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Campbell: Paula Bennett’s strange welfare panel

Gordon Campbell on Paula Bennett’s decidedly strange welfare reform panel

Last week when Social Development Minister Paula Bennett named the working group on welfare reform, she also cited in a footnote two experts that the panel could draw on for support – Professor Bob Gregory, an economics professor at Australian National University in Canberra, and Peter Saunders a former Director at the Centre for Independent Studies think tank in Sydney, and now relocated to Britain.

Saunders, if I can put this succinctly, is a nut job. He writes fiction as well as right wing opinion pieces for the press in Australia and Britain, even though it can be hard to tell the difference. Lets start with the opinion columns. In 1994, in his review of Charles Murray’s notorious book The Bell Curve on the alleged links between race and intelligence, Saunders concluded that social class, not race, was the real determinant of IQ :

Britain looks surprisingly like a society divided into classes on the basis of talent.[!] The pattern of social mobility is broadly consistent with what should happen in a perfectly open society with recruitment based solely on intelligence. The second conclusion is that we do not need to do IQ tests to find evidence supporting the link between social class and intelligence. The close approximation between what would happen under open competition and what does happen in Britain indicates that ability probably does coincide to a large extent with class positions. This lends strong support to Mr Murray's claim of a link between low average intelligence and low class position.
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The working class, in other words, are innately more stupid. No wonder more of them end up on welfare. Especially the sole parents. In this Sydney Morning Herald article published last year, Saunders gave passing mention to changes in sexual morality and family norms, before quickly moving on to finger the real culprit for the rise in solo parenting : the welfare system itself.

By making sole parenthood more financially viable, [former Australian Prime Minister Gough] Whitlam inevitably also made it more socially acceptable, even attractive, as a lifestyle choice. Today, single parenthood has become "normal", and a key reason for this is that the welfare state supports, enables and endorses it. In this, as in other areas of welfare, when government pays money to people in need, it inevitably increases the number of needy people. This is the central paradox of the modern welfare state, and it helps to explain why the numbers have risen so dramatically.

I’ll spare you the nostalgic praise for Margaret Thatcher, for whom a smitten Mr Saunders continues to hold a serious torch. For an even better sense of this expert that Paula Bennett is urging her working group to consult, we should turn to a novel called The Versailles Memorandum, that Saunders published late last year. To put it kindly, the book is a mélange of right wing paranoia, and Islamophobia. It describes itself this way in its publishing blurb :

The year is 2046. Across the United States of Europe, millions live under Sharia law in Special Islamic Zones. Four European cities have been contaminated by radioactivity from dirty bombs. In the Middle East, Israel has been incinerated by nuclear war. In the East London Special Islamic Zone, Aisha Sharizi is on the run from the religious police after having an affair with a kuffar boy. In Sydney, the body of a former cabinet minister is fished out of the harbour…” etc etc

According to an admiring reviewer on, the book is “as important as Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged in its warning of the fate that awaits us if we do not act to fight the tide of liberal-left thinking…” The hero of Saunders’ novel – an ageing history academic called Harold, has seen his marriage go west simply because of his sterling devotion to the details of his work :

Leslie, my ex-wife used to say this is why my career has never progressed…She ended up taking the kids to live with the Professor of Popular Culture, a fearsomely successful woman. Her ability to sniff out gender stereotypes in popular drama won her several rapid promotions, as well as a regular Monday morning slot on BBC Radio Fourteen,”

Women ! Not that Harold, working away on his obscure documents is entirely unobservant of the world around him :

A tall man in his late 20s approached me with a gleaming smile. His hair was greased back flat over his head, as seems to be the style nowadays and his face was tanned, suggesting a recent holiday in the sun.

He wore a black, open-necked shirt under a tightly fitting faded brown needle cord jacket that seemed several sizes too small for him. I tentatively offered my hand and he grasped it in a strong and confident manner. The sleeves of his jacket seemed several centimetres too short for arm, and the seams stretched taut as he flexed his muscles. You don’t get biceps like that dusting documents.

Indeed you don’t. And you don’t gigs like the one with Paula Bennett’s working group by being soft on welfare. The welfare review panel, as has been widely noted, also includes Catherine Isaac (Judd) the former Act Party president. What also seems extraordinary is that some members of the working group – eg Adrian Roberts and Enid Ratahi Pryor – are also current contractors with Social Welfare. As such, they are involved in business relationships with the same state welfare system whose rules they are being asked to evaluate, with a view to change. How can they help to devise solutions to welfare dependency without being seen to be generating more business for their own enterprises? Answer: they can’t.

For the record, Roberts is the founder and managing director of In-Work New Zealand. In the information sheet released by Bennett, Roberts is described as “a provider of employment services for people on benefit who have a repeated history of unemployment… specializing in getting solo parents into employment.”

In a 2006 article tracing the birth and evolution of his firm, Roberts explained the challenge in generating business from his managing of the welfare to work transitions:

Roberts says the business has been self-funding from the outset and turnover is now [in 2006] in excess of $3 million. However, he’s quick to point out that government contracts don’t offer money for jam. In-Work is among the three largest privately owned businesses operating in the sector, Roberts says, but competition is tough — from both other businesses as well as community organisations. And, ironically, as the economy has steamed ahead and unemployment levels dropped, In-Work has had to diversify into non-government work. Drawing on its extensive networks, it has started recruiting unskilled and semi-skilled workers for private-sector companies, offering its ongoing support as a point of difference in the competitive recruitment market.But the company’s future growth, says Roberts, lies in exporting. In-Work is tendering for a multimillion dollar contract with UK government agency Jobcentre Plus, and is also looking to the US and Canada.

So he’s been locked in competition for the work, has suffered when economic prosperity cut into welfare numbers, and has been keen to expand his welfare-to-work business internationally. Yep, that sounds like just the person to provide a dispassionate analysis of the rules for getting people from welfare and into employment. It would be easier to accept Roberts’ presence on the panel – as someone with expertise and a clear personal stake in the outcomes – if there were balancing voices (and equally valuable expertise) from the likes of Susan St John or Sue Bradford. There is no such balance.

Enid Ratahi Pryor, to take another example, has been engaged in Whakatane with Te Tohu o Te Ora O Ngati Awa (ie, Ngati Awa Health and Social Services. Te Tohu is a contracted provider in a pilot for the Whanau Ora welfare delivery scheme. As the NZ Herald wrote last November:

Te Tohu is one of two agencies piloting a new "high trust" contract merging seven of its eight Social Development Ministry contracts into one - a kind of halfway step towards what may eventually be a single "Whanau Ora" contract spanning health and education as well. But asked how Whanau Ora will affect the agency, general manager Enid Ratahi Pryor says: "We are already doing it."

So Ratahi Pryor is already a key player in the Whanau Ora transition. Again, she has no distance from the situation she has been asked to evaluate and has an obvious stake in promoting an existing line on the welfare to work process. Another working group panel member, Sharon Wilson-Davis, has for the last 13 years been CEO of Te Tamaki ki Raro Trust.a long time social services contractor. Earlier this year, the Audit Office declined to investigate a claim by five Manakau City councillors that Tamaki ki Raro Trust had been awarded a $170,000 contract when it had actually been the losing bidder in the public competitive tendering process.

Five councillors had called for an urgent inquiry into the majority vote to override a competitive tender won by Challenge Trust and award it instead to losing bidder Tamaki ki Raro Trust.

Dissenting councillors Sylvia Taylor, who chairs the tenders panel, panel member Jami-Lee Ross, Daniel Newman, Bob Wichman and Michael Williams complained the about-turn "molested the integrity" of a competitive public tender process…But the auditor-general's office has declined to investigate, saying the council made a decision it had the authority to make and which wasn't "inconsistent with the council's stated processes".

Leaving aside the signs of ideological bias in the panel’s support personnel, the commercial contracts that some of the working group have with the system they have been asked to evaluate would appear to fatally compromise the process. The academics who have agreed to join the panel should be seriously re-considering their involvement.


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