Obligations at the heart of the welfare debate

National goes to its conference this month a troubled party but with glimmers of hope flickering.

Will it be a serious contender in the battle for power in 2005, as it was not in 2002? If so, is it rebuilding in a way that might win the war for dominance through the next 20 to 25 years?

This need was well grasped by Bill English as far back as 1997. As a sub-40-year-old who came into Parliament only in 1990, he was looking for a post-Rogernomics language of slightly right-of-centre conservatism.

His problem since 1999 has been that the electorate, encouraged by a benign economy, has taken to Helen Clark’s slightly left-of-centre conservatism. If anything, Labour is writing the political language of the 2000s.

But fortunes can whiplash fiercely. Federal Australia went from a deeply entrenched Labor government/dishevilled Liberal opposition to a deeply entrenched Liberal government/dishevilled Labor opposition. Britain has done the exact reverse.

So National has a lot to play for. Moreover, at the level of strategic policy English has pinpointed the right battlegrounds: three cross-cutting topics, the Treaty of Waitangi, the economy and welfare, to which he more recently added education. National has been producing or will produce background papers for discussion on which it will base firm policy next year.

On all three cross-cutting policy areas Labour has vulnerabilities. On the Treaty and welfare these vulnerabilities give National some scope to win some middle ground, if it handles them skilfully.

Welfare, for example, has become a central issue for the 2000s. Fiscal constraints on taxing and spending in a globalised world do not allow numbers to go on rising as they have for three decades. Left or right, that is so.

Both Labour and National and parties to their left and right and between them, nevertheless agree that a modern society must look after the genuinely disabled or disadvantaged or temporarily marooned, though there is some disagreement as to who and what qualify.

And there is general agreement, though less firm on the Labour side, that long-term benefit dependency is debilitating for individuals, families and society. It separates beneficiaries from the society around them. Some Maori now make this point.

So all parties agree it is important to get beneficiaries into work — durable work which is also decisively more financially rewarding than the benefit. They mostly agree work builds individuals’ self-esteem and social cohesion. And they generally agree that longterm beneficiaries, who form the majority at any one time, are the core issue.

But they disagree on solutions. Social Development Minister Steve Maharey puts more emphasis on carrots, National’s Katherine Rich on sticks — though Maharey toys with sticks and Rich allows carrots.

A principal stick of Rich’s is a time limit, as introduced in the United States in the 1990s, after which sanctions apply. She aims subsidiary sticks (and sanctions) at prodding parents to get infants immunised, or at least to make an informed and conscious decision not to, and to make their children go to school.

Rich also wants to make “work” the first question a new beneficiary is asked. She would bring back work for the dole. American research has shown that a “work first” approach produces substantially higher wages over five years than a “training first” one. Any work is better than no work, Rich says.

Maharey prefers to “make work pay”, partly by smoothing the path into work with help with transport, child care and so on and even continuing the benefit for a time. The hope is that beneficiaries will get the work habit and find it rewarding.

Rich acknowledges that the apparent success of American programmes in getting beneficiaries into work — apart from a booming economy which made jobs by the truckload — was due to expensive taxpayer support for poor working families: from $US11 billion in 1988 to $US70 billion in 1999. This tripled the average gap between not working and working on the minimum wage.

But the core difference between Maharey and Rich, between left and right, is over obligations. Maharey says beneficiaries have obligations to taxpayers supporting them but his words and actions do not radiate conviction. Rich is adamant.

It is on this point that Labour is vulnerable. Working families don’t resent the genuinely needy and unfortunate. They do resent shirkers. Far fewer beneficaries are shirkers than folklore has it. But politics operates more on folklore than facts. And there is enough folklore for National and its allies to work on.