Bashing welfare or investing in kids

Paula Bennett says “most people” will see last week’s welfare changes as “fair and reasonable”. She is almost certainly right. But is that the limit of her ambition?

A majority doesn’t make something right. Attorney-General Chris Finlayson, a lawyer’s lawyer, ruled that under the Bill of Rights Bennett’s changes are not fair: they discriminate on sex, marital status and family status grounds in applying the work requirement to those on a domestic purposes benefit whose youngest child is six but not to those on a widow’s benefit or a woman-alone on the DPB. Her new law does not qualify for exemption on the ground that it “serves an important and significant objective” and is “proportionate to that objective.”

That ruling will make no difference. The Clark government never let the Bill of Rights stop pet policy — notably its Electoral Finance Act, which was bad law. The Key government won’t either. Rodney Hide can expect the same treatment of his Regulatory Responsibility Bill’s proposed protection of property rights, should he get it passed.

But practice does not undo a principle. There is a common law tradition, upheld by courts, to protect individual rights against a hostile or unthinking majority. Legal tradition built up over centuries says the majority is not always right when it comes to rights.

The Bill of Rights Act, turning 20 this year, added legislative elbow to that tradition. It does not override other law or give the courts the power to do that but it can persuade or embarrass.

Bennett is not versed in the law and need not bother. Her appeal to the majority — “most people” — is in the tradition of our majoritarian, winner-take-all politics. And she is surely right that most people would think her welfare intentions fair and reasonable.

In fact, Labour’s Carmel Sepuloni got it right on radio when she said, in effect, that the changes are more rhetorical than rough: “The minister and the government are just sensationalising the issue, making it out they are hardline. But the reality is that there aren’t any jobs … most of these people won’t be able to get into work anyway.”

John Key and Bennett are not vindictive. The “reforms” are not radical: costs nearly equal savings.

Actually Labour switched the focus in the early 2000s from simply paying benefits to requiring beneficiaries to develop work plans. Case workers were instructed to try to guide them into work. Bennett is building on that innovation, not taking us into a brave new world.

But she is tightening the screws a bit, most notably in the DPB child-over-six work requirement and a 50 per cent benefit cut first penalty for those who “fail their work obligations”, to encourage case workers to apply some penalty when they would baulk at a 100 per cent cut.

Even with a 50 per cent cut, what about the children? Life in even a full-benefit household is not luxury for children. A child in poverty starts life poorly, unless the parent(s) is/are as life-skilled as Bennett herself was or Key’s mother was.

For such children there is no “dream” — more often a nightmare. A child who starts off poorly is likely to do poorly in later life.

Bennett offered no “reform” to increase intervention to ensure beneficiaries’ children get the sort of good start that makes good citizens later in life — even though she and Key insist they want to reduce disadvantage for children.

Bennett’s changes also require case workers to manage their charges more intensively. She says some improvements in work systems have enabled them to manage more and in greater depth, so no increase in staff is needed.

Maybe, but more pressure on case workers is on the way. Nick Smith has pushed ACC to kick people off its books and news reports attest to ACC case workers’ success. Bennett’s case workers will collect those rejects, at least for initial assessment and maybe for a benefit if, post-ACC, they don’t or can’t work.

Will welfare case workers be as tough as ACC’s, to save taxpayers’ money as the ACC is saving employers’? Bennett has kicked that question off to a working group she is setting up.

That working group could, if it got the bit between its teeth, take us far. It could ask why 65s-67s, or 65s-70s, who want to work and are working are nevertheless paid full superannuation while some kids get glue ear and no breakfast and are set up to fail.

Then, if it were imaginative, it could take a cue from Key’s sparse reference on Tuesday to opportunity and Bennett’s occasional reference in Parliament on Thursday to “investment”.

That is, it could develop an investment approach to welfare policy: not how much can the taxpayer save but what return the taxpayer can get from a particular case worker’s skills and from lifting beneficiaries’ capacity and expanding their children’s life options with strong interventions.

To purloin Bennett’s felicitous phrase, most people would see that as fair and reasonable. And the Bill of Rights would not be an issue.