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Garner: In defence of Bennett’s welfare shakeup

Thursday 1 Mar 2012 12:26 p.m.

Paula Bennett

Paula Bennett

Opinion by Political Editor Duncan Garner

Who really thinks National's welfare reforms are that scary?

They're not.

Forcing people to be work-tested should be a basic contractual agreement between the Government and its "clients" when money changes hands.

Indeed much of that happens already - and has been occurring for years.

Paying the rent and power bills of teenagers directly before they spend their benefit money on booze and cigarettes is hardly radical.

No one will lose their benefits if they can't find a job. All the Government is asking is that they get work tested sooner and that they become more aggressive in their search for work. They will lose the right to turn down work - they must take a job if it's offered. If they continue to thumb their nose at work, they will start to lose their benefits.

The message is this: welfare should not become a lifestyle where you can keep having more babies, while other Kiwis work.

The statistics have become alarming: 13 percent of the country's working age population - 351,000 New Zealanders - are currently on a benefit and 220,000 children live in benefit-dependent households. John Key says it's holding us back.

Surely the architects of the welfare system didn't envisage a welfare state like this.

I think National's approach will go down well across middle New Zealand and especially amongst its core voters.

And Paula Bennett, the Minister, has started the sales job, by attacking the opponents of change with some knockout punches - of which I'll get to shortly.

But first the plan. Sure it's lacking a few details.

The Government needs to be telling DBP mums and dads what sort of incentives are on offer for childcare.

That will come in the May 24 Budget - and the Government needs to get this right. People need to feel like their work is valued and it's worth it. These changes won't work if people feel out of pocket for working. What's the point otherwise?

So the childcare subsidies will have be generous enough to entice - and that will cost the Government big money, which it has already acknowledged. It will be a test of the Government's approach on this actually.

If John Key and Paula Bennett are serious about generational change in welfare rather than just a short term punitive approach - then their approach on the childcare subsidies should be revealing.

And then there's the cry of "where are the jobs?"

It's a fair call from opposition parties. Currently there are about 15,000 jobs available in NZ on the Seek website.

That's a fair few.

But many jobs are low paid and part-time. The last Household Labourforce Survey showed there were 15,000 more part time jobs last quarter, but 13,000 fewer full time jobs. It's a concerning trend. Who wants 15 hours a week on crap money?

People need meaningful sustainable jobs. Flipping burgers is a job; it's a start, we've all done this sort of work.

But it's true for those entering the workforce for the first time in a long time that they need to start somewhere but they also need a pathway to show them the way out of those jobs too.

I often get accused by some who say I'm a media hack and what would I know about low-paid work?

Well I know something. I know I cleaned the Whitcoulls Queen Street store at 16 in my school holidays for youth rates - about $4.50 an hour at the time. I powder-coated curtain rails for $6.00 an hour in a Glenfield factory a year later. I put lids on toothpaste at the Avondale Redseal factory at the same time to help me pay for my first year at university.

My first job at TVNZ in 1995 was as an intern and I was paid $15,400 a year - about $250 a week from memory. A year later they put me on $21,000. By year three it was $30,000.

I worked like a slave for $250 a week. Try living on that in Auckland - it was impossible.

They were part-time crappy jobs (not the TVNZ one) - and they sure as hell encouraged me to take my studies seriously by year three!

Anyway, I digress.

The answer to all this of course is economic growth. A bigger economy will help get people off benefits, not just welfare reform in its own right.

Reforms will play a part, but they're not the sole answer.

The Government desperately needs the economy to grow faster. Labour reduced the numbers of people on benefits drastically in 2004/05 when the economy was going gangbusters.

It's the best answer to welfare reform and always has been.

But back to Bennett and her handling of these changes so far.

She's tough. She's been there. She's been a solo mum. She's had it hard. She's come out the other end. Labour hates her. And she hates them more. It's a perfect rematch of the Rumble in the Jungle - except these guys might be tougher. Labour regards her as a traitor in my opinion - and they're going after her. Problem is - nothing is sticking yet.

And Bennett loves a knuckle.

Her handling of the youth unemployment issue last year in my opinion was average - 83,000 young Kiwis are not in either education employment or training and it's a crisis not helped by the Government's underwhelming approach to it last year.

But Bennett has started the year with a spring in her step. She looks determined to front foot these welfare changes that she believes in.

Yesterday in response to questioning by Hone Harawira, I thought she nailed him by telling him to sort out his patch and his voters - who she claimed would rather smoke drugs than get jobs. Not every minister would try that one - but it silenced Harawira, which isn't easy.

Consider this: National made a pigs ear out of its mining reforms and dropped them.

Bill English and John Key have done a pretty average job at selling the asset sales programme.

But so far Bennett is winning the war on this battle. That could change, but right now she appears to be doing well. The public aren't marching in the street - indeed they're likely to be behind welfare reform.

Whether it works is another thing. And in two years' time the real test will be in whether people have got jobs and the numbers of people on welfare are down. It failed in the '90s, it could easily do so again if the economy doesn't pick up.

But Bennett is trying something, and she's loud and proud about it. The Prime Minister backs her - and as long as Hone Harawira and Sue Bradford are rallying against her then she's likely to have mainstream working NZ sewn up on this one.

Sure she has her detractors - but that's not new in politics.

If she can deliver this one - could she be on track for higher honours in the National Party?

Who else is there after Key?

Stephen Joyce and Hekia Parata?

Makes you wonder eh?

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