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Q+A: The Panel on child poverty

Published: 2:39PM Sunday November 03, 2013 Source: Q+A

SUSAN Welcome back to the panel - Claire Robinson, Mike Williams and Matthew Hooton. Cross-party support for childhood poverty. Matthew, the Minister's just said basically the fundamental differences are too profound between National and Labour, for starters.

MATTHEW HOOTON - Political Commentator
I've heard over 20 years in politics everything being called 'so important' that there shouldn't be politics in it and there should be a cross-party accord, whether it's superannuation or housing or even economic growth or education. And, actually, I think that's a bit of an insult to voters. Often it's Wellington bureaucrats who will say, 'Oh, the issue we work on is too important for politics.' But the people of New Zealand get to decide between the two general philosophies to an issue like this and, broadly speaking, it's one. Because when you read the report - the Jonathan Boston report - basically it says bureaucrats should write a plan, economists like him should set up some measures and the government should have more welfare-ism. Well, that's one view, but there's no particular evidence that welfare-ism cures poverty. Welfare-ism is a cause of poverty, and the only thing in the end that will deal with poverty is, and hopefully we're getting towards it, is sustained strong economic growth and falling unemployment.

SUSAN Well, it doesn't sit well, Mike, does it? I mean, the numbers are huge. Even the Minister's numbers are 150,000 to 270,000.

MIKE WILLIAMS - Former Labour Party President
Yeah, it's a tragedy. It's a human tragedy. But I just recall about 10 or 15 years ago I had a conversation with a president of one of the Scandinavian social democratic parties, and what she said to me, and this is a country with a really advanced welfare state, that there seemed to be about five per cent of people who you could not move out of poverty. And I think that's the kind of thing we're up against, but I think the focus should be very much on the children living in poverty. And I don't think there's any silver bullet. I think the Helen Clark Labour Government tried a lot of stuff - early childhood education, free doctor's visits - and National's talking about, you know, putting food into schools. I think it's something you've got to chip away at, because the fact of the matter is these kids who live in poverty, a lot of them end up the most expensive beneficiaries we've got in this country, who are prison inmates at $92,000 per person per year. So we've got to keep chipping at the problem.

SUSAN I think there's, Claire, a political understanding around that, actually. I was chatting to the Minister after that, and she talked about they do the numbers for beneficiaries and women on domestic purposes benefit, and there aren't as many as everybody thinks, I suspect. Well, actually, I know. But you can talk about a woman who'll maybe do 45 years, and the cost is absolutely enormous. So they're getting this cost up front to get these women off it and to get them into meaningful work, as good for them and good for their kids to get the example too.

DR CLAIRE ROBINSON - Political Scientist
I think the interesting thing about this as an issue is that politically it should be something that the Labour Party is really gunning for over the next 12 months. It isn't a strength of this government. You know, what we heard from Paula Bennett is great, and there clearly are good-news stories, but they don't tend to get into the press, because it's just not newsworthy. But I think that there is this perception out there that this government isn't as kind-

SUSAN Uncharitable was the word.

CLAIRE Yeah, to people in situations of poverty, and that would be, if I was the Labour Party, that would something that I would be exploiting over the next 12 months. Interestingly, in David Cunliffe's written speech, he used the word 'poverty' three times and 'inequality' only once or no times, so it wasn't something that he had really picked up on as being a focus, but I think that that's the error. You know, National is a bit worried about its support from younger mothers, women in their 30s. This is what those touch points- that really impacts on them. If you were Labour and you were looking for some new votes, those are the issues-

SUSAN Nodding in agreement there, Mike?

MIKE Absolutely. Claire's actually hit the nail on the head. I recall that when the gender gap disappeared and John Key arrived, Labour was in trouble. And this is the kind of hot-button issue when can restore that gender gap back and put John Key back in trouble.

MATTHEW And Paula Bennett can win that argument if she's given, by the party's strategist, enough exposure to talk about the things she's doing. Because, in fact, her policies can easily be portrayed, and, in fact, I think, in substance are more genuinely caring than those of her opponents. For example, she talks about, but she didn't mention in the interview, the way that they're going more strongly to actually ring beneficiaries and say, 'What are the barriers to you getting a job? It's there more the Government can do to help you?' And that's what led to this dramatic improvement - 3000 people in a quarter going from welfare to work. And she needs to get out and sell that, because Labour's against all that stuff. Labour, when it was announced in the Budget that there was going to be more active case management of beneficiaries, said it was unkind and bullying, when, of course, the only way the state can genuinely care about you is not by giving you cash but by ringing you and trying to help you if you're in that situation. The family we saw where there were nine children in that house - the mother we saw before the clip has nine children. There's also three grandchildren. There's 12 children in that family.

SUSAN Some of them left, I think.

MATTHEW Nobody believes, surely, that there's any way for that household to move from poverty through welfare-ism. It has to get out of welfare-ism. People in that community, in that family have to get jobs.

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