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The Nation: Simon Shepherd Interviews Simon Bridges

On Newshub Nation: Simon Shepherd Interviews Simon Bridges

We've seen a rise in populist politics among our allies.

Could New Zealand go down that path too?

This week National Party Leader Simon Bridges released some of the most extreme social policy ideas New Zealand has seen in years.

Simon Shepherd began by asking him why the National Party is taking such a punitive approach to welfare.

Bridges: I don’t think it is. I think it’s about a fair go. Let me explain what I mean by that — I simply mean I think New Zealand is an incredibly compassionate country. I think we want to ensure that there is a safety net for the vulnerable, the people who need it. But a fair go also means a fair go for hard-working New Zealanders who are tax payers. That does mean when you’re talking about welfare, benefits specifically, so you need the jobseeker benefit, there are obligations and accountabilities that need to be there. And I think most New Zealanders would agree a benefit should not be a long-term option.

Simon Shepherd: Okay. You talk about reinstating a firm but fair sanctioned regime in the document, but that goes against what the Welfare Expert Advisory Group found. They said there’s never been an instance in which a sanction had been applied for those obligations like getting your kids to a doctor or school on the benefit. If you didn’t do that, no sanction’s ever going to apply.

Well, I think if you take the unemployment benefit and what we used to call the dole-jobseekers support, I think it’s actually very clear. If you look at under us in the last three or four years we saw unemployment numbers — those on the dole — go down about 30-40,000.

Are you saying that sanctions did that?

Well, I think that’s part of it. I think if you look at the last couple of years, under Labour, it’s not working. Quite literally there’s 22,000 more people at a time of relative unemployment are on the dole. Now what’s changed? Well, actually, there’s a huge number of jobs out there, and things should be going well. It seems to me it’s the informal doing away with sanctions and penalties by the government.

Labour’s comeback to that, of course, is that people are finally getting what they’re entitled to. They’ve actually opened up the criteria.

Well, that’s not true. I mean, the reality is the entitlements haven’t changed. What has changed is people are going on to the dole, and they’re languishing on it longer. And I can tell you exactly what’s going on here — it’s things like not turning up to an interview. Under us, I don’t think it was at all a punitive regime. It was a case of if three, four times you didn’t do that in succession, you didn’t have good excuses, yes, there would start to be a docking of your benefit. That’s not happening any more.

You’re saying they’re not applying those sanctions, but they still exist. They haven’t rolled back any sanctions except sanction 70(a) which is the one which docks a parent if they don’t name the other liable parent.

I think that’s right as you describe it, but there’s no doubt, informally, WINZ offices around New Zealand, and I talk to the managers and so on, informally the edict is out not to apply these. And you see it in the sanctions and penalties numbers which have palpably dropped. I think that certainly plays a significant role in the fact that those on the dole have gone up 22,000 under this government.

Doesn’t this go against all the expert advice of this report from the Welfare Expert Advisory Group? They wanted to get rid of all those kinds of sanctions.

I’ll make a couple of points in relation to that group. Firstly, if it’s so good, if it’s so evidence-based, if it’s so clever, how come the government hasn’t done any of it? I mean, they’ve literally spent many millions of dollars on it, and they’re not doing it. I think ultimately, if you listen to what I’m saying about a fair go, about the safety net, but also the obligations and accountabilities, these are value-judgments that governments make. I believe, though, my value judgments are in tune with the vast majority of New Zealanders, and actually work better because having people languishing on the dole isn’t the way to go. People have much better outcomes in work.

Let’s talk about the sanction that you want to bring back — sanction 70(a). The previous National Party health minister, Anne Tolley, had advice saying no evidence that it actually worked. So why bring it back?

Are we talking about the dads?

Yeah, we’re talking about the dads, what you call the ‘deadbeat dads’.

I think it’s both right in practice, and it’s right, as I say, as a value. It’s pretty simple. If you’re a dad of a child, I think you have a responsibility to front up and be accountable and responsible for that. And again, I think is something where the vast majority of New Zealanders would agree. Let’s be really clear before we go down the track of, ‘Is this punitive, is this terrible?’ Look, the reality of this is, there will be a host of exceptions. I get that. When you think of situations where there’s a danger of violence, of all these sorts of things— We’re not stupid. We get that. But as a general proposition, when someone has fathered a child, I believe they should front up. They should be responsible and accountable.

So this is a signal, rather than something that something that can be easily implemented because it doesn’t work.

I think it’s both. I think it does mean that that dad, in most cases, should, as I say, be responsible and accountable.

Sure, but doesn’t it affect the woman and the child in the relationship, in the situation, rather than the dad?

Well, I think the presumption should be that they make clear who that dad is, and that happens, and then the dad is, as I say, accountable and responsible. I acknowledge, though, there will be exceptions. And the other situation is simply a child going through life not knowing who their dad is and not having that sense of responsibility and accountability from that. Now, call me old-fashioned, I don’t think that’s right.

Let’s move on from that. I want to know whether you think you’re targeting the most vulnerable by this kind of particular social discussion document.

We certainly are, both in terms of—

But politically targeting them.

…but also in terms of, as I said, those accountabilities and responsibilities. Look, Labour isn’t working. We could just roll on with what we’ve got. In the last two years that means more on the dole, that means more hardship grants, that means more on all kinds of benefits, it means more on social housing lists. I don’t want that. I believe that more benefits, more state dependency equals more poverty. And if we can get people off that long-term dependency into work, that’s much better for them, and for those hard-working New Zealanders who are paying their taxes.

An example of how it seems to be that you are targeting the vulnerable, and this is the question that you raised in the document about, ‘Should a sole parent get the benefit if they don’t immunise their child?’ So why did you target ‘sole parents’ in that question?

I am targeting the vulnerable, but let’s be clear about who I’m targeting, it’s the child who deserves to be immunised and to be well.

Yeah, but the wording is ‘sole parent’. That is very targeted.

Well, I think because there’s a, if you like, a relationship in as much as there is a benefit that is going to something – someone with a child. I mean, if we take the jobseeker’s benefit, there isn’t that same relationship. There are many people on the jobseeker’s benefit, for example, who won’t have children. And so the wording there is about, look, where someone has a child and they are on a benefit, should there be sanctions where the child isn’t immunised?

If you’re going to be fair about this and not just target somebody on the benefit, why wouldn’t you just bring in a policy where you fine everybody who doesn’t vaccinate their child?

Well, I think this is a conversation we could have. But ultimately-


No, I think it’s an important point that you’ve raised it.

Yeah, it is.

Ultimately, government has certain levers. In the case of someone on a benefit, we have a very clear cause and effect lever, and that’s one within our power, if you like, to deal with it. Let’s just make this point, because it’s fundamentally important. The jury is in on immunisation. The evidence is incredibly clear. There are no good reasons not to do it. And, look, if someone ultimately, a parent says, ‘We’re not going to do it.’ ‘Well, okay, I fundamentally disagree with you, but don’t do it on the taxpayers’ dime.’

All right, well, here’s another thing. You talk about levers, right. You have another lever, and that’s called Working for Families Tax Credits. So, why not dock people Working for Families Tax Credits if they don’t immunise, cos that would be fair as well.

I’ve had a remarkable amount of emails about that, actually, that are making that very point. We’ve posed a question here, I’ve given you my clear views about immunisation.

And what about that point-?

And I think, look, if people have strong views on it, they should come back to us on this discussion document. They should give us their feedback, because I think what is clear right now is we have a measles epidemic. We have not enough people immunising. We have people dead in Samoa, and we need to see some change here.

Can I get some clarity on some of the other questions that you raised, just briefly? In terms of the dole, should people who get the dole be able to travel overseas? That’s a question you raised.

Should people be able to…?

Travel overseas if they get the dole?

Well, I think the point is this – if you’re in long-term welfare and we’re trying to move you onto jobs in a situation where you can work, where there is a job for you, should there be some things there, some tools, some levers-


…so, actually, they do go and do the job.

All right, so is that a yes or no?

Well, it’s a yes.

It’s a yes. Okay. They should be able to travel overseas, okay?

I think it’s a question in the document. We’re signalling it’s a question worth asking and answering. We want to hear what people say.

There’s more questions in the document you have.

There are situations where, you know what, where someone has been on welfare, the unemployment benefit, for a long period of time. We should be doing things to meaningfully move them off it. It’s better for them, and it’s better for the taxpayer.

This leads to my next question. Should there be a time limit on how long somebody gets the dole if they’re under 25?

Well, we’re saying there’s a good case for that.

Like, six months?

Yeah, I mean, that might be it. Whether it’s three months, whether it’s six months, the reality is it’s not kind to that person sitting there if they’re in long-term dependency. They, their whanau, their family, will have a much better life if they’re not on the benefit.

And you have mentioned that many times. I just want to carry on. Should the Best Start baby bonus be scrapped?

That’s a question we’re asking, and I think the reality is this – isn’t it much better to have targeted investment and assistance to those who really need it, rather than to many other people-?

So universal payments like the baby bonus, and also, say, the Winter Heating payment that everybody gets – should that go as well, then?

Well, is it a question about universal, which Jacinda Ardern and Grant Robertson clearly favour – throwing money at stuff whether you need it or not – or targeted assistance that gets to the heart of issues and really helps those that need it? Conceptually, I clearly favour the latter, but we are asking the question in relation to the baby bonus, because, you know, it’s significant money, and we could do a lot more good, potentially, if it was more targeted.

So, more on this, sort of, obligations and sanctions. Do you suggest parents should be held accountable if their child under 18 isn’t in an education, diploma or training? But how do you do that?

Well, I think the value proposition is this. If you’re under 18, you’re not in education, you’re not in employment, you’re not in training, is that good enough? I don’t think it is. We know, actually, from all the indicators that that’s going to lead to a life that’s actually not as good for your family.

So, how do you hold parents accountable to that?

So, we’re asking the question in relation to that. I’ve clearly already ruled out one or two things-

So, you’re not going to fine them, no?

Because I think the truth is there. Look, if you’re a 17-year-old, and you’re wayward, and your parents can’t control you, that’s not fair.

Okay. You talk about targets as well. You want us to reduce the number of children experiencing sexual and physical abuse. What is that target?

Well, I can’t set the target today. We’ve had them in the past, though. I think what we know, though-

Is it not just zero? Surely, zero is the only target-

But don’t we know whether it’s immunisation, whether it’s sexual violence, whether it’s other matters, targets do work. They send a signal, a direction, quite clearly to the agencies involved that they need to do something about this. Now, to answer your question direct, of course where we want to get to is zero, but is a more meaningful one something different to that to drive it down over time?

Does setting targets also encourage a culture of under-reporting, so you can meet those targets?

I don’t think so. Look, if you look at the last National government, there are a number of targets that weren’t met. I think that shows the, if you like, authenticity of those targets. It’s not a reason not to have them, though. I think we set quite clearly in the immunisation case, where under us immunisation went that way with the target. When the target was removed under this government… It’s gone down.

Is the whole point of this document to position yourself as hard on beneficiaries – to position yourself as different to where Labour is?

I think we are different. I think there’s no doubt about that. To use your words, do we have a firmer line on these issues than the Labour Party? I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. But I would just say very briefly two things to you – I believe it’s fair. I don’t think, actually, you can say this is punitive. We both have social investment, a huge amount of preventative work, whether it’s at the First 1000 Days of children, and the like, but also some of those obligations and accountabilities in place. And I make the point again, I think it’s very important. Labour isn’t working. What they have done has resulted in more poverty, more welfare dependency in two short years. We do need to look at doing different things.

Okay, all right. Is this just really a push to recapture some conservative votes that you lost in New Zealand first coming into election year?

No, I firmly believe in what we’re saying. I passionately believe, actually, that being on the dole, being on benefits long-term is no way to live, and we can have a society where we can have less of that, we have people in work with better outcomes for themselves, their family and their children.

Okay, and so it doesn’t mean that this is a play to distance yourself from New Zealand First and that you’re going to rule them out of any coalition deal next year?

(LAUGHS) It’s got nothing to do with that. New Zealand First may think a lot about National; we don’t think a whole lot about them.

Simon Bridges, thank you very much for your time.

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