out of 10 children and young people in New Zealand live in poverty, significantly disadvantaging them in terms of their growth and development. Maori and Pacific children in low income and single parent families are particularly affected."

Using the Government's 2004 Social Report living standards scale - which identifies a low-income threshold as 60 percent of the 1998 median equivalent net-of-housing-cost family income - it is children living in sole parent families that suffer the greatest levels of financial disparity. Yet there is a real difficulty with defining poverty in this way - as average wages rise, so too will the poverty threshold and, under this scenario, there will never be an end to poverty in New Zealand.

Poverty is an extremely emotive term, which changes as living standards rise. For example: it is no longer unusual for a household to own more than one car, telephone or television - raising the legitimate question as to whether having only one of these is an indicator of poverty.

Further, if we look at the issue realistically, what is defined as poverty in New Zealand would be regarded as privileged in many other countries, with one of the problems faced by many `poor' in this country being, not starvation but, obesity.

In fact, at our recent Welfare Symposium Alan Duff drove this point home by recounting the reaction of his `adopted' African son, when he first introduced him to disadvantage in New Zealand. On showing him some of the poorest homes in town the young man looked incredulously, and claimed that it was not deprivation he was seeing, but opulence.

In defining poverty as a human right, the Commission is setting the scene for Labour to introduce a new range of taxpayer-funded measures designed to relieve sole parent poverty. The problem is that, despite being costly, such measures will not succeed.

It is an undeniable fact that the only way out of poverty is through work, and that the only answer to welfare-induced child poverty - as most other countries have recognised - is to support sole parents into employment. The fact that New Zealand, in having no work requirements for sole parents, is now seriously out of step with most other western countries is one of the major reasons for our excessively high rates of child poverty. Other countries - particularly the US - have significantly reduced child poverty by requiring parents to work.

My challenge to the Human Rights Commission is to recommend - in its next report - that our Government follow the lead of other countries that have proven track records of success in this area, and implement strategies requiring able-bodied beneficiary parents to move into work. After all, when a country has a booming economy, having anyone who is able-bodied on welfare is a sign of government failure.


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