A few months ago, Scoop asked Paula Bennett at John Key’s post-Cabinet press conference whether she saw a pressing need – in the light of the global financial crisis – to relax the criteria for special assistance to families who would become dependent on the state for income support. No, Bennett said, she wasn’t – and now wasn’t the time, she maintained, for ‘tinkering’ with the rules of entitlement.
To which one could only respond – if this crisis isn’t the right time, when would be? The crisis has now arrived. And sure enough, it does transpire that beneficiaries are being denied assistance, and are being shunted off to food banks by the counter staff at WINZ.
Neither the departmental staff – nor the National party – can be entirely blamed for this situation they have inherited. It was the Clark government that replaced the old Special Benefit (which allowed WINZ counter staff some discretion when it came to meeting crisis situations) with the Temporary Additional Support scheme, which offers little or no discretion at all. That change had been the government’s miserly reaction to the Ruka v WINZ High Court decision in 2002 – which had held that the state did indeed have a legal obligation to adequately advise beneficiaries of their entitlements. Labour’s response? To shrink the entitlements.
During economic boom times, only MPs with wide experience in the welfare sector – and that list begins and ends with Sue Bradford – expressed any concern about what the replacement of the SB by the TAS would mean, when times got tough. Here’s Bradford, as reported in the Jobs Letter in 2006 –
Green MP Sue Bradford is disappointed that Benson-Pope’s “good news” for beneficiaries didn’t cover the fact that the Special Benefit is being scrapped. In its place will be Temporary Additional Support (TAS) which has much more restrictive criteria. Bradford says that under TAS, no matter how severe the hardship, no lump sum payments will be allowed and that a “severe limit” on paying expenses will be imposed. Bradford points out that the system will be much less flexible and restricts case managers’ ability to take account of individual circumstances. In most cases the beneficiary must meet the first $20 of hardship and the payment will usually be limited to a maximum weekly payment of no more than 30% of the main benefit they receive.
Now those chickens are coming home to roost. The welfare safety net for those needing special assistance is plainly inadequate. Bennett and Key cannot continue to act as if the only people who need government help during the financial crisis are the suffering captains in the tycoon sector. Bennett in particular, needs to get beyond photo ops and slogans – and start to show some leadership of her department’s response to what is happening in our communities, as unemployment begins to rise.
Interesting that the outside world – which expressed nothing but contempt for Fiji’s judicial system last year when the High Court delivered a decision it didn’t like – should now be rushing to defend it, once the Court of Appeal gave a decision that it DID like, but which has now been swept aside.
Apparently, under that latest reading of the 1997 Constitution, there was no prerogative power held by the Fijian President, no matter what breakdown in good governance or civil society had occurred. At the very least, this reading would seem to render the 1997 Constitution seriously deficient. Yet to solve the crisis in Fiji and out of thin air, the President was then expected to produce an independent interim regime acceptable to all. Whatever else one might say about it, at least the High Court had tried to grapple with events in the real world.
Tragically, those events have now moved beyond the nuances of constitutional interpretation. The suspension of political and media freedoms is sad, but entirely predictable – the Court of Appeal made its case, but did anyone really think the regime would hand Fiji back to the corrupt old political and business elites from which it sees itself to be the national saviour?
To the likes of Bainimarama, the media (and especially the foreign media) are the mouthpieces of those old neo-colonial elites, and disinterested in analyzing the interests currently in conflict over the country’s future direction. None of which justifies the repressive steps currently being taken – but given the siege mentality of the regime, the prospect that it will be shifted from its course by our current round of hand-wringing is remote. New Zealand and Australia cannot serve as honest brokers in this situation. If anyone can, someone such as PNG’s Sir Michael Somare now seems the only option, but without his script being ghosted from the sidelines.
The reason why New Zealand cannot simply be content to call Fiji names – the Burma of the South Pacific etc etc – is that we have too much to lose. Gilbert Ulrich has already pointed out the circa $500 million in business that Fiji means to this country. Not that this should be an over-riding concern. Yet MFAT seems to have no strategy whatsoever to counter the way China is displacing New Zealand in Fiji economically, diplomatically and, in time, militarily. Any short term satisfaction from decrying the human rights situation in Fiji has to be weighed against the longer term damage of enabling China to increase its clout in Fiji in particular, and within the South Pacific in general.
It may already be too late. By choosing to lash itself to the sorry likes of Laisinia Qarase, New Zealand has put itself on a collision course with Bainimarama from which there is now little prospect of escape.