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Classic "us and them" politics

opinion

By Q+A producer Tim Watkin

Published: 3:38PM Wednesday March 31, 2010 Source: ONE News

It's one of New Zealand's great myths.

No, not the moa roaming the remote New Zealand bush yarn. And, no, not even the unmitigated nonsense that suggests the Moeraki boulders are ancient Chinese cannonballs. I'm not even talking about the persistent but repeatedly disproven belief that the Moriori were a separate people who were driven from New Zealand by arriving, all-conquering Maori.

The great myth I'm referring to is the idea promoted on radio talkback, in the letters sections of many papers and around too many pub tables, that New Zealand is over-run by benefit bludgers living off hard-working Kiwis.

This government likes to talk about benefits as a "lifeline not a lifestyle", as if $190 a week is living high on the hog. Social Development Minister Paula Bennett spoke in the House last week about "the rising tide of welfare dependency [that] threatens to mortgage our children's and grandchildren's future", suggesting a flood of bludgers.

It's classic "us and them" politics and it's just not true.

The number of people on the unemployment benefit has risen again since the credit crunch of 2007, but it has fallen and stayed at record lows during the good, early years of this century, providing evidence that most people want to work, given the chance.

You ever wondered how many people have been on the dole for a year or more? That's a good starting place if we're trying to figure out how many bludgers are out there, right? Well, it's just over 11,000. That's one third of 1% of the working age population, and some of them will be decent battlers who have just had no luck finding a job, such as this guy.

One third of 1% hardly represents a rising tide of lay-abouts, ready to swamp our ship of state. But hang on, haven't we heard that many on the dole simply migrated across to the sickness or invalid's benefit in recent years? There's some truth in that, but the rise has been pretty steady since 1990 - through the lifetime of several governments - peaking whenever the economy headed south.

And there's no reason to assume that those who have moved across are scamming the system. Of the 28,701 people who have been on the sickness benefit for a year or more, 40% of them have psychological or psychiatric conditions. Given that we have to run ad campaigns to reassure New Zealanders that even people with depression, let alone more serious mental health issues, can be good workers, does that number seem outlandishly large to you?

Adding in the fact that we have a growing and ageing population, I'd hardly characterise the numbers as a flood. In total, we're still only talking about a few percent of the New Zealand population, and it seems reasonable to me to think that there will always be a few percent of folk who can't find work, or are unable to work, for whatever reason.

What I find harder to swallow is a Minister who on the back end of a recession goes on television and says that she believes "there's a job for everyone". As Paul Henry puts it, that's cloud cuckoo land.

Am I saying that no-one in New Zealand is exploiting the welfare state? Of course not. There are those at the bottom of our society willing to rip-off their fellow citizens, just as there are those at the top willing to do the same.

But it's surely worth putting up with a few bludgers for the sake of all the decent folk - and their children - who avoid poverty as a result of such state support. Just ask our Prime Minister.

Tim Watkin is a producer for TVNZ's Q+A programme. Q+A screens live from 9.00am on Sundays on TV ONE.

Read more of Tim Watkin's blogs .

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