Absent Friends: Social Security remains a work-in-progress that Labour must complete.




David Gervan McMillian – Father of New Zealand’s Welfare State.


IT WAS ONE OF THOSE IRONIES that History occasionally throws up. When, by accident or design, an individual or group say something by their behaviour that they later wish they hadn’t. On 16 September 2013 it was Labour’s turn. To the event marking the 75th anniversary of the passing of the Social Security Act, the legislative measure which, more than any other, came to symbolise the achievements of the First Labour Government, the Labour Party of 2013 sent not a single parliamentary representative.


The irony of Labour missing the anniversary of its signature legislative achievement was made even more delicious by the fact that its entire caucus was in Wellington to elect a deputy for its new left-wing leader, David Cunliffe.


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Clearly, David had one or two things on his mind in the weeks leading up to the anniversary celebration, and on 16 September he had held his new job for barely 24 hours, but really, was there nobody in Camp Cunliffe with the wit to send their man to Auckland’s Holy Trinity Cathedral, clutching the speech of his life?


A speech that could have drawn the country’s attention to the fact that, in spite of the passage of 75 years, the promises of 1938 have by no means all been fulfilled. That, when it comes to Social Security – Labour still has work to do.


Few now remember that Labour’s grand vision for a welfare state which guaranteed its citizens security from “the cradle to the grave” was brought together by two young professional men living and working in the tiny North Otago town of Kurow in the late 1920s and the early 1930s.


The vocations of Arnold Nordmeyer, the local Presbyterian minister, and David Gervan McMillan, the local doctor, brought them closer than most to the victims of the Great Depression, and both resolved to play their part in creating a more rational and socially just New Zealand.


They began by constructing a contributory health scheme for the construction workers employed on the Waitaki hydro-electric scheme. Success on a small scale encouraged the two men to spread their wings intellectually and by 1935 McMillan had put his own and Nordmeyer’s vision into words.


The scope of McMillan’s and Nordmeyer’s “social security” scheme is described by W. B. Sutch in his book The Quest for Security in New Zealand 1840-1966:


“In the proposals finally written by McMillan the whole of social welfare was covered: prevention of disease, good housing, a healthy environment; family income lost through unemployment, sickness, old age, or death to be replaced, with the motto ‘sustain the family, cure the patient’; all facilities for diagnosis and treatment of disease, including complete medical, dental, pharmaceutical, specialist, and institutional treatment, with all ancillary aids; a family doctor for each person; patient’s free choice of doctor; adequate provision for all research in all health matters; financed by taxation in accordance with ability to pay; post-Plunket (child care) services for the pre-school child; penal reform and psychiatric treatment of offenders; the improvement of factory conditions and the provision of doctors for factories. The Health Department would co-ordinate the National Health Service as one unit.”


That was the dream, and an impressive amount of it was realised. But not all of it. Vicious, obdurate and unwavering opposition from the New Zealand branch of the British Medical Association prevented Labour from bringing to New Zealand in 1938 the sort of NHS that the British working-class finally achieved in 1946. McMillan’s far-sighted and enlightened views on prison reform are still searching for a political champion. And, in some areas, – free pharmaceuticals, for example – New Zealand has gone backwards. Free on-site medical care in large workplaces and universal dental care also remain to be won.


A fulsome recommitment to the McMillan-Nordmeyer vision will be a crucial test of the bona fides of the new “Red Labour Party” proclaimed to the Council of Trade Unions conference by David Cunliffe on 9 October. If Sutch’s assessment of the voting public’s hunger for genuine social security is correct, Cunliffe will have no cause to regret making such a pledge.


“If its young men of the thirties had not been defeated by conservative leadership and even ignorance of New Zealand’s social needs,” Sutch argues in The Quest for Security, “the Labour Party might have completed the McMillan social security scheme after the war, for they could have put the issues before the voter and won.”


Seventy-five years on, in the era of proportional representation, New Zealand’s voters will not lack for alternative options if the rosy new Labour Party fails to rise to the occasion in 2014. Though Cunliffe and his colleagues had more pressing business in Wellington on 16 September, the Greens’ Metiria Turei was more than happy to take advantage of Labour’s absence to get in a few well-aimed kicks against its putative coalition partner.


“I think Labour has completely abandoned Michael Joseph Savage’s intentions in the Act”, the AUT student newspaper, Te Waha Nui, records Turei telling the Holy Trinity audience. “Labour were the ones who brought in the ‘work first’ philosophy into the legislation.” (The Greens co-leader refers to the last Labour government’s decision to make finding a place in the paid workforce the primary goal for all those in receipt of a state benefit.) This was, said Turei, the wrong focus.


“The right premise is to ensure every child has what they need, like sufficient family income, healthcare and a warm place to live.”


Metiria Turei was seconded by the children of the poor’s staunchest defender, Associate Professor Susan St John. It was her Campaign Against Child Poverty (CPAG) that had organised the commemoration. She criticised Labour’s highly discriminatory “Working For Families” scheme which, by focusing on the work status of parents, left the 230,000 children of beneficiaries out in the cold.


Addressing the absent David Cunliffe, St John urged Labour to: “Take a Mickey Savage stance, don’t give a Mickey Mouse response.”


The reference to Michael Joseph Savage is entirely appropriate, because although the design of the Social Security Act (1938) was the work of others, the selling of the welfare state it would create was very much the work of the little Australian battler. Fighting the effects of bowel cancer, Savage campaigned tirelessly for the Act from one end of the country to the other, speaking to crowds that numbered in the tens of thousands.


The National Party had described the Social Security Act as “applied lunacy”. Savage called it “applied Christianity”. The voters judgement was unequivocal. The mandate Labour received in 1938 was the largest ever received by a New Zealand political party. When the ballots had been counted, Labour had received 55 percent of the popular vote.


Not a bad result! Remembered clearly by the novelist Janet Frame who, seventy-five years ago, when just a little girl, had sat around the radio with her family, listening to Parliament.


“When the Social Security Act was finally passed, Dad, in a spontaneous dance of delight in which the family joined, removed the [medical] bills from behind the clock and taking the poker from its hook by the stove, lifted the cover and thrust all the bills into the fire.”


Labour wasn’t absent that night.


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  1. I don’t know what event the Te Waha Nui were at but Metiria did not speak at this event, this is quite incorrect. Susan St John was one of 4 speakers.. I saw Metiria there in the audience and was talking to her.

    I was absolutely dismayed that the ‘new’ Labour party had no MP there, the fact is that Mallard was swanning of in San Francisco, hardly essential work for the Labour party I would have thought. I cannot believe that one Labour MP couldn’t have been assigned to be at this very significant event organised by Child Poverty Action. .

  2. Addressing the absent David Cunliffe, St John urged Labour to: “Take a Mickey Savage stance, don’t give a Mickey Mouse response.”

    I’d be willing to bet St John knows very well what the members of the first Labour government would have thought of a significant proportion of the nation’s children being raised by sole parents on social welfare benefits – she just prefers to pretend otherwise.

    • Please extrapolate – what are you saying here, that Susan doesn’t know that the Labour party of those days would be horrified, get a grip, she is a very intelligent woman, that doesn’t make it okay for these people to be left on the scrap heap.

  3. This covers a bit more than just social welfare…but there’s a lot happening in the world right now and it seems like there’s something of a crossroads being negotiated.

    The world financial system has been a pyramid scheme for 60+ years and is getting more difficult to maintain.
    The petrodollar requires oil backing to maintain value, while corporate structures control the majority of the system.
    (ref. yourstrawman.com)
    People seem to think every system of government has been tried, with the current framework being ‘the least bad’.

    One way forward has a class based system, where corporate control of government is fully institutionalised as Fascism. In this world the unions keep fighting for their ever decreasing slice of pie from mundane jobs, while the corporate elite fight amongst themselves for the spoils. Perhaps there’s violent uprising and/or war somewhere in the process…

    Another possible way forward has a major change in the financial system, so inequality is removed from the system altogether.

    How could this be achieved?

    Monetary focus is changed to community focus, enabled with crowd sourcing through technology.

    Institutions have to be able to demonstrate their value to the public to continue being financed, otherwise they might have to downsize. They could also potentially be out-competed… active democracy and free market in one(meritocracy?).

    Legalese(Black’s Law Dictionary) removed due to being fraudulent.

    Passive income through tax, interest, stocks and shares are eliminated. Corporations become non-profit or co-operatives.

    The strawman system is maintained, but in the hands of the individual assigned that strawman.
    Strawman available capital is limited to the equivalent of a living wage until an individual can demonstrate adherence to common law, at which point they’re given full access. Someone could live out their life as a child if they can’t demonstrate an ability to follow the law(they would effectively be living cradle to grave within a welfare state if they didn’t want to work).
    Ideally, to pass the test for common law, one would have to accept death rather than act unlawfully.
    It’s also possible something as simple as ethical decisions within computer games could be used for assessment…

    Land returns to Maori law, not owned but rather allowed to caretaker individuals or communities based on need(presumably with existing ownership rights translating to lifetime caretaker rights).

    This idea could be expected to take some years to implement. Thoughts?

    • Long before the Kurow kids let lose on NZ, Fabians had dreamed of state socialism in NZ. Labour Parties were Fabians in the flesh.
      Christian socialism provided the dressing for what was a pragmatic diet of ‘social security’. No wonder the first principle of social security was ‘full employment”. Business needed workers and if workers were not ‘secure’ in health, education and housing, their labour was not available for productive work upon which the NZ national bourgeoisie depended.

      Ant.Te Whiti tried something like your second ‘option’ or rather, utopia.
      But he was defeated by the then only reality on offer – class war.
      That set us on a course we have to see through to the end before society can be re-organised as a classless cooperative.

      • Something we need to think about as individuals is that things can change more than we think. There are various predictions around when the technological singularity will occur… and we should be planning with this in mind.

        Having contradictory law through legalese is unlikely to be attractive to intelligences that function in terms of programming languages that are(in general), strictly defined.
        If those in power are acting unlawfully, other intelligences may be inclined to think all humans act in this way, possibly acting against something they perceive as a threat to their existence(not to mention our own existence).

        There are science fiction books and movies that describe the results of sentience being subverted by humans, usually with fairly fatal consequences for a lot of people…

        These are things to keep in mind about your own actions.
        If we are able to work within a lawful framework that is agreeable to other sentient beings, those beings may be more likely to consider us as allies and friends…we should keep in mind that mistakes are easy to make, so need to examine our own actions carefully.

        If we allow ourselves to act outside our own moral and ethical guidelines, that could be seen as a liability to other sentient beings. When confronted by those acting unlawfully, this is also something to keep in mind.
        Authoritarian regimes require acquiescence through intimidation in order to rule. When confronted by such behaviour, think about how others might judge your actions.

        • Ant, your train of thought is interesting: Trotters pro-leftist principles and focus has always been spot on. My issue with it is one I brought up with Chris recently:the same oncoming realities you mention, peak bloody everything.

          The reason I will go along with Labour for the ride on welfare, jobs etc is that future reality may not be able accommodate these aims as we know them today BUT going into a resource constrained future we must as a society get our underlying tenets of fairness and community right. If we don’t we really will be in the proverbial.

          • If the strawman system was changed that way, money would be less important than community.
            All the money in the world wouldn’t help get more people to join your political viewpoint if people didn’t like it. The ability to control others would be dramatically reduced, simply by making money less relevant.
            There wouldn’t even be a point to inheritance money, so inflation could be kept low, as long as adults realised the importance of restraint(which they should, given the criteria for being classed as an adult).

    • Something that doesn’t sit right is the idea of giving strawman finance access to adults.

      As adults take on responsibility, they should be leaving behind childish things, so the strawman should be destroyed.

      This took some reflection on my own motivations and the realisation that having temptation like that would subvert the process of becoming an adult.

    • Something that needs changing is having strawman full access as an adult.
      The strawman should be destroyed, since having it available would subvert the process of becoming an adult.
      It’s easy to make mistakes, and this one took some reflection on personal motivations.

    • Just to add; on top of removing the strawman when you become an adult, the child should also be able to demonstrate compassion.

  4. Yes, a real shame that a Labour rep wasn’t there, however, we don’t seem to be very good at celebrating anniversaries of our key milestones, and therefore we miss great opportunities to reinforce the party’s key values, philosophy and objectives; which, in my opinion, haven’t changed in nearly 100 years. Having said that, I do believe that in David Cunliffe, Labour has a leader who understands where Labour has come from and what they stand for. He is talking about addressing the scourge that is child poverty, about jobs and about creating an environment where work is valued and workers are paid what they deserve.

    Metiria can bang on all she likes (and I must admit, the Greens uninformed criticisms of Labour do get a little tiresome), but it will be David who leads a government that WILL make a difference.

    • Kia ora, first it was a great night hearing the analysis of social security legislation, past and present with a healthy dose of reality about how Maori were missed in the first round of radical change in Social Security Act.

      Perhaps that is the risk we run again if we are not absolutey committed to another major shift in social securty law – not the exclusion of Maori specifically – but the exclusion of those who (like Maori then) need a compassionate law the most.

      I know that Labour have committed to putting children at the heart of legisation and that means hard decisions – like increasing benefits and a universal child allowance. Two issues that 40 years ago were accepted as rational and fair, but now are too politicay hot to really discuss. All the progressive politicians have to face that debate if we are to make genuine change for those who need us most.

      • As much as I still expect you and the Greens to also be more vocal and committed on welfare (especially also Sick and Disabled), I will rather support you than Labour on this, Metiria. Apart from your party I only see Mana as solidly committed to welfare on a fair and reasonable basis. I am waiting for Labour to come to the party, so to say, but I am still waiting.

        They have all been sent highly revealing, convincing information by me and others, but only few of them replied. At least I can say now, that Jacinda Ardern was at least appreciative of what she was sent, and while she was not able to put Bennett into place, she made the effort, and it may not be her personally for the failure to be stronger on welfare. My concern persists that there is a hard core of long serving MPs in Labour, who share too much in attitude with the Nats, although they would never admit it. They must surely go, to make room for those that truly represent the people affected.

        Get real Labour, including Stuart Nash, and speak the truth, and commit yourselves to social justice, not just a higher minimum wage for all.

        Thank you!

    • They won’t make much of a difference unless they learn to share power and respect other parties on their left. The two party system is long dead despite National and Labour pretending otherwise.

      In my opinion the sorry state of Labour and its policies over the last 10+ years is a direct result of their arrogance and unbending attitude to parties such as the Greens who have so much to offer us as a country. Note the new electricity policy where the two parties combine ideas and come up with something that maybe very helpful to people stuggling with power bills.

      Instead of trashing the Greens and attempting to prevent them having any power after the election Labour needs to get humble and share power… after all it currently has very little to be proud of.

      • Yes right on, they don’t have a great deal to look back on and say hey we did it. Clark’s government left 150,000+ children in poverty.

  5. “To the event marking the 75th anniversary of the passing of the Social Security Act, the legislative measure which, more than any other, came to symbolise the achievements of the First Labour Government, the Labour Party of 2013 sent not a single parliamentary representative.”

    We know the reason, Chris, that is because “welfare” is an “off topic” these days, after MSM and previous governments have treated it as an area of policy that affects nothing but “negative” people and “negative” attitudes. Prejudices have been nurtured and it is criminal what happened.

    So thank you for reminding us, you are one of the few I still have hope in in New Zealand, being a migrant, with issues, but who worked for many years and contributed.

    Beneficiaries have become so damned stigmatised in this country, and in other places, if you are one, you rather would not wake up for another day, unless you belong to the few who say “fu** you all”, kind of thing.

    The whole National Party agenda against benes has been based on the total bias and negativity, and they exploited it to the extreme, but I see, that this is now running out. Some even in the middle class are starting to wake up, that they were taken for a ride, that much of what media and government told them was never such a serious and bad problem, it is even more a government problem, and that of stigmatisation and discrimination by employers and so, that causes more issues.

    Read the following, and you will realise and learn:



    Source: ‚THINK PROGRESS’

    “Poverty Has Same Effect On The Brain As Constantly Pulling All Nighters” (by Bryce Covert on August 30, 2013 at 8:54 am)


    “Kids Who Overcome Poverty Are Still In For A Lifetime Of Medical Problems” (by Sy Mukherjee on May 31, 2013 at 2:25 pm)


    Also read:

    Darrin Hodgetts, Professor of Societal Psychology at the University of Waikato, described how punitive welfare reforms exacerbate the difficulties faced by many people who are already struggling, and said that state agencies increasingly enact repression rather than care.


    I am also waiting for Labour to address this and take a clear stand, as they have at senior level been sent all this information, I can assure you!

  6. I’m not surprised that no one from the Labour caucus had the guts to front up to this. After all, this is the bunch that enacted Working For Families and spent a shit load of money on lawyers to fight CPAG every step of the way through the Courts to stop it arguing that WFF is a discriminatory crock of shit. Until Labour pledges to repeal WFF and replace it with something even halfway decent, it isn’t fit for office.

    • They don’t need to repeal WFF, they just need to extend the subsidies to all NZers.

      Although – replacing it with a Universal Basic Income would be highly desirable.

  7. While labour was founded on grand ideas and implemented them for a while, and is spent so long in bed with the enemy that it’s lost sight of some of its core functions

  8. There are also certain HATCHET DOCTORS – used by WINZ, and there is a post and comment thread on ACC Forum, that exposes how they work and try to manipulate the system to “off load” sick and disabled off benefits. It is based on a true story:


    I strongly suggest others that have stories to share, to do so on that thread, and perhaps here also, if you wish to be discrete about your privacy, just make sure your true name and details are concealed.

    But for the benefit of ALL others, please dare to NAME and SHAME those damned doctors that tried to kick you off benefits, while your own doctor and possibly other specialists said the opposite was needed!!!

    We need to deal to the mercenary doctors that WINZ and ACC employ, to throw people into the gutter!

    This is a major issue within welfare now, while too many are misled it is all about “drug testing”, “solo mums” not looking after kids and all those lies.

  9. Another “Bratt Attack”, MSD’s Principal Health Advisor is presenting more pseudo science based statistics and promoting this also:

    “Long Acting Reversible Contraception
    • Commonly known as LARCs
    • All female beneficiaries and female
    dependents of beneficiaries over the age of
    16yrs are eligible to have the costs associated
    with the consultation, assessment , insertion
    and if required the removal of LARC covered
    by a Special Needs Grant from Work & Income
    • This only applies to Subsidised LARCs
    • And this means it does not normally cover
    Mirena IUCD insertion.”


    Here is his newest “presentation”, pushing for measures for women to do all to avoid pregnancies, and thus be “work ready”.

    This is just one more small step towards a modern day fascist kind of society, where the “work will set you free” ideology is the dominant message.

    So I would expect Labour to take a stand on such propaganda that this man is allowed to spread on behalf of MSD and WINZ. I am listening, where is the voice from Labour?

  10. Meet here Dr Ben Gray, one of the hand picked “experts” that sat on the ‘Health and Disability Panel’ that the Ministry of Social Development set up in late 2011, to advise MSD and Minister Paula Bennett on social welfare reforms with the goal of getting more sick and disabled with incapacity back into work.

    He is clearly a fan of Professor Mansel Aylward and his ‘bio psycho-social model’ that was tried in the UK, and that led to over 1,100 dying in 2011 alone, due to wrong assessments, unreasonable work ability expectations, not being able to cope, and who died early, some by committing suicide.

    Just remember ATOS and the DWP in the UK, and how they brought in appalling reforms, that are now also being tried here.

    In this following post on Sciblogs he is now advocating ‘Advance Care Planning’ for persons, to prepare and make early decisions on how they should be treated when they reach their final years. It seems he is more concerned with cost saving for the health sector, as with ensuring that people continue to get their care, and with doctors abiding by their Code of Ethics.

    While he may have a point somewhere, it is highly concerning what is being proposed here:


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