I’VE JUST READ Sarah Wilson’s blogpost and I’m angry. Not angry like I get when I spill my coffee, but angry in that deep place way down in my gut that’s somehow connected to the back of my throat and my tear ducts. Angry as in slowly shaking my head. Angry as in quietly muttering “un-fucking-believable!” That sort of angry.
Every other day, I walk past the local WINZ office on my way to the supermarket and marvel at the cold, plate-glass transparency of it all. The layout is radically open-plan. Client and caseworker can be seen and heard by everybody else in the office. Such blatant denial of personal privacy can only be deliberate – a psychological stratagem designed to increase the client’s sense of vulnerability. No doubt it is also highly effective at keeping his or her voice as low as possible.
Indeed, that’s what people notice about these sprawling WINZ offices – the near silence that envelopes them. People murmur, people sob, but people hardly ever shout. To do so would not only draw the attention of senior WINZ staff, but it would also attract the interest of the security guards that pace backwards and forwards across the front of every WINZ office like bored big cats – just waiting for an opportunity to pounce.
The security guards are a post-Jenny Shipley addition to the WINZ experience. In the gentler, kinder New Zealand that preceded the neoliberal revolution of the 1980s and 90s there was no need for that kind of very public muscle to be instantly available. Back in the days when the Department of Social Welfare provided its staff with offices and its clients with privacy and support there was little reason to fear for the safety of either group.
In fact, the presence of those security guards speaks volumes about the bad faith of the entire WINZ bureaucracy.
The provision of monetary assistance to citizens in need remains the core function of the Ministry of Social Development, even if generations of “reformers” (National’s and Labour’s) have struggled tirelessly to obscure it. They now interpret the MSD’s primary mission as reducing the numbers “dependent” on welfare benefits to the absolute minimum. They’ve convinced themselves that paid work, and paid work alone, can break their clients’ welfare “addiction”. They’ve trained themselves to treat every welfare payment as the equivalent of a junkie’s “fix”. Anything they can do to wean their clients off the welfare “drug” is, by definition, “a good thing”. And if that means forcing them to go “Cold Turkey”, well then, so be it.
Cold Turkey – as Sarah Wilson describes it – involves the deliberate bureaucratic harassment of clients to the point where it seems easier to give up on the idea of asking for a benefit than to go on. Refusing to respond to calls, deliberately losing vital documents that they, as the client’s caseworker, insisted be gathered, and blatantly ignoring the advice and clinical recommendations of trained health professionals – all of these tactics appear to be in play within the WINZ bureaucracy.
Hence those security guards. Because at some level of their consciousness WINZ’s caseworkers must know that the people they are dealing with are too ill or too disabled to engage in paid work – even if a job appropriate to their skills and training was available. With some part of their intellect they must understand that, statistically, what they are demanding is an impossibility: that the all-liberating, all-rehabilitating paid employment they are constantly promoting to their clients simply does not exist. And that means that the tactics they are employing to “wean” their “dependent” clients off their benefit “drug” are nothing less than torture – and the deliberate imposition of suffering is always enforced with “muscle”. In WINZ’s open-plan torture-chambers fighting back is not an option.
Which means that Sarah, and people like her, need us to do the fighting for them. And the best way to do that is to serve notice on the WINZ bureaucracy that it will not be able to hide behind the Nuremburg defence (“I was only following orders.”) for very much longer. The deliberate infliction of pain and humiliation is never justifiable and it is simply not acceptable for public servants to be asked to torture their fellow citizens until they give up attempting to access support payments to which they are legally and morally entitled.
We should also serve notice on the two Paulas – Bennett and Rebstock – that in the event of a change of government a full-scale inquiry will be demanded into WINZ’s policies of emotional bullying and bureaucratic harassment: policies for which they, more than any others, are responsible.
The PSA needs to take the lead here. There must be no “our members are just doing their jobs” nonsense. If a public servant’s job entails treating people the way Sarah was treated, then it is the duty of the public servants’ union to protect its members from the moral contamination that doing such a job necessarily entails.
Labour, too, must be ready to confess its sins in relation to the welfare policies its past ministers have been only too willing to connive in promoting and implementing. David Cunliffe’s Labour-Green government must range itself unashamedly on the side of Sarah and all those other hurting and humiliated New Zealanders who have been so shockingly abused by WINZ and its political enablers.
I cannot, however, end this post without congratulating Sarah for having the courage to tell the truth and shame the bureaucratic devils who have been tormenting her. I also want to thank her for opening my eyes, for touching my heart and – most of all – for making me angry.