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Dunne Speaks: No jab, no pay - no way

The current “no jab, no pay” debate is provoking strong public reactions, for and against the idea. National Party leader Simon Bridges says his party is promoting removing benefit payments from parents who refuse to vaccinate their children as just a talking point, rather than firm policy, at this stage, but is getting a positive reaction from voters to the idea. New National candidate Christopher Luxon has gone one step further and mused about extending the concept to apply more widely, including to those in receipt of Working for Families tax credits.

The idea is not a new one. At its heart is the concept that the payment of welfare assistance should not be open-ended and without obligations, and that those in receipt of welfare assistance have some sort of reciprocal obligation to the state. In this instance, fuelled by the burgeoning measles crisis, the vaccination issue is an obvious one to target. But it is by no means the only “obligation” and, if the idea finds wide favour, there is no reason to believe other “obligations” could not be added from time to time, as the mood suited.

In the late 1990s, the Shipley Government more overtly promoted a “Code of Social Responsibility” which covered much of the ground the current debate is likely to regurgitate. In the event, after a period, the idea was quietly abandoned. The concept behind it has, however, never quite disappeared, and it has, for example, been a cornerstone of much of the ACT Party’s approach to social policy since then. It was canvassed very briefly during the previous National-led government at the time when the Better Public Service targets were being developed, but there was little enthusiasm for going any further.

There is good reason for this historical reluctance. While the idea of “obligation” might now hold superficial attraction, it is very difficult to imagine how it could be applied evenly or equitably. Nor was it ever part of the original deal when the Social Security Act was passed in 1938. At the time, Michael Joseph Savage’s ambition was unequivocal and open-ended. “I want to see humanity secure against poverty, secure in illness or old age,” he said, without qualification.

Given the universal nature of social security, and the broad political consensus surrounding it for most of the last 80 years, it is very hard to see how any sense of qualification can now be introduced to it, let alone applied even-handedly, or even sustained into the future. Although the suggestion of linking benefit payments to child vaccination might be a topical issue, the problem becomes what to do when the next topical issue comes along. And where should the line be drawn? After all, there are many things the majority might consider desirable – pre-school education, regular health checks, literacy and numeracy skills, to name a few. So, what is there to stop the “obligation” line being steadily extended to include these worthy objectives, and others that might come to mind? Or, going down the Luxon path, and making Working for Families tax credits, or even veterans’ allowances and New Zealand Superannuation similarly conditional?

But why stop there? After all, attaining these social objectives is just as important for all wage and salary earners, whether or not they are receiving any state-derived income support. So why not introduce a similar sort of obligation test for them? But how it could possibly be made to work? In short, it quickly becomes a nonsense, far removed from the original Savage objective.

And it is all so one-sided. There seems to be no parallel suggestion that similar “obligations” ought to exist on the state as its reciprocity for the tax it collects from its citizens. No political party is suggesting, for example, that the government should be obliged to provide adequate housing to all citizens, or unfettered access to a free, universal 24-hour healthcare system. They are certainly the types of things we reasonably expect from our governments, which we hold them to account for at the ballot box for either delivering or not delivering, but there is no contractual obligation on them to do so, nor would we seriously expect it. Rather, the obligation is a moral and realistic one, based on the consent of the public and the circumstances of the time.

Indeed, were there to be such a push, political parties would not unreasonably emphasise the immense practical difficulties in doing so, consistently or fairly. Nevertheless, they would all pledge to do their best, and leave the electorate to judge whether that was adequate enough to earn continued support. It is about aspiration, rather than dictation.

It should be the same with regard to individual citizens. Governments should not impose obligations on them that they are not prepared to impose on themselves. While it is more than highly desirable that parents vaccinate their children, and that the anti-vax argument is exposed for the nonsense that it is, the outcome cannot be achieved by compulsion. Education, social cajoling and community pressure are usually far more effective in bringing about lasting social and attitudinal change, than heavy handed state intervention. Just the sort of thing the National Party of old was about, when it used to attack the “social engineers” of the left for promoting dull and rigid conformity, and not just letting people get on with their own lives.

While the debate the National Party says it is now engendering on this issue should be viewed positively, it should not be overlooked that it is a convenient smokescreen, giving the impression of resolving a problem that has not yet been shown to exist. Moreover, notwithstanding that such an approach is another lift from the Scott Morrison playbook National seems so obsessed with these days, it is highly unlikely an actual “no jab, no pay” policy will eventually be adopted, let alone extended as per the Luxon formula. Bluntly, the reasons this type of approach has so far never got off the ground remain as compelling today as they always have been.

But, in the meantime, National will be more than happy with the publicity this latest iteration of an old, new idea is attracting.

ends

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