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Muriel Newman: UNICEF Report Rewrites History

UNICEF Report Rewrites History
Weekly Column by Dr Muriel Newman

This week UNICEF launched a major report on the well-being of New Zealand children. Entitled "When the Invisible Hand Rocks the Cradle: New Zealand Children in a Time of Change", the report was written by six present and former academics from Massey University's School of Social and Cultural Studies.

While UNICEF holds the copyright for the report, a disclaimer states: "the opinions expressed in this paper are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or views of UNICEF". By allowing this politically biased report to be published under its copyright, UNICEF risks not only undermining its own credibility, but also facilitates the dissemination of misleading information - in this case to some 3,000 organisations and governments world wide. The so-called UNICEF report, as it was branded by the media, is a seriously unbalanced and politically correct attempt to re-write history. The authors essentially argue the reforms of the Eighties and Nineties were a failure, and that the Labour-led recent changes have been an outstanding success. Furthermore, through the sin of omission, this report fails to even identify family breakdown and long-term welfare dependency as major contributors to poor outcomes for children.

According to the Economist magazine in November 2000, "recent claims that New Zealand's economic experiment has failed, and that it therefore needs to change course, do not stand up." While there is no dispute about the fact that by 1984 New Zealand had the most distorted economy in the OECD and reform was absolutely necessary, the landmark Economist article sets the record straight about the extent of the reforms: "New Zealand is often portrayed as undergoing a decade and a half of non-stop change. In fact reform occurred in two brief waves: 'Rogernomics' under the Labour government of 1984-87, and 'Ruthanasia', under the National government's finance minister Ruth Richardson, in 1990-91. In both cases, after an initial spurt, reforms stalled during their governments' second terms of office."

In contrast, the UNICEF report states: "from 1984 to the mid-1990s change was rapid and radical. The pace then slowed and has been more evolutionary. The reforms ... were characterised by an ideological framework of neoliberalism."

This subjective analysis not only fails to express the seriousness of the economic crisis we faced in 1984, but also misrepresents the length of significant reform. Further, in spite of all the negative rhetoric about market-driven reforms being bad for children, the report omits to mention that most of these reforms have not been reversed by our current left-wing government.

The authors are also largely silent on the fact that the economic reforms lifted the overall standard of living for the great majority of working families and their children: wages have increased by 11 per cent in real inflation adjusted terms since 1984, spending on education has increased by 70 percent and on health by 71 percent. A key reason for the lack of credibility of the report is that the authors almost totally overlook the negative impact the welfare system has had on the well-being of children over the last thirty years. The welfare system introduced by Michael Joseph Savage in 1938 worked well. For over 30 years there were never more than 40,000 people on welfare - for each full-time person on a benefit, there were 28 full-time workers.

In the early seventies however, the Labour Government fundamentally changed the system, raising benefits and introducing the Domestic Purposes Benefit. As a result, the number of welfare dependents has increased to 400,000. There are now just four full-time workers for every full-time beneficiary.

Further, one in three New Zealand children today live in benefit-led households.

The authors of the UNICEF publication claim that comments made in 1997 by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child about the state of children in New Zealand provided the catalyst for their report. Interestingly they fail to mention that in that same report the UN Committee was very critical of the fact that New Zealand was a world leader in the number of single parent families.

The DPB has now been identified as a risk factor for children by the government's own research agencies. The 110,000 sole parents disproportionately suffer from poor health, depression and low self-esteem. Their 185,000 children are deemed to be at greater risk of infant mortality, child abuse, poor health, educational failure, substance abuse, teenage pregnancy, youth suicide and crime.

Not only does the UNICEF report fail to mention the DPB as a major cause of inequality for children, but given that more than half of all Maori families have only one parent, it also fails to mention that the DPB and welfare dependency are significant factors in the under-performance of Maori and Pacific Island children. Welfare in New Zealand has become a juggernaut. It not only damages children but puts a huge strain on working families who suffer the highest tax rates in the OECD, largely because of the cost of welfare which now consumes more than a third of all government spending.

If the academics who wrote the UNICEF report had turned their minds to the serious damage that welfare causes children, and explored initiatives to reform the welfare system and recreate a culture of personal responsibility, then not only would their report have been taken seriously, but their work would have brought praise on UNICEF instead of ridicule.


Dr Muriel Newman, MP for ACT New Zealand, writes a weekly opinion piece on topical issues for a number of community newspapers. You are welcome to forward this column to anyone you think may be interested. View the archive of columns at

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