Releasing the Welfare Expert Advisory Group report at 2pm Friday (3rd May) just before the weekend at a far-flung West Auckland venue miles from the train station was a masterstroke of political strategy.
The 209 page WEAG report itself is excellent and provides the blueprint for the needed changes to NZ’s outmoded and inadequate welfare state, but most people are none the wiser as to the report’s contents.
Was this the intention? Maybe it helps explains why the processes of the WEAG were anything but transparent. For 11 months no one breathed a whisper of what the WEAG was concocting. All consultation was one way to the WEAG with no outsider trusted to respond to any of the development of ideas. In stark contrast with the Tax Working Group process, no background papers and no interim report were released. There were no public forums preceding the report, and no interviews were given.
Thus none of the invited attendees at the launch in West Auckland had any prior clues as to what was in the 209 page report, nor were any journalists given a heads up. While everyone was offered a copy on entry, no one could absorb the detail in a few minutes. There was a strict embargo until 2pm. That embargo and the lack of forewarning ensured there was no media coverage of any depth- for example, there was no double page spread in the Saturday NZ Herald or Sunday papers as would be fitting for such a major report.
As the first main speaker at the launch, WEAG Chair, Professor Cindy Kiro outlined the report’s contents with passion and confidence. She spoke eloquently about the paradigm shift needed to dislodge the old utilitarian purposes and work-based principles from the Social Security Act to enshrine the principle of Whakamana Tāngata, meaning upholding the mana/dignity of every person accessing welfare services.
Because no one had been able to read the report, she carefully crafted her speech to give a high level overview. The $5 billion per annum price tag was not mentioned. There was a vague hint that the report had grappled with high effective marginal tax rates and these were hard to understand, but not a word about the major redistributive programme Working for Families and little explanation of the proposals for benefits. She highlighted the dominance of the accommodation supplement cost (MSD’s second-largest after NZS) but we were none the wiser as to what the WEAG thought of this.
Nevertheless Cindy Kiro ‘s speech created good energy and excitement in the room. This was a report to be reckoned with. No mincing of words. Urgency. The welfare state had failed miserably and needed immediate attention. The culture and philosophy had to change now. We waited expectantly to learn more.
In the front of the audience were seated the 11 experts, all sacrificing a day of their lives, some had to fly up from Wellington, probably paid a daily meeting fee by WEAG. But what was the point? Not one of them was invited to speak. None of their undoubted expertise was utilised to explain the detail of the report and the rationale for the suggested changes.
Instead, we got three long and repetitive political speeches. Labour, the Greens and NZ First all wanted to ensure that we understood they were totally on the same page as each other. That they all absolutely agreed with the diagnosis of the WEAG report: that things had been utterly miserable for too long. But, and there is a significant but, they all agreed nothing could take place immediately, apart from a few sops that were already in the budget. Instead as Minister Sepuloni carefully explained, because of interactions with everything else and with likely unintended consequences when policy is done quickly, there would need to be a 3-5year work plan with a ten year time horizon.
What do we make of all this? Major expensive policies like the Winter Energy Payment and first year tertiary free have been introduced without regard to interactions and unintended consequences. Yes, an increase in benefits might mean a shift away from hardship provision and accommodation supplement payments but that is no reason to delay, and such offsets would actually be a welcome consequence. We don’t need a 3-5 year plan, we need significantly more money right now to tackle the welfare blight.
The Minister’s pre-Budget announcements were breath-taking in their superficiality. There were audible gasps of disbelief when she announced that the sanction applied to sole parents who do not name the father of their children would not come in until 2020. Another lowlight was very minor changes to the abatement thresholds that are to be phased in over 4 years.
Totally missing was any acknowledgement of the vital changes proposed by WEAG to Working for Families that would see the removal of the discrimination CPAG fought since 1996, including 10 long bitter years on the courts. That is buried in the report so well that no one yet seems to understand the significance. Was this because Labour didn’t want to own their mistakes of the past? At the heart of the WEAG’s claim that welfare state is ‘no longer fit for purpose’ is the inaction on benefits by both main parties, the discrimination in Working for Families that Labour exacerbated, Labour’s own pernicious 2007 rewrite of the purposes and principles of the Social Security Act and long-time failures of both Labour and National to change the toxic culture at WINZ.
Friday’s launch was a waste of most people’s time but worse, it was a lost opportunity to signal that the government is willing to acknowledge its own culpability and to embrace a profound reframing of the philosophical underpinnings of the welfare state.