Up till recently, I had believed that there were two facets comprising to create a neo-liberal economy (not “society” – neo-liberalism does not recognise community or society where individuals organise for a greater collective good).
The first was a free market predicated on minimal regulation; reduced government; greater reliance of private enterprise to deliver services; and a lower tax-take which forces future left-leaning governments to curtail vital infra-structure and social-spending.
As Coalition Finance Minister, Grant Robertson clearly told the told the country in March this year;
“We’ve put aside $42bn over the next four years for capital investment but you know what? It won’t be enough. We understand that we need to take a more innovative approach to the financing of infrastructure.”
Which was well understood by National’s former Finance Minister, Steven Joyce, when he accused Labour of a so-called “$11.7 billion fiscal hole” in their pre-election costings.
National’s tax cuts of 2009 and 2010 were not just an election bribe at a time the country could ill afford them – they were a strategic move to constrain a future Labour-led government in a tight fiscal straight-jacket.
Then-Finance Minister, Bill English, said that the 2009 tax cut represented a $1 billion loss of revenue to the National government;
“About 1.5 million workers will receive a personal tax cut, injecting an extra $1 billion into the economy in the coming year.”
The following year, National’s tax would be estimated to cost the State at least $2 billion in lost revenue.
This was well-under-stood by commentators, analysts, politicians. National-leaning John Armstrong explained this in straight-forward terms;
The message is Labour – if it wins – is not going to spend money the new Government will not have…
… is not going to make promises in advance he cannot keep.
The yawning chasm of the Budget deficit meant there was no new money to spend. Some cherished policies would have to be introduced progressively – rather than in one go. Savings would have to be found; sacrifices would have to be made. And so on.
That was penned by Mr Armstrong in 2011. It still holds true today.
The second facet of neo-liberalism is promulgation and amplification of the Cult of the Individual. Whether this means cheaper imported goods at the expense of local industry and jobs; doing away with retailing restrictions (or even planned, deliberate breaking of the law); easier access to alcohol and subsequent social impacts; the primacy of the Individual’s rights for self-interest and gratification would trump communities expectations of collective responsibility; social cohesion; the health and wellbeing of the population, and the greater good.
For example, attempts by communities to restrict and reign in plentiful availability of cheap alcohol is usually met with a predictable vocal chorus of indignant outrage from people for whom the Right To Buy When/Where-ever supercedes any societal problems. The most spurious arguments are presented, attempting to portray consumers as hapless “victims” of “bureaucracy-gone-made”. Or “Nanny statism”.
Yet, the cost of alcohol abuse was estimated to be approximately $5.3 billion in 2016. That’s $5.3 billion that could have been invested in education, health, public transport, housing, conservation and pest control, increased research in green technologies, etc.
The heavy costs of alcohol abuse is socialised, whilst profits are privatised to business and their shareholders. For many, it is more important to be able to buy a drink at 4am in the morning than social problems arising from easy availability. For some individuals, that convenience outstrips whatever harm is occurring elsewhere. “It’s not my problem”, is the thought that often runs through the minds of many who demand their rights – regardless of consequences.
But there is a third aspect – like a third leg to a three-legged stool – that must exist if neo-liberalism is to thrive: Cruelty.
A certain amount of callousness; disdain; and outright hatred must replace compassion, egalitarianism, and a sense of community cohesion if the neo-liberal version of “society” is to operate successfully.
It is the reason why neo-liberalism never took hold in Scandinavian countries.
It is the reason why – once a foothold was gained in the late 1980s – successive governments ensured the neo-liberal model was maintained in this country.
Almost by definition, neo-liberalism cannot operate in a society which has values diametrically opposed to it. It took an “economic crisis” in 1984/85 for the Lange-led Labour government to impose Rogernomics.
In 1991, Ruth Richardson used the “BNZ Crisis” to implement drastic cuts to health, education and welfare. Housing NZ tenants were forced to pay market rents. User-pays was introduced for hospitals and schools – though the public resisted and ignored the $50/nightly charge for public hospitals.
Neo-liberalism could not have been introduced so easily without the convenient constructs of various so-called “economic crises”. The mainstream media at the time was complicit in the “reforms” sweeping every aspect of New Zealand’s cultural, social, and economic activity.
But once introduced, the speed of so-called “reforms” accelerated and opposition became harder. Mass protests seemingly had little or no effect. The change of government in 1990 from Labour to National only made matters worse – Richardson’s “Mother of All Budgets” plunged the country further into recession.
For the following thirty years, the neo-liberal paradigm ruled unchallenged, with perhaps the rear-guard action from the now-defunct Alliance, and a few stubborn media commentators who still asked uncomfortable questions where we were heading as a country.
By 2002, the Alliance was crippled and forced out of Parliament.
The remaining critical voices of media commentators grew fewer and fewer.
The “revolution” was all but complete. Neo-liberalism was bedded-in, supported by a propertied Middle Class feeling “wealthy” with bloated house-values and bribed with seven tax cuts since 1986.
But all was not well in Neo-liberal Nirvana.
There were embarrassing reminders that the notion of “trickle down” – now repudiated by the New Right as an ‘invention’ by the Left – was not working as per expectations of devotees of the Chicago School model. As Budget Director for the Reagan Administration, David Stockman, said;
“It’s kind of hard to sell ‘trickle down, so the supply-side formula was the only way to get a tax policy that was really ‘trickle down.’ Supply-side is ‘trickle-down’ theory.”
It became apparent that the promises of neo-liberalism were largely faith-based. Enormous social problems were being caused as corporate power increased; union power waned; wages stagnated; wealth drained away to a tiny minority; and simple things like home ownership rates were falling dramatically.
Tellingly, it was the gradual loss of the great Kiwi Dream of home ownership that was a litmus test-paper for the toxicity of neo-liberalism’s false premises and empty promises.
Ironically, this was happening at a time when mortgage money was easier and cheaper to obtain from the banks. But only if you earned a high income or already owned property to borrow against. Or could rely on the Bank of Mum and Dad.
Those who already had the assets could hope to get more.
Those at the bottom, or struggling middle classes, would miss out.
For many, they discovered that hitting rock-bottom wasn’t as low as you could go. For growing numbers of New Zealanders, “bottom” meant a shredded welfare safety-net that had gaping holes in it under the National government;
Added to a mounting housing crisis, various National ministers exploited every opportunity to portray the poor; the homeless; the chronically sick; unemployed; young people; in the worst possible light. They were authors of their own misfortune, according to former PM, John Key;
National’s Bill English disdain for young unemployed was made abundantly clear on several occasions;
“ A lot of the Kiwis that are meant to be available [for farm work] are pretty damned hopeless. They won’t show up. You can’t rely on them and that is one of the reasons why immigration’s a bit permissive, to fill that gap… a cohort of Kiwis who now can’t get a license because they can’t read and write properly and don’t look to be employable, you know, basically young males.”
“ One of the hurdles these days is just passing a drug test. Under workplace safety you can’t have people on your premises under the influence of drugs and a lot of our younger people can’t pass that test.”
And again in December this year;
“Government’s fees-free policy will ‘soak up staff out of McDonald’s’...”
English’s demonisation of unemployed and young New Zealander’s appeared at complete variance with those same people desperate for paid work. But that did not make him pause in his attacks.
Housing for the poor, the homeless, and vulnerable was also on National’s “hit list”, as they pursued their agenda to down-size state activity in housing.
First came the “reviews” and people’s live upended as National ended tenancies based on an ideological notion that state houses were not for life. The social problems resulting would be euphemistically known later as “unintended consequences”;
National’s response was predictable,
Therein lay their own seeds for electoral defeat three years later.
In the years that followed, National portrayed welfare beneficiaries and Housing NZ tenants as negatively as they could possibly get away with.
The meth-hysteria portrayed HNZ tenants as hopeless, lazy drug fiends. National was only too happy to fan the flames of demonisation, as it allowed National to evict tenants and sell off state houses. Their policy in September last year was unequivocal, and linked gangs and drugs, with Housing NZ tenants;
The press statement above was issued by former welfare beneficiary-turned-National Minister, Paula Bennett. The same Paula Bennett who, only eight months later, lamented on Radio NZ;
“I’ve always had concerns… I just didn’t think that the 0.5 [microgram limit] sounded right. I questioned [the Health Ministry] in particular who had set that standard, questioned Housing NZ numerous times, got the Standards Authority involved.”
She suggested tenants should be compensated. That was ‘big’ of her.
She also stated,
“[I] was horrified that people might be smoking P in houses, I’m not going to shy away from that.
Then I started seeing reports and I remember one in particular from an expert – he said, ‘You can just about get more P residue off a $5 note than you could have at some of these houses with 0.5 micrograms’ and so that raised alarm bells for me.
But … then who am I to be standing in and saying at what level I felt that [the limit] should be?”
Maybe she could have asked Sir Peter Gluckman. He was the government’s Science Advisor at the time. The one appointed by John Key. Yeah, that one.
Or, she could have paid more attention to a 2014 MSD report which revealed a staggeringly low rate of drug-use amongst welfare beneficiaries;
Yeah, that one!
But that would have gotten in the way of National’s cunning plan.
Plans that drove thousands of welfare rolls, as Key’s administration struggled to balance the government’s books after two unaffordable tax cuts in 2009 and 2010;
In September 2017, on TV3’s ‘The Nation‘, then Welfare Minister, Anne Tolley, described National’s drive to reduce welfare recipients in the most Orwellian way;
“But we do have a significant number of people who are looking for work, who are capable of working, and so most of them, it’s just a light touch to help them along the way.”
In the same interview, Lisa Owen challenged Minister Tolley on the fate of welfare beneficiaries who had been pushed off welfare. Minister Tolley admitted that she and the National government had no idea what had happened to the thousands of people, including families with children;
Lisa Owen: How do you know that they’re going on to a better life?
Tolley: Look, there’s a whole lot of people that don’t want the state in their lives. Tracking people is awful. They go off the benefit—
Anne Tolley: They go off the benefit for a whole variety of reasons.
Lisa Owen: How can you claim success, though, for that when you don’t actually know if they’re earning more money than they were on the benefit—?
Anne Tolley: We do track if they come back on to benefit, and we do have a close look at what has happened. As I say, we do do a lot of training. We do provide a lot of opportunities for people to retrain.
Lisa Owen: But you don’t know what’s happening to those people. You’ve got no idea.
Anne Tolley: We have 44% who self-identify to us that they’re going off into work. You know, people go overseas. They age into superannuation. There’s a whole lot of reasons why.
Lisa Owen: All right, so you don’t know.
As National ramped up it’s campaign of denigration and punitive action against welfare beneficiaries and Housing NZ tenants, compliant State organisations were reaping their victims.
One was chased for a welfare debt she could have no chance of repaying – but MSD pursued it “in case she won Lotto“;
MSD was trying to recover approximately $120,000 from a chronically-ill beneficiary in her 50s who will never be able to work again. The Ministry has pursued her for years and spent a large amount on the case, even though it is plain the woman has no money and her health will never allow her to work again.
The judge asked the Crown lawyer whether it was worth continuing to pursue the beneficiary.
The lawyer responded that it was, as the beneficiary might win Lotto and would then be able to repay the money.
And the most recent example of victimising the homeless simply defies comprension;
Homeless men at the “drop-in centre” were shaken awake through the night every half hour.
All because the facility was not compliant with fire and building consents. To it’s credit the Rotorua Lakes Council said “fire and building consents were being rushed through so people could sleep at the shelter“.
But Mr Deane – the organisor of the facility ” was told yesterday [5 July] that they had to remain awake until the necessary consents were granted”.
The common term for this is sleep deprivation.
It should not be forgotten that the practice of sleep deprivation was one of the five techniques used by the British government against Northern Irish citizens arrested in 1971. Subsequently, in January 1978, in a case taken by the government of Ireland against Great Britain, in the the European Court of Human Rights, ruled that the five techniques – including sleep deprivation – “did not occasion suffering of the particular intensity and cruelty implied by the word torture … [but] amounted to a practice of inhuman and degrading treatment“.
Sleep deprivation was determined to be a breach of the European Convention on Human Rights.
In 2010, the British government lost a Court appeal to prevent public release of a report revealing the practice of sleep deprivation torture had been used against British resident, Binyam Mohamed. The Court judgement stated;
“The treatment reported, if it had been administered on behalf of the United Kingdom would clearly have been in breach of [a ban on torture].
Although it is not necessary for us to categorise the treatment reported, it could be readily contended to be at the very least cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of BM by the United States authorities.”
In 2014, the UN committee against torture condemned the United States for allowing sleep deprivation to be used as a torture technique against prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. The United States governments calls such practices “enhanced interrogation”.
To discover that sleep deprivation is being used against homeless men in New Zealand is disturbing.
To realise that a practice considered torture by various international organisations has barely been reported by the mainstream media – is deeply troubling.
We have reached rock-bottom as a society when people are being subjected to “a practice of inhuman and degrading treatment” – simply because they are homeless.
This is the definition of abuse against the vulnerable: they are unable to fight back because they are utterly powerless.
If this practice of sleep deprivation was carried out in our prisons, there would be a major Royal Commission of Inquiry.
But not when the subject of this abuse is the homeless. Their powerlessness is worse than men and women incarcerated in our prisons, despite being “free”.
The cruelty shown to our welfare beneficiaries; to Housing NZ tenants; and to the homeless, has been sanctioned by a sizeable ‘chunk’ of our population;
Fully a quarter of the country’s population has continued to endorse the National Party at four consecutive general elections.
What does this say about a quarter of the population’s attitude to what has amounted to a campaign of vilification and denigration against those at the bottom of our social-economic ‘ladder’ – a campaign that has been skillfully carried out to facilitate pushing people off welfare and selling off state houses.
This degree of callous cruelty has been led by various ministers in the previous National government who have mis-used information; misled the public; and made derogatory comments against those whose sole ‘crime’ was to be poor.
This was bullying from the highest level of power, toward those at the lowest level of powerlessness.
National’s subtle and graduated vilification of the poor made cruelty permissable in a country which once valued tolerance, fairness, and egalitarianism.
When depriving homeless men barely merits a mention in our media, and few bat an eyelid, what other possible conclusion can be made?
This Coalition government is constrained fiscally when it comes to welfare and state housing.
It suffers no such constraints when it comes to showing strong moral leadership to reject State-sanctioned cruelty.There is no fiscal cost to compassionate leadership that lifts up the powerless.
There are good men and women in Labour, the Greens, and NZ First. That is perhaps their strongest common bond between all three; a rejection of the culture of callousness that has seduced and poisoned the hearts and minds of so many New Zealanders.
Every Minister in this coalition government can reject decades of a culture of cruelty by reaffirming the humanity of the unemployed; solo-mums; youth; sickness beneficiaries; state house tenants; the drug and alcohol addicted; and the homeless.
Every Minister in this coalition government can use their position of power to speak on behalf of the powerless.
Every Minister in this coalition government can remind all New Zealanders that we are not bullies; we are better than that. If we cannot look after the powerless in our own society – then what possible hope is there for us and our children’s future, to be a compassionate society?
This will be the defining point of difference between what we have been – and what we hope to become.
This is what will inspire New Zealanders to choose what we aspire to be, and what kind of leadership will take us there.
Cruelty or compassion? Hopefully that will be the true point of difference in 2020.
~ In Memory ~
~ Emma-Lita Bourne ~
~ Wendy Shoebridge ~
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