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Q+A: Panel discussion transcripts (June 5)

Published: 9:31AM Tuesday June 07, 2011 Source: Q+A

In response to PAULA BENNETT interview

PAUL Time to welcome the panel. Good morning to Jon Johansson from the Victoria University; Christine Rankin, businesswoman and former chief executive of Work and Income; and also with us is Sue Bradford, former Green MP and welfare activist. It's very nice to see you all. Christine Rankin, we'll come to you first of all. What do you...? From listening to Paul Bennett, should beneficiaries be frightened?

CHRISTINE RANKIN - Former CEO Work and Income
 No, I don't think they should be frightened, but I understand that they would be. I think it's a huge opportunity. I think it's revolutionary. I think it's courageous, and I hope that they really do have the courage to do it.

PAUL So what did you take as the main thrust of what she was talking about?

CHRISTINE I think the main thrust is not wasting people's lives on benefit, and, you know, benefit does cast people into poverty. There's absolutely no doubt about that, and there's only one way out of poverty, and that's through work. And while that sounds easy, it's not. We've got to put the right processes in place, and from what I read and what I know about this, that's exactly what they're going to do. It's going to change a lot of things socially in New Zealand, and that needs to happen.

PAUL It's going to cost an enormous amount, though, isn't it? I mean to say, you're going to have to put a much greater machinery in place, though she says the machinery's there.

CHRISTINE Well, the machinery is there. It's how you use that machinery, and I think in the last few years, it hasn't been focussed on the things that it needs to be focussed on.

PAUL What do you think?

SUE BRADFORD - Former Green Party MP
 I'm very very frightened about what Paula Bennett and the government are proposing. It's the biggest shake-up in welfare since our system was established in the 1930s.

PAUL A shake-up is not necessarily bad, is it?

SUE No, our welfare system definitely needs reforming, and I've been doing my best to do that for the last 20, 30 years of my life. It's how you reform it, and first of all, we've got John Key and Paula Bennett creating a crisis that doesn't exist. There is no crisis in welfare. We have a crisis in unemployment, but not in welfare. And you keep asking her, "Where are the jobs?" She can't and doesn't answer that question, and yet they want to take 100,000 people with little babies, people who are sick, injured and disabled, they want to take 100,000 people and get them jobs, and yet we have 271,000 people jobless in Aotearoa right now according to last month's Household Labour Force Survey.

PAUL It's 155,000 people looking for work can't find it, isn't it?

SUE Yeah, and 271,000 jobless.

PAUL I took from that interview, Sue, that she's talking about - I mean, you pointed this out - ending waste, life waste.

SUE Absolutely.

PAUL Getting people on the benefit and abandoning them.

SUE That... Yes, and...

PAUL To the benefit.

SUE And I'd support any government that does more to help people with education, early childhood education, support, healthcare, alcohol and drug addiction services - all of that is fantastic.

PAUL She's talking about that.

SUE She is talking about that. The Rebstock Report talks about it. Great stuff. But what's behind it is the whole point of it is to try and push people off the benefit, to increase the harassment of people, forced work testing, forced work for the dole, increased sanctions...

PAUL OK. Christine, you're shaking your head.

CHRISTINE Well, we have got a crisis in welfare. In 1960, there was one in every 50 New Zealanders on benefits.

JON JOHANSSON - Political Analyst 
 Actually, can I just add a bit on whether this is a crisis or not?

PAUL  You dare interrupt these two?

JON It doesn't look like a crisis to me. It is a concern, and it's a fiscal concern, no doubt, and it's a human concern. But if you actually look at the numbers... You know, this is a very convenient figure of the 2% back in 1970 or whenever, but if you actually track it over the last three decades, what you see is, yes, with domestic purposes benefit and with national superannuation, that did lead to a greater percentage of New Zealanders on benefits. The real, you know, jump was really after the policy revolution of the '80s, and that's when you see it hit double figures for the first time - in 1990, right? 1988, and then in '90 it reaches a new plateau of around of around 14...

PAUL Well, it was a financial crisis again, of course.

JON Yeah, no, no, sure. But what I'm saying is that really one of the deeper lessons here is just how badly our policymakers have assisted New Zealanders in that transition from the old command economy to the post-'84 market-led one, because that is actually what the big numbers tell you. Sure, there is variation amongst individual benefits, as the Minister pointed out, but, you know, you bore down and have a look at that invalids cohort, Paul, and you try and convince me that there's half of them that should now be called job-seekers. That is just simply not the case, because a lot of these people, as you pointed out - IHC, you know, serious mental illnesses and what have you. It might be promising, but what's the shape of this thing?

CHRISTINE That's very easy to cover it up with statistics like that. We're talking about human beings. I lived through...

JON What that is called is empirical evidence, and that's what we would like to think our governments base their decisions on, right?

CHRISTINE I lived through 24 years of welfare. I worked in it. I lived it and breathed it, and I really cared about those people, and I saw people who had gone onto a benefit and thought they were stuck there for life. They had masses of talent, and it's about pressing the right buttons so they believe in themselves and they're going to go somewhere. In 2008, after 10 years of fantastic employment in this country, we went to one in 10 people on the benefit. We have got a crisis. Those people deserve better than what they've had - much better.

SUE And the horrible thing about all this - while we talk about statistics and Paula Bennett sugar-coats the pill, underneath, people's lives are at stake, and that's what I'm really worried about - what's going to happen here.

PAUL And every one of those statistics is a person.

JON And you can't just treat it as, you know, the welfare system in isolation to the education system, and as I guess we'll hear from Peter Gluckman later...

PAUL Yes, yes, yes. Now, the DPB. Now, there was a suggestion that mother having the second child on the DPB, that mother should be encouraged into some work or training at the baby being 14 weeks old. Government said absolutely no to that - nonsense. But one year for the second child - what do you think?

SUE I think it's atrocious. It's...

PAUL Come on, 15 hours a week is what they're talking about. Little bit of training, little bit of work.

Sue There's no understanding or acceptance in the Rebstock Report that, actually, bringing up babies and children is a full-time job, it's a worthy job and it's a job that needs to be done well. Harassing and forcing mothers out to work when their babies are 1 year or 3 years old is totally undesirable and unacceptable if we value at all the work of being a mother.

PAUL She's not talking ripping baby off the breast, is she?

CHRISTINE No, she's not. She's talking about giving training and opportunities to those people, to making sure that particularly young mothers have the support systems around them that they need. Look, we've got all kinds of social crises in New Zealand, and one of those is child abuse, which you know I have a particular interest in. There is no doubt that if we give those women, when they are young and vulnerable, the kind of support and parenting help and education that they need. We've got to turn some of that around.

PAUL What does that mean, though? What does that mean? Does someone come around every day into the house and start bossing you about?

CHRISTINE Well, I think that what the Rebstock Report is suggesting is that those young women have a support service that surrounds them, yes, absolutely. Not bossing you around, no - supporting your knowledge and information and ability to cope in that circumstance.

JON More active case management of individuals.

CHRISTINE Absolutely, yes.

SUE What a lot of people are missing in the Rebstock Report is that 14 weeks or 1 year doesn't just apply to young sole parents. It applies to any woman that's on the benefit and dares to have another child, because there will only be one benefit. There will be no more DPB.

PAUL I think middle New Zealand would say, "How dare she have another child when she's living on the benefit?"

CHRISTINE Absolutely, and there are women... everyday women who...

PAUL And, in fact, middle New Zealand is sick of it.

CHRISTINE And middle New Zealand women go back to work when their baby's a year old. Look, I do believe the bonding between a mother and a child is absolutely crucial and vital, but we need to face some facts about some of these mothers on benefit too. They don't meet their responsibilities. We've got children who are neglected. We've got a huge neglect rate in New Zealand. We have to do something about this, and this is one of the ways to help that change.

PAUL A lot of the feedback is supporting me in saying that - that people don't think that women on DPB should have a second child.

SUE And that's why there's such a wonderful election opportunity for National to start dog-whistling to the darkest, deepest part of the New Zealand psyche.

PAUL I don't see how that's the darkest, deepest...

SUE It is. This terrible...

PAUL Sue, the...

SUE ...onslaught against women who are doing their best to bring up children on their own.

PAUL Young mother has a second child. That means she's going to be on the benefit, out of the workplace, out of the mainstream of society for even longer and longer and longer. So what does that do for the kids?

SUE Most sole parents do a wonderful job in very difficult circumstances of bringing up their children, and I think all the statistics and research shows that this is just beneficiary bashing of the worst sort, and I really hate seeing you take part in it, Paul, I have to say.

JON Can I just say...?

SUE Encouraging it. Encouraging it. This terrible...

PAUL No, Susie, it's out there. It's been there for years.

CHRISTINE Beneficiary bashing is about keeping people on benefits. That's what bashes those people. It keeps them in poverty.

JON No, it's actually just manipulation of language, usually.

CHRISTINE I don't agree.

JON But I'll tell you what, the proof will be in the pudding here. Let's see. Cos who can possibly argue that we don't want to see our families and our welfare recipients doing better? But let's see what the shape of this thing is that's presented to the electorate in the campaign, cos there the truth will lie.

PAUL Just quickly, though, when you see seven ministers lining up at the barricades...

SUE It's pretty scary.

PAUL know something's coming.

JON Yeah.



In response to SIR PETER GLUCKMAN interview

PAUL There was so much in there to discuss. Why don't you start with the politics, because I was attacking him a bit on whether this is just gonna be another one of these doorstop reports that comes and goes. What do you think?

JON And he makes that point, that politics is one of the problems with, you know, like, an evidence-based approach. I think we're actually getting closer now than we have been for a generation in getting our heads around and accepting this idea that if we have our policy prism from the eyes of a 3-year-old child onwards, that is actually economically the most efficient way, it is the most beneficial use of state resources. The problem, of course... And because, you know, we have Annette King very much in this camp already.

PAUL I know, I know. She's done a lot of work, and she issued a statement very supportive, this week, of the Gluckman Report.

JON And what's fundamental about it is it is a serious re-engineering of it - not just our thinking, but of all the processes. And compared to the Bennett thing, which is still trying to, you know, essentially deal with the problems of those who have fallen off this cliff. This is designed to...

PAUL have no one go over the cliff.

JON Exactly.

PAUL Yeah, no, it's hard to disagree with any of this. What do you think, Christine?

CHRISTINE Oh, look, I absolutely agree with it, and I was very pleased to hear Dr Gluckman saying that it's working with parents as well, because when you boil it right down, this is a failure of parenting, and I think we've got to support parents to be able to do what they need to do. There are so many social pressures out there, and there is no doubt that we are in a lot of trouble in terms of our young people, socially. The problems are growing rapidly.

PAUL One of the points the report makes - I mean, it doesn't say this, but, I mean, parenting is one of the hardest jobs...

CHRISTINE Absolutely.

PAUL ...ever since we stood up and started wandering around as homo sapiens, I suppose, but particularly today. The report says we have no... we cannot, at our age, understand the social context in which adolescents are now progressing.

SUE We can do our best to try, and I think it's a great report, and I think it's particularly timely when Dr Gluckman talks about how critical evidence-based research is in terms of backing government policy. And really highlighting what's happening with the boot camps, which went through... I was on the select committee that dealt with that legislation. This is in the youth-justice area. There was only one submission I heard that was in support of boot camps, no evidence here or internationally that they work, and yet an ideologically driven government went ahead and did it. And now we have John Key actually confusing boot camps for youth offenders with what he calls boot camps for the young unemployed, which I think's atrocious. But the second thing, of course, that's happening is in the early childhood education area, where we have a government cutting funding, cutting access to early childhood education, particularly for low- and middle-income earners...


SUE ...which is going to have a terrible impact on that sector, and also the government's lack of commitment to quality early childhood education. And so it's going in the opposite direction to what Dr Gluckman is advising, which I think it'd be great if National woke up and listened to him.

PAUL Well, cos the other thing that Sir Peter Gluckman was bringing up was targeting versus universality. I mean, does a decile-8 kid need early childhood education, really, as much as a decile-1 child does, who may be in trouble at home, you know? I mean, if you grow up in the countryside and you're wandering around and you're playing on riverbeds and so forth and you're catching eels and you've got your little boat and whatever, do you need early childhood education?

CHRISTINE No, well, I think that's the area where we could certainly make some changes. I think that parents that are in that particular socio-economic group do everything for their children. They try to provide them with every possible opportunity, because they're in a financial position to do so. So there are some changes that can be made there. We do need to target the need.

PAUL Would you have a problem with some targeting? I mean, surely your sympathies are for the decile-1.

SUE Yes, but the sort of targeting I'd like to see is more quality childhood education provided in area like Manurewa and other areas where there's a severe lack of childcare centres, or where those centres are being accessed by the middle class, so that low-income children actually have access to ECE in the first place. But I actually believe in universality. I think it was a great principle that Labour brought in - the 20 hours free access across the board. And I note we have this wonderful support in this country for universal superannuation, but we don't apply those universal principles to children. You talk about doing all our policy through the eyes of children. Exactly. That's what we should be doing, and children in poverty, we should be doing the best we can, and the whole Working for Families debacle is a classic example of even a Labour government being so discriminating against the children of beneficiaries that they wipe out a whole level of income for those kids.

JON You simply need variegated solutions in the 21 century.

PAUL But Paula Bennett's talking about flexibility.

JON But that runs head into the wall called politics, because remember Closing the Gaps, which was entirely about targeting.

PAUL And set Labour up as a target for the right.

JON Yeah, exactly.

PAUL Yes, yes, yes. Right.

SUE Right is right.

PAUL  Quick comment from you. What was the other thing I was going to bring up on this, as a matter of fact? Oh, interesting. One of the things they're talking about with, you know, the importance of this age of 3. Really focusing on that age of 3 so that kids have self-control and resilience - in other words, survivability - in risk situations when they enter adolescence. Gee, it sounds good.

CHRISTINE It does sound good, and it's a very difficult thing to achieve. You can look at families, and one child in a family will have resilience and three others will not. It's a very hard thing to figure, because they're being brought up in exactly the same way, and it's a hard thing to get right.





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