Responsibility, redemption and the future of welfare

Society deemed him an animal. “Who made me that? Me. What was I fighting? Myself. Who created me? Me. I own that.”

So said Mark Stephens, the vicious Parnell Panther rapist, in an ownership-of-past-wrongs message to ACT deputy leader Muriel Newman’s welfare symposium on Saturday.

The right likes hearing stories that tell of taking responsibility for one’s misdeeds. They are the obverse of taking responsibility for looking after oneself, getting a job, getting off welfare, fulfilling obligations.

No excuses, Stephens said. His story was “survival” after a childhood up to age eight of beatings and starvation, followed by various forms of incarceration and ECT, the dark side of psychiatry.

Stephens also told a redemption story: between 30 and 42 he went to university, married and became a “social advocate” — that is, a positive contributor.

The right likes redemption stories. They validate the work-and-responsibility ethic. If one can do it, why not everyone?

Stephens was arresting theatre. So was ex-prison-boss Celia Lashlie’s speech to National’s Canterbury-Westland conference in May about the rough starts many criminals had and what turned some around.

But theatre and emotion are not policy. Moreover, several speakers to Newman’s symposium insisted “systemic” change, as Commonwealth youth star Marcus Brown put it, was at most part of the deal. Individuals had to do their bit to help people see opportunity and change their lives.

Brown’s own story underlined how hit and miss this can be. He would have spent a layabout life on the East Coast had a teacher not seen his potential and pushed him to university. Now he spots potential in others.

Parties can’t organise individuals to do that. Their tool is the blunt one of policy.

In policy the right usually goes for carrots (“incentives”) and sticks (more “incentives”): change the system and behaviour will change. This exhibits both a sceptical view of human nature — without prodding, people will take the easy way — and a positive one — underneath every able-bodied beneficiary is a fine citizen yearning to escape the “welfare trap” if only the rewards are right.

This duality of perspective is part of the tension within National between those who want tough time limits (the sceptics) and those with a positive outlook who say people must be supported to get durably into work and self-sufficiency. A problem for National and ACT is that the second option is expensive and they don’t like spending, especially on beneficiaries.

The left does like spending, especially on beneficiaries, and is developing its own “investment” version of the supportive option. It rejects the first option as punitive and abhors the moralising tone it divines in the sceptics.

Confronted with stories like Stephens’, the left focuses much more on the horror childhood than on ownership of misdeeds and redemption. It reaches for state instruments to wash away the sins and create a new life.

But this presumes the state can change the inner person, without which there is no absolution and renewal. The state can do that only incidentally through individual action by gifted or insightful state servants and teachers, not through systems.

The key, the been-there-done-that lot in effect told ACT’s symposium, is to lift aspirations.

The left seems these days to link “aspiration” not with a better life but with elitism. So in the hands of the left the state has alternately palliated and supported. It has not liberated, though that was the original intention of the welfare state.

“Nobody goes into the future by focusing on failure,” social entrepreneur Sam Chapman told the symposium. “Caring isn’t a handout or a hand-up. I want a handshake with someone who sees me as an equal.”

The left could surely agree with that last sentence. But the left and right have very different views of “equal”. ACT’s founder, Sir Roger Douglas, who transited from left to the right in the 1980s, tries to reconcile them through asset-based social policy regimes: giving people a taste of “ownership”, a stake in the system.

Australian Labour leader Mark Latham has advocated a version of this. Ngai Tahu leader Tahu Potiki is developing a scheme to use tribal funds to make tribe members part of the ownership society.

But this is at most only part of the story. The real point of welfare policy, as ACT leader Rodney Hide indicated on Saturday, is children.

Give children kindness and instil a belief they can make something of themselves — be truly “free”, not just “at liberty” (the right’s narrow take on “free”) — and they will be much less likely to follow their parents on to “welfare”.

That is not left or right. It is commonsense. What is not commonsense is to palliate ever-growing welfare rolls. That is not sustainable, fiscally or politically.

The left is beginning to grasp this but has not yet worked out what to do. If it doesn’t, one day its core supporters will desert it for politicians who say they can.