The number of homeless in our cities and towns, the lack of housing, charities overwhelmed, corporate welfare and high pay for the rich, poor health outcomes, a disaster of widespread need at the lower end – these are some of the signs of the collapsed welfare state discussed at Wednesday’s CPAG summit.
These are the ongoing effects of 30+ years of neo-liberalism, a political philosophy aimed at shifting wealth from the poor to the rich in New Zealand. It has been a most successful movement. Even though, as Max Rashbrooke shows, the bottom 90% of New Zealanders are worse off, most people still think that it is the best economic model.
That’s right, people vote over and over for an economic model that makes them worse off. It is very clever. The philosophy is that if you align yourself politically with the best off, you might become one too (however unlikely). But if you align yourself with your own economic interests, you might end up poorer. Your only hope is to vote ‘up’, and then to join the wealthiest in decrying the poor as shiftless, weak and inadequate.
It was spawned by the free marketeering and privatisation goals of Rogernomics in the late 1980s, a Labour government that betrayed the people it was formed to represent. It was furiously furthered by National between 1990 and 1999. Apart from the 1991 budget that slashed benefits, it was death (and chaos) by 1000 cuts. Such ridiculous experiments! Who remembers the ‘Regional Health Boards’, that divided NZ into four and encouraged regional entities to compete with one another. This led to massive health inequalities that still exist today. Tertiary fees, debt, increasing costs of education, and then cumulatively more benefit cuts that together, we were told, outweighed the initial Ruthanasia attack.
Did you know that benefits for a single mother with one child would now need to increase by $200 per week to equal the spending power in 1991? The robbery of the poor to pay for tax cuts. And benefits cannot rise by that much because wages have also so stagnated. How did it happen?
Helen Clark’s Labour government did not overcome neo-liberalism, but fostered it further. The truth needs to be told about this. It must not be allowed to happen again. Then nine more long years of another slash and burn National Government.
And now government spending is at a rock-bottom 30% of GDP, almost at Roger Douglas’s dream of 10% on GST and 20% on tax. By pledging to keep that 30% figure, not to spend more, not to tax more, this government has locked itself into the same straitjacket as all the others since 1984.
The neoliberal revolution is not over. It took huge political determination to embed neo-liberalism, and the reality is that it will take huge political determination to overcome it.
I have not voted Labour since 1987 (except for my local MP, the talented Megan Woods). But, as you all know, I have been excited and enlivened at the recognition by this government that things have to change. But I have never seen any new government minister stand up and say the neo-liberal rules are the wrong rules, that we have been made a much poorer country, that the rich (OMG Fonterra is a disgrace on so many levels, and Fletchers….) do not invest in us but are feckless and complacent (mostly) and that we need to share the resources of this beautiful country more equitably.
Deep long work needs to happen on changing people’s beliefs about political management and the economy. Neoliberalism has been such a successful movement for those who have gained from it. For the rest of us, the most of us, the poor of us, the needy among us, not so much.
Apart from the CPAG conference and some authors, I hear only the deepest silence on this. The poor are silenced by the weight of the blame that is placed on them, by the burden of the immediate needs they cannot hope to meet, by the slings and arrows of the welfare system. The government is silenced because of fear and a lack of stated alternatives.
What can be done. Let’s start with baby steps. I want to focus on one thing now. The government – all ministers of children, women, and welfare -should jointly announce a policy change immediately – do it after Cabinet on Monday – that:
From today, no single parent family will have their benefit abated by $20+ per week because they do not name the father of any child.
Such a simple start. Just do it! Then consider the next step, and the next.
Dr Liz Gordon began her working life as a university lecturer at Massey and the Canterbury universities. She spent six years as an Alliance MP, before starting her own research company, Pukeko Research. Her work is in the fields of justice, law, education and sociology (poverty and inequality). She is the president of Pillars, a charity that works for the children of prisoners, a prison volunteer, and is on the board of several other organisations. Her mission is to see New Zealand freed from the shackles of neo-liberalism before she dies (hopefully well before!).