Beneficiary bashing is a National sport | The Jackal

11 Aug 2012

Beneficiary bashing is a National sport

There's been a huge uproar about a speech made by Labour Leader David Shearer that he gave to Grey Power in Auckland on Monday. Many have claimed that Shearer was beneficiary bashing and that an apology is appropriate.

In my opinion there really isn't anything to apologize for, mainly because Shearers comments were very specific and should not be taken out of context. Much of the furore is the result of rightwing propagandists stirring up trouble for Labour, and many people who are outraged probably haven't even read Shearer's speech yet. Here's exactly what he said:

Last year before the election, I was chatting to a guy in my electorate who had just got home from work. In the middle of the conversation, he stopped and pointed across the road to his neighbour.

He said: "see that guy over there, he's on a sickness benefit, yet he's up there painting the roof of his house. That's not bloody fair. Do you guys support him?"

From what he told me, he was right, it wasn't bloody fair, and I said so. I have little tolerance for people who don't pull their weight.

We don't like others ripping the system off - and those who get most incensed about it are people like this bloke who works hard, does what he believes is the right thing and earns close to the minimum wage.

His comment cuts to the heart of something very important to New Zealanders: fairness.

Fairness is a core feature of New Zealand. It is heavily ingrained in our DNA. I believe it stems from our history, a country built on equality, free from the old class addled system of Great Britain.

We have a social contract in New Zealand. It works like this: if you need help because of something unexpected: an accident, a loss, or if misfortune befalls you, you will be supported.

But once you're back on your own feet, we expect you to pull your weight once again and contribute back to society.

Personally I think his comments are correct if somewhat ill advised. Even the most liberal among us should concede that there are people who abuse the welfare system. The problem arises when the media and politicians disproportionately promote that abuse, causing widespread misconceptions that stigmatise all beneficiaries. The hatred this creates towards the less fortunate among us is an illness that cuts to the very heart of New Zealands dysfunction, and it's therefore dangerous for those on the leftwing of politics to even raise the issue of welfare fraud. Did Shearer's anecdote disproportionately promote the problem? I don't think so. It's the development of social media that allowed his speech to be blown out of proportion, and the mistake was in not understanding how social media works to disseminate information.

It should be said that to reduce the amount of people abusing the system is in fact beneficial to those who truly need help, and a few bad apples in this respect really do spoil the bunch. Unfortunately highlighting the bad apples and developing peoples misconceptions has given National an excuse to implement harsh welfare changes as a part of their Future Focus regime. This has adversely affected many beneficiaries and those in need of assistance. Approximately 21% of the WINZ clients who were automatically removed from welfare simply disappear from the system and are not registered as finding employment, studying or leaving the country. This does not bode well, and means the statistics on the actual unemployment level are wrong and do not correctly reflect the hardship that is occurring throughout New Zealand.

The fact Shearer chose a topic about welfare fraud over others is of concern, and I would prefer to hear more on how he plans to reduce corruption from within Work and Income, which is where the majority of welfare fraud occurs. I would like to hear about how Labour will create jobs so that everybody has a chance to work themselves out of poverty, I want to here how they will reduce the huge amount of corporate crime that is an epidemic within New Zealand's business community, and I would like to hear Shearer outline Labours policy to ensure politicians cannot abuse their positions of power with perks, backhanders and by promoting legislation that is only beneficial to their vested interests. I think those issues are of far more importance and noteworthy than the few isolated cases of welfare fraud that gain too much attention.