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Let Them Know It’s Christmas Time

Heather Roy's Diary

Let Them Know It’s Christmas Time

Christmas is upon us. You just need to take a walk down Lambton Quay, Queen, George or Colombo Streets to witness the same festive spirit. This morning some carollers were singing one of my favourites as I passed on my way to Parliament.

“Feliz Navidad, Feliz Navidad - Prospero Año y Felicidad” rang out loudly.

This duet outdid the lofty standard we have come to expect from kiwi artists; it was a truly angelic harmony. When I turned to look for its source, I was faced with an entirely different reality. A young man and a young woman - brother and sister I think - neither much more than 18. Both looked like a roast turkey dinner would do them good. To the side a small cardboard cut-out read “Homeless – Anything Helps” and a welt grew in my chest.

The few minutes I stood and listened were bitter-sweet. I was proud to be a kiwi as six others extended a charitable hand; I was saddened that in 2010 so many are still marginalised. I truly believe we are much closer to the people we could be, the people we aspire to be, during the holiday season. A heightened sense of empathy and community forms the foundation of a better New Zealand. Over this Christmas season hundreds, if not thousands, of Kiwi’s all over the country will give generously of their time. When I see the kindness of these men, women and, children a different type of welt grows in my chest.

It is problematic however that so much store is put on fixing things with legislation. Our law today is so complex, more complex than New Zealand has ever known. We see this in legislation aimed at helping those that have fallen on hard times. Section 69-F-A of the Social Security Act sets ‘financial means assessment for home-based disability support services’. This section was amended 16 times in the eight years between 1997 and 2005.

Unfortunately it is not an exceptional case. Coming to grips with the many and varied ways that we legislate to try and fix problems such as poverty, homelessness and inequality is a full time job. All too often we see that continuous expansion and stretching of the safety net trapping, rather than helping, the disadvantaged.

When we observe the elderly, the young, and the roughed up, Kiwi’s respond without hesitation. We help. We give selflessly. It is amongst the primary things that humbles me about our nation and people. But we need to stop and take a moment to ask ourselves as a nation how we allow those in trouble to rise up. Our current efforts are of virtuous intent but they are evidently not working.

It is often said that even if we were to round up all the economists in the world and tie them end to end, they wouldn’t reach a conclusion. There is some truth in this. One thing that economists do agree on though is the power of incentives. This holds in regard to New Zealand’s income curve - as it changes so does each Kiwi’s inclination toward their place on it. When the government overreaches its role in society it needs to fund it. That money comes from us, the taxpayer. When government takes more money from its citizens, the majority do not change their behaviour but there are two important groups that do respond to incentives particular to them: the wealthy and the financially strained.

When the incentives are wrong two things happen. Wealth either moves from, or is never created on, our shores and a greater number of people receive a government benefit. The end result is that more people require government assistance to live while fewer provide the government with its income. When the remaining workforce is pressed on, the cycle perpetuates itself. As an example the invalids benefit rate has increased 70 percent over the last decade, a period in which our population increased 12 percent.

Over the last half century the proportion of working age people on a benefit has increased almost seven-fold. Today about one in five Kiwi kids live in a benefit-dependent home. Dependence necessarily strips us of our independence. Exclusion from the workforce can be highly disenchanting and de-motivating. In our haste to support we can hurt those we are trying to help. For decades New Zealand’s politicians have promised to close the gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’. This Christmas I would sleep a lot better just knowing that we were working towards a nation of ‘haves’.

There will always be those who cannot provide for themselves. There will always be those who need a hand up from hard times. The government alongside the wider community has a limited role to play in supporting them but shouldn’t forget that people can and do overcome adversity with a hand up rather than a hand out. Too many, for too long, have borne the burden of misdirected solutions of governments from across the political spectrum. It’s time we stop and think: How best can we make 2011 a prosperous and happy New Year for all?

Lest We Forget
The funeral service yesterday of Private Jack Howard, a Kiwi soldier killed while serving with the British paratroopers in Afghanistan is a timely reminder of the dangerous environments our deployed kiwi troops are working in this Christmas. Far from their homes, their families and friends I send my best wishes to those on duty this Christmas while they work towards a more secure, safe and free world. Best wishes also to their families – ‘They also serve who sit at home and wait’.

Season's Greetings to all Diary readers, you may like to open the attached Christmas card. The diary will return at the beginning of February.

ENDS

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