The Weight Of Their Shackles: Responding to the Research of Professor Darrin Hodgetts.



DARRIN HODGETTS is the Professor of Societal Psychology at the University of Waikato. On 17 September, he delivered the keynote address to the Public Health Association of Australia’s annual conference in Melbourne. The title of his address was “Addressing Social Determinants of Health: Structural Violence and the Psychology of Welfare Reform in New Zealand”

In the course of his address, Professor Hodgetts provided his audience with examples of the treatment meted out to New Zealand citizens by the Ministry of Social Development’s (MSD) Work & Income Division (WINZ). One woman, whose young son had been struck by a car, told him:

“After my son’s accident, we went straight from rehab to WINZ. I needed a food grant… He was all bandaged up and not quite with it. We saw a WINZ worker who asked “why do you need help?” “Look at my son”… He still had the drip in his hand. I told him what had happened to him. My son sat there listening to it all and started crying like a baby cos he got scared because I started raising my voice. I felt quite degraded to the point that this WINZ worker turned around and said, “Wasn’t he looking when he crossed the road?”… I walked out with nothing.”

One of the many questions that need to be asked and answered in relation to this incident – and dozens of others like it – is simply: “Why haven’t we heard about any of this?”

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Because it’s not just a matter of us needing to know why people acting in our name, and paid for out of our taxes, are treating our fellow citizens with such cruelty. The presence of such extreme bureaucratic misconduct in one of this country’s largest ministries is evidence that structural violence has become a central repressive feature of the MSD’s institutional culture.

But, for physical and/or emotional violence to become endemic in any institution the following preconditions must first be present: a rigid and self-protective hierarchy entrusted with a difficult and often dangerous mission; unmistakeable signals from the top of the hierarchy that in fulfilment of its mission certain kinds of misbehaviour will be (unofficially) tolerated; the absence of retribution following extreme instances of misconduct; high levels of confidence that no one outside the institution will uncover what’s happening inside it; and the instant and vicious punishment of anyone attempting to expose the institution’s secrets.

What is so deeply disturbing about Professor Hodgett’s revelations is that they make it very clear that structural violence has migrated beyond the institutions of repression with which it has, historically, been most closely associated: the armed forces; the police; and all forms of mandatory custodial care (prisons, mental institutions, orphanages) and into the MSD – a state agency specifically created to offer care and support to citizens in need.

Clearly, those in need of society’s care and support have somehow been redefined as those in need of its repression and control.

Those who society deems most deserving of repression and control are usually the individuals and groups of whom it is most afraid: women; gays; adolescent males (boy racers!); the victims of colonial conquest; criminals; people suffering from mental illnesses and other disabilities; and now – all those whose abject levels of material and social deprivation lay moral claim to the material resources of those more fortunate than themselves: those with more than enough to share.

History attests that there is only one effective way to reduce the fear that fuels the hate which sanctions social repression – and that is to make us empathise with those whose conditions of life and/or behaviour so appal and alarm us.

Where would the abolitionist movement have been without William Wilberforce’s passionate lectures, or Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin? How could Great Britain’s barbaric penal system have been reformed without the investigations of Elizabeth Fry? Could the civil rights activists of the 1960s have counted on such a reservoir of Northern indignation without Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird? Would such grim institutions as Cherry Farm, Porirua and Carrington have been decommissioned so easily without Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest?

It is recorded that Wilberforce’s most powerful method of persuasion was to pass among his listeners the iron chains and collars that the Africans sold into slavery were forced to wear. The sheer weight of these grim implements and the roughness of their casting brought home as no words could the reality of human bondage. People could imagine them chafing their ankles, wrists and necks. They wondered how anyone could possibly sleep in such pain and discomfort. Once their imagination had visited even this far into the hell of “The Middle Passage” indifference to the slave trade was no longer an option.

“Wasn’t he looking when he crossed the road?”

Not all shackles are made of iron. Not all wounds bleed. Professor Hodgett’s research exposes the vicious structural violence of WINZ and its employees, and through the words of his research subjects permits us to feel the cruelty and injustice of a state agency whose unstated purpose – though no less real for being so – is to drive already hurting and desperate people off the welfare rolls.

The Government congratulates itself that its welfare “reforms” have already saved the taxpayer $3 billion. Professor Hodgett’s has shown us how.

What New Zealand desperately needs is its own William Wilberforce; its own Harper Lee and Ken Kesey: someone to popularize Professor Hodgett’s research; someone with the eloquence to make us feel the weight and the roughness of the shackles we have sat back and allowed the likes of Paula Rebstock and Paula Bennett to fasten around the lives and the loved ones of hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens.

“Wasn’t he looking when he crossed the road?”

Just imagine that little boy was your own.


  1. Thank you, Chris. From a pensioner who has gone from a well-paid occupation to loss of work and loss of home, and must try to live on a paltry sum. I despair for the poor families in similar situations trying to raise children, or deal with illness. The Dept. of Social Welfare has become heinously punishing under the direction of Key’s Bennett puppet.

  2. Recall the culture within the IRD (The Inland Revenue Department) a few years ago. Anyone who was deemed to owe taxes to the IRD was hunted down with the implacability and malice of an Azkaban dementor. Alleging lack of discretionary powers (yeah, right: I’ll come to that), the IRD saw instances of bills for a few hundreds or thousands ballooning into tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars. Staffers claimed bragging rights when harassed clients sought relief in suicide. Remember that?

    Of the lack of the discretionary power to waive all or some of the taxes owing didn’t stop the IRD allowing the Messrs Fay and Richwhite et al to get away with hundreds of millions of back taxes, as revealed in the Winebox affair (check out Tony Molloy, Thirty Pieces of Silver).

    All MSD staffers who treat the people they face in such an unfeeling and malicious manner are behaving unprofessionally and deserve, if this behaviour persists, to find themselves on the other side of the counter, just to see (remember) what it’s like. If their bosses condone this culture, let alone authorize it, they deserve even worse. Hanging’s too good for such slime. It would be nice were some legal personage of great mana could gather enough clients and bring pro bono a class action against the MSD and the Government.

    • One major problem is that the WINZ staff are largely told to do as they do in most cases. Another problem is they often cover each other, and support each other, and rather “dish out” the “tough medicine” (as they probably see it), which is more “abuse” than medicine, to the affected out there.

      Many working for MSD do not have that much sympathy, as some have known about the odd one taking advantage of the welfare system and somehow get support they may not have deserved. As a consequence too many of the staff then tend to throw all into the same drawer, and pre-judge applicants or existing beneficiaries.

      So as a result virtually all beneficiaries are viewed and treated like suspected “welfare fraudsters”, living at the expense of the taxpayer, to which group the WINZ worker naturally count themselves.

      I believe though that there are honest and decent WINZ workers also, but government policy dictates to them as public servants, to do as they are told.

      • You are quite Marc: this is simply Government policy. It wasn’t that much better under Labour. The bad part is that the useless folk that purport to be leading this country haven’t the ‘nads to face up to the real unemployment levels in this (or any other) country, much less to bethink themselves of what those figures might mean, and what might be done about them.

        The plain fact is that the private sector cannot absorb these numbers into its workforce. Nor is there any compelling reason why it should. But everyone is entitled to a living (yes, they goddam are: to think otherwise is to be a monster willing to consign vast numbers of people to homeless, naked, starvation) Bear in mind, that is not to imply that there should be no obligation to work for it. As the private sector can not be expected to provide it, the State must.

        I’m not necessarily talking ‘dole’ here, nor ‘work for the dole’. The State must do one of two things: create work/jobs for at least a living income; or formalise what is now often ‘voluntary work’ into a paid job attracting an income. Yes, that implies huge levels of Government spending. No it does not necessarily mean the country living ‘beyond its means’, not if it’s done right.

        The author of F.D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, was no ‘lefty.’ He was a prominent capitalist, a billionaire in the 1930s, withal, yet he knew where his wealth came from (the workers) and said as much. He also knew that a healthy economy relied not on the amount of money kicking around, but its volatility. It had to move, and it had to move fast. How to do that? Make sure the masses, upon whom the ‘consumer economy’ depended, had money to spend. The Government had to supply the shortfall in private sector employment.

        You have heard, I dare say the claptrap (Milton ‘Why, God, did you have to inflict this plonker upon the planet’ Friedman) that millionaire and billionaire types should be rewarded even more than they were (which must have broadened the supercilious grins upon the visages of those gentry) as they contributed more to the economy in terms of spending as well as producing.

        Leaving aside the question of what the likes of J.P. Morgan or Citibank actually produces, it seems to me that the millions spending their ‘widow’s mites’ on a weekly or daily basis, and spend it on actual stuff, would contribute more to the volatility of an economy than any kind of fat cat. But Milton Friedman was profoundly ignorant not only of the real world, but even of the reality his discipline purported to model (whatever neo-classical economics depicts, it ain’t how a real, dynamic economy actually works. Unfortunately, the politicians he and his kind advised and continue to advise, don’t know this, and business people, knowing better, try to take advantage of the stupidities inflicted upon the rest of us in the name of economic purity. Look: Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson and their followers in this country deserved to be tarred, feathered and run out of the country on a rail for the horrific damage they have wrought. John Key is leading us down the same path).

        Lacking in the moral courage to face up to and act upon the responsibilities they were elected to shoulder, Governments hysterically lay the blame upon the people who have to bear the consequences of Government moral cowardice, callous indifference and criminal incompetence.

        Sometimes I wonder if these Governments aren’t secretly hoping to ride upon the coattails of whatever neo-fascist movement will arise from the situation nationally and globally. Much good may it do them.

  3. Before we get our own William Wilberforce, Harper Lee or Ken Kesey we will have Cameron Slater demanding Paula Bennett be canonised or at least bestowed with a dame hood.

    • Hang on Peter, isn’t he actually on a sickness benefit though? Is it some bizarre form of self hatred that drives the poor insect man?

  4. “One of the many questions that need to be asked and answered in relation to this incident – and dozens of others like it – is simply: “Why haven’t we heard about any of this?” Because it’s not just a matter of us needing to know why people acting in our name, and paid for out of our taxes, are treating our fellow citizens with such cruelty. The presence of such extreme bureaucratic misconduct in one of this country’s largest ministries is evidence that structural violence has become a central repressive feature of the MSD’s institutional culture.”

    I can tell you why we do not hear about what affects so many on benefits. They are the weakest, the truly suppressed, the broken, the shattered, the shamed, the harassed, the persecuted and thus emotionally, psychologically and indirectly physically abused and damaged by the welfare policies that have been followed by the present government since already 2010!

    The ones affected are too intimidated, too scared to raise their voices, as they fear that biting the hand that feeds them will lead to even worse outcomes and more suffering. I am sure you read the last contribution here by Sue Bradford and about AAAP’s Impact Action at the New Lynn WINZ office. They found shocking realities, and the few who dared to speak out, they asked to be filmed only from the back, and have their faces and so concealed.

    Beneficiaries are now the most discriminated group in this society, after “Asians” used to fare worse before.

    We have also institutions like MSD and Work and Income as their biggest department, who keep any issues that may arise under the carpet, so to say, as actions are swift to stop them being taken further, especially to the wider public. So in many cases problems are “resolved” by internal reviews, and if that does not work, only then do they get taken to the Social Security Appeal Authority or Medical Board (the latter for medical related issues).

    Mostly WINZ will somehow succeed, and to even go that far and take them on, is a battle, that few will dare to start.

    The staff are also told to keep their mouthes shut, so little ever comes out about internal issues that may go beyond the beneficiaries affected, and that may be rather system or staff related.

    Re medical assessments the whole system is strongly leaning to the favour of WINZ and their staff, as their Principal Health Advisor (Dr David Bratt) got away for years by likening benefit dependence to “drug dependence”. He is still in his job and still uses other one sided, questionable information and statistics, to justify pressuring sick and disabled into work. Their designated doctors are largely biased also, and they have their conditions placed on them, to look at any hypothetical activity a sick or disabled “can do”, rather than what they “cannot do”.

    What appalls me most is the indifference of the bulk of the mainstream media, not even reporting on all these scandalous developments, and what is happening to people that fall through the net and cannot keep up with the battle for survival. Where are you journalists, the editors in charge, and the shareholders of the mostly corporate media we now have? Why do you hide the truth from us and do not shine light on what goes on? Are you still clinging to your “love affair” with John Key and this government, or do you not wish to destroy the also largely biased impression by the public, that beneficiaries deserve none else, as they are all “lazy” “bludgers”?

    The truth is more like this:

  5. This opinion piece raises the interesting question – are very few writers, visual artists, playrights engaging with contemporary social realism in New Zealand, and if not, why not?

    In the visual arts of which I am most well versed, the present political and social tensions etc are vitually ignored. Bill Hammond, one of New Zealand’s most financially successful contemporary artists, and most other high profile New Zealand artists seem to be completely disengaged.

    • Some artists, and certainly most journalists and writers, may simply come from the “middle class” and only know of the suffering from third parties, or from hearsay, if at all. Others want to wipe the dust of their “lesser” backgrounds off their shoes as quickly as they can.

      Like the media, it seems the arts are nowadays primarily pre-occupied and focused on pleasing the potential urban middle-class spectators, who themselves do not wish to hear dreadful stories and dramatised work on this. They prefer to be distracted, by whatever.

      Look at the contests on televisions, for best cooks, best singing or other talent, it has all become too “mainstream”, and is mostly directed at what I mentioned, and the participants want to step into the shoes of idolised overseas “stars” and “heroes”.

      I am sure it also has a lot to do with who bothers to finance the arts, same as the media. They simply are not interested in social realism, unless it is commercially sell-able.

    • I’m not disengaged and I am an artist… The problem according to me is most N.Z ‘Top Artists’ are institutionally manufactured, they only do what some teacher gave them an A+ for… or they are an institutional art teacher/gate keeping, and being paid an institutional wage not living off their art at all like a real artist has too.. all the wanna be artists will brown nose these bloated egocentric wankers to get through the system….( I find it a total oxymoron that artists need an institution at all) ….., Then you need to read a huge essay about what the art ‘actually’ means written with ridiculous art jargon, you would think they are trying to take the piss it can be so unbelievably ridiculous). Then you have to deal with an art dealer who only pimps a few ‘special’ people who made it through that sausage factory, (so probably not an artistic personality at all then)…. Quote….” art dealers pompous, power hungry and patronising, these doyens of good taste would seem to be better suited to manning the door of a night-club, approving who will be allowed through the velvet ropes. These dealers like to feel that they ‘control’ the market”. Saatchi’s Artoholic book. That is the art scene…. Sorry that had nothing to do with the topic but I know what trying to make a artistic living is like in a world of full bull shit…

  6. Chris, might you please write upon the wider institutional malaise that this represents. I refer to the changes driven by the 80s Douglas Labour administration that changed the whole face of the public service. In effect the relationship between the public servant and the public citizen was changed from that of a citizen – public servant to that of a client – institutional functionary.

    It might sound subtle but the language has been changed to reflect the new relationship. Citizens became clients, something the private sector understands. The whole relationship became contractual and adversarial. The concept of public service from those on the “state” side of the desk became contract managerial, not service based.

    This is where the likes of Rebstock come in, they dont see the issues faced by the citizens who pay the tax to provide for their social security net as anything other than individual clients. And she sees the relationship in much the same way as an insurance company sees things, which is to limit the damage to the company funds.

  7. Perhaps one of the things people need to consider is that government is no longer acting in the best interests of citizens as a whole.
    There is sufficient evidence available to suggest that corporate interests have enough influence in government to mean that the only ones to benefit are the wealthiest 1%.
    Many of this 1% are clearly great people who do care about people and communities… but who are unable to go against a system that rewards unethical behaviour.
    Fees, rates, power prices and various other charges keep going up, while taxes ‘officially’ go down. The likely goal of this system is to allow land to end up in corporate hands, so the people become renters and servants at the whim of the 1% ruling class.
    Some might be prepared to try and get out of this system(search ‘meet your strawman’).

    An alternative to revolution is possible at the community level that could enable a shift away from a class system. Offering an alternative to a compulsory taxation system could be enabled through technology.
    Open source systems could enable non-profit organisations to interact more effectively with communities, through localised, distributed networks.
    Organisations could be led by people who actually want to help others and could be crowdfunded by the community as a whole, suggesting organisations would have to offer higher value services.

  8. A friend tells me that her first-ever contact with WINZ occurred at age 58, shortly after the death of her husband. It changed her thinking about beneficiaries. “Did the experience radicalise you?” I asked. “Hell yes,” she replied.

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