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Welfare Working Group – a brief reflection

Welfare Working Group Forum 9 – 10 June – a brief reflection

Sue Bradford 13 June 2010

I attended the Welfare Working Group (WWG) Forum last week with some trepidation, especially when I found out that three Green Party people had been turned away at the last minute.

I did not want to be part of mandating a process which unilaterally excluded people on political grounds, or in which participation implied support for the Government’s agenda.

However, I did go, and mercifully discovered many friends and allies in the room. If ever there was a time when we need to work together to expose and oppose what the Government has in store for us, the time is now.

I am not going to attempt a full summary of the content of the conference, as there have been a number of media reports. Some of the presentations are also available on the forum website at

I would like, however, to share a little of the flavour to the forum.

The facilitator was TV presenter Carol Hirschfeld, who started proceedings with “The working welfare group will reflect some of the opinions represented here,’ and continued her rather apposite misnaming of the sponsors throughout the next two days.

WWG Chair Paula Resbstock was first up, saying “the current welfare system is not responding to current realities,”, bemoaning the low rate of employment among NZ’s sole parents, and the $71/2 billion currently spent on benefits.

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I sensed a new manufactured crisis coming on.

Minister Paula Bennett came next. “This debate could get could get emotional...we may even see an ugly side of New Zealand...but we will also see compassion and understanding.” I wonder to whom she refers.

She asked, ‘Who should get welfare, and for how long? How do we pay for it? .. ...a great deal of thought has gone into assembling this group of people....this is about changing the society we live in.”

At which point I began to get really worried. The Minister’s comments were very brief – she made it clear that this wasn’t a time for her to give her ideas about welfare reform, but rather a time for her to listen. Moments later, she left, never to return.

Later on, the Hon David Caygill gave us a blast about the virtues of fully funding welfare liability in the same way as ACC is supposed to do.

However, I found the most frightening speaker of all to be Dame Iritana Tawhiwhirangi from the Kohanga Reo National Trust Board. Among other things, she said, “The benefit system is unjustified in many instances,” and that what is needed is an “internal fixit strategy...gaining access to whanau homes is the key.”

The vision that this represents is one that I imagine sends shudders up the spines of many Maori who know they and their whanau are not actually to blame for unemployment and poverty but rather the economic system in which they live ....and who don’t really want even greater interference in their personal lives from either the State or its iwi or pantribal representatives.

Through the course of the conference we had a number of presentations from international and academic experts, the most useful comment perhaps coming from Monika Queisser from the OECD who commented on our very high child poverty rates, and said that ‘lessons could also be learned from the universality, simplicity and effectiveness of NZ Super.” She talked about a universal child benefit, but also made it clear that it’s very important that sole parents work.

Despite excellent contributions from Kay Brereton and Darren Kemp from the Wellington Peoples’ Centre, and Dr Innes Asher from the Child Poverty Action Group, the majority of inputs to the conference, at least that I heard, were from people pushing the following themes:

• Our welfare system is in crisis and unaffordable, particularly with the high number of people on the DPB, Invalids and Sickness benefits.

• We should be looking at what countries like Australia and the UK are doing in treating most beneficiaries the same as people on the unemployment benefit – NZ is out of step with other jurisdictions in how leniently it treats DPB, SB and IB.

• An ACC-type, social or employment insurance model for welfare must be seriously considered.

The one good thing the WWG process has done is to open up the debate on welfare, and to create an opportunity to start to educate and organise in ways we may not have done for some time. The Government would like to get away with the biggest changes to our social security system since the 1930s – whether they succeed or not may depend on all of us who have a different and far more compassionate vision for the future of welfare in this country.


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