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John Minto: What Right Has John Key To Lecture The Poor

To The Front! John Key lectures the poor

Column - By John Minto.

The rich have always been good at lecturing the poor on how they should budget, pay their bills, improve their skills and move out of poverty.

In the 1990s Prime Minister Jenny Shipley told poor families to get their priorities right, stop smoking and drinking, sell the TV and budget to get by. She said there was no need for food banks - they simply "created demand" for their services. School mistress Shipley gave homilies on how the poor could and should live on a miserable income - including some advice on recipes - but she baulked at challenges to live for just a week on a beneficiary income. She said the poor should just pull themselves out of their moral lassitude and take on the values of "successful" people.

(The Wikileaks cables show the US Ambassador to New Zealand in 1997, Josiah Beeman, told Washington Shipley believed in "a soft heart and a hard head". In practice she had the adjectives the other way round)

Prime Minister John Key is the latest preacher to the poor, telling us

".it is also true that anyone on a benefit actually has a lifestyle choice. If one budgets properly, one can pay one's bills."And that is true because the bulk of New Zealanders on a benefit do actually pay for food, their rent and other things. Now some make poor choices and they don't have money left."

Like Shipley Key believes there's no need for food banks. He thinks rising demand for food parcels is just a measure of how hopeless poor people are at managing their money.

Polite disdain would best describe John Key's attitude to the poor.

He was keen to exploit deprived communities to get at Labour however. When Key visited Auckland's McGeehan Close in 2007 and spoke with low-income families Labour had left behind he gained great kudos - almost a man of the people rather than a man of the markets. The Labour Party leadership was apoplectic. But Key was right, 100% correct. Labour had long ago left those families to struggle without support and even when Working for Families provided relief for some, Labour left the children of the poorest well behind.

Key cunningly exploited Labour's weakness but he had no intention of making any difference for the families of McGeehan Close. After two years as Prime Minister, John Key has overseen policies which have accelerated the gap between rich and poor. National couldn't care less and Labour is only slightly embarrassed about its track record.

However Key's comments find ready resonance in the parallel universe of talkback radio where ignorance and prejudice intersect and contempt for the poor abounds.

I'd have more respect for the argument that the poor should look after themselves if it wasn't for deliberate policy choices by successive governments which have given billions in welfare for the wealthy while putting extra barriers ahead of the poor.

The government last year found $1.7 billion to bailout well-off shareholders in South Canterbury Finance but just this week Health Minister Tony Ryall suggests the government will legislate to prevent caregivers being paid the minimum wage when they stay overnight to look after disabled people. "It would cost $500 million and we can't afford it" says Ryall.

Meanwhile back in the real world successive governments have overseen the unregulated rise of the parasites on poverty where low-income areas have been infested with pokie machines, loan sharks and bottle stores. These are deliberate government decisions which are crippling families and whole low-income communities.

If I thought it would do some good I'd suggest Key spend a week working at a food bank in Mangere. But what self-respecting family in our poorest electorate should have to put up with Key's condescending lack of empathy or compassion when they seek help to put food on the table?

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