Monday, August 11, 2008

Beating up on the poor

National released its welfare policy today, and it marks a significant divergence from their current election strategy. Where so far they have sought to minimise their differences with Labour by promising to maintain the status quo, on this issue they have returned to the good old 90's policy of beating up on the poor. Solo mothers on the DPB (who according to Key are "breeding for a business") will be forced into work at the expense of their kids, the long-term unemployed will be forced to reapply (presumably in the hope that some will forget) and face the ongoing threat of having their benefits cut off, and those malingerers on the sickness and invalids benefits will be work-tested. Dying of cancer? On a waiting list for medical care? Not good enough, sorry. I guess they must be going for the nasty vote.

(And here's a question for National supporters: does it ever worry you that your party thinks you are such a nasty person? Because that's implicitly what this policy - and last election's all-out attack on Maori - are saying. National thinks you are racist, selfish, and approve of kicking the poor, and that it will gain your vote by promising policies which will do exactly that. If I was a National supporter, I'd be offended by their characterisation of me...)

About the only positive step is an increase in the amount beneficiaries can earn without affecting their benefit from $80 to $100/week. But while its a good move, it doesn't go far enough - the additional earnings threshold has eroded significantly over time, and should be pegged to changes in the minimum wage (which would put it at $150/week), not the CPI.

The Greens have already nailed them on the DPB policy, pointing out that a 2001 report by the Ministry of Social Development, Evaluating the February 1999 Domestic Purposes Benefit and Widows Benefit Reforms: Summary of key findings [PDF] found that forcing people on the DPB into work frequently made them worse off, particularly after childcare costs were taken into account, and produced child welfare problems. If the aim is to ensure that the children of solo parents do well and are able to become productive members of society, then this is not a good plan. But that's not the aim; instead, the point of National's policy is to stigmatise the poor for electoral gain (Maori being off limits this year), while trying to lower labour costs for the benefit of their big business mates.

This is simply bad policy, particularly in an economic downturn when people are going to be needing the state more than ever to insulate them from outside shocks. It failed in the 90's, and it will fail now. It is almost certainly bad politics as well. By dredging up failed policy from the 90's, National has shown that their thinking is still firmly mired in the past, and raised the prospect that they will resurrect other policies from that era as well. But most importantly, they've fatally undermined their small-target "me too" strategy of echoing Labour and preserving the status quo, signalling clearly that despite the fresh smile, they're still a nasty, vicious party underneath. And that will cost them among the very centrist voters they were trying to reassure.

Unlike the National Party, I don't believe the voters of New Zealand are nasty, racist, selfish people who approve of kicking the poor. After the 80's and 90's, we all know we can end up there.