Joe Hendren

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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Labour is complicit in National's work-for-the-dole madness

The Standard highlights the likely implications of National welfare spokesperson inviting an Australian work-for-dole 'provider' to visit New Zealand. National plans to give them business by introducing work for the dole if it becomes the Government.

While Collins adopts the key approach of 'deny deny deny', Mission Australia's chief executive is keen to cross the Tasman.

Steve Pierson at the Standard is right when he describes work-for-the-dole as a nice sounding slogan that does not work in practice. In adopting such a policy "National is following ideology, rather than doing what makes sense."

But there is a problem with this analysis. The fact is that Labour adopted significant assumptions of the underlying ideology behind work-for-the-dole when they passed the Social Security Amendment Act. I have blogged on similar issues before. As Louise Humpage and Susan St John point out this amendment changed the fundamental purpose of the Social Security Act.

"[T]he Social Security Amendment Bill wipes away any notion that our social security system is about ensuring everyone can participate as citizens. Instead, it makes getting people into a job, any job, the fundamental duty of citizenship. This principle is baldly stated “Work in paid employment offers the best opportunity for people to achieve social and economic well-being”.

Even worse, the new Act allows for pre-benefit activity to be completed before a person can even apply for an Unemployment Benefit. So thanks to Labour, National will not even have to change the law to bring in work-for-the-dole, they can just pass a regulation to require registration for make-work schemes as part of 'pre-benefit' activity.

It is an irony that the right make so much of the 'excess' jobs offered by NZ Rail prior to corporatisation in the 1980s, when these jobs where of far more value to society than the neo-liberal work-for-the dole schemes, of the late 1990s, and of the early 1930s. In his book 'The Slump' historian Tony Simpson described how this philosophy and practice failed to address the demands of the depression.

"By and large it reflected the 19th century viewpoint that anything for nothing would be instantly exploited by the unscrupulous and feckless poor. The circumstances of giving must be unpleasant as possible and it must never amount to more than the lowest wage available otherwise it will encourage sloth."

The 1930 Unemployment Act provided for a sustenance payment of 21 shillings a week to unemployed men, with an additional 17s and 6p for a wife, and 4 shillings per child (even though working women contributed, they were not eligible). This was financed by a poll tax - in effect it was a compulsory insurance scheme.

"These rates were never paid. Instead, the unemployed were referred to local authorities, which were instructed to provide work and granted subsidies from taxation with which to pay the workers involved. A stern instruction accompanied this scheme. No one was to be given payment unless they actually reported for work. This led to ludicrous, even scandalous, situations where local authorities scrambled to create work which was clearly unnecessary or even useless (such as shifting sandhills from place to place)."


If local authorities could not create work payment was withheld. Despite this example being from the 1930s it still demonstrates the weaknesses of a work-for-the-dole policy, and how it can lead to further retrenchment. The work involved is either going to replace genuine jobs or it is not. If not, this can only mean sandhills. If a government (or a private provider) is inclined to cut 'benefit' costs further, restricting the amount of 'work' available becomes a very handy way to do this.

Its not just the Social Security Amendment Act. Consider Sue Braford's analysis of Steve Maharey's 'Jobs Jolt' policy from 2004.

"In this context, for those people who are living in poverty, on wages and benefits which aren’t enough to sustain a remotely decent standard of living, the ‘Jobs Jolt’ means little more than increased harassment by the State in a situation where there are still far from enough jobs to go around....This is why I view the ‘Jobs Jolt’ and the thinking behind it as intrinsically right wing, fundamentally unjust from a social equity perspective, and a clear signal that Labour is far keener on picking up votes from the beneficiary-bashing part of the political spectrum than it is from low income workers, unemployed people and beneficiaries, and those who support their right to jobs and a living wage.... Overall, I sense that the Government’s lurch to the Right on welfare as epitomised by the ‘Jobs Jolt’ is a product of their lack of any cohesive ideology or coherent thinking about solutions to structural unemployment, endemic poverty, a failed, fractured welfare system and an entrenched and increasing gap between rich and poor in Aotearoa New Zealand. "

In other words, the circumstances of giving must be unpleasant. If the Nats introduce work-for-the-dole it will be a logical extension of Labour's own policy, or perhaps lack of one. If Labour had wished to vanquish work-for-the-dole to the historical dustbin it belongs, perhaps it should have made more effort to challenge the neo-Victorian attitudes underlying the ideology of work-for-the-dole.

In 1938 Labour's proposed Social Security Bill was the centrepiece of its election campaign. The National party called it 'applied lunacy', a bribe and a cheat. Labour not only won a majority, it won a majority of the votes cast - a first in New Zealand history.

Note: Made a small edit when I established Mission Australia are technically a charity rather than a private company. That will teach me for blogging too late at night. If National devolves welfare delivery to the charities sector it will like going back to a pre-1930s situation!

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