Gordon Campbell on the government’s new social targets

Imagine this wacky, unbelievable scenario. Prime Minister John Key announces that for too long, too many people earning over $100,000 have been paying too little tax, and he’s going to do something about it. From now on, he wants to see IRD boosting the tax take from such people by 10% by 2017, or else. Impossible to imagine, isn’t it? For good reason, arguably. Because some of the people involved could be quite legitimately paying their current rate of tax, and cracking down on them arbitrarily would mean trampling all over their lawful entitlements.

No such trouble for Key though, when it comes to the vulnerable in our society. Yesterday, the Prime Minister threw his moral weight (yes, I know) behind new targets to reduce the number of long term welfare recipients, whatever. Along with a number of other social targets, including a reduction in crime:

The Government wants 23,000 fewer long-term beneficiaries on its books by 2017 and the head of Work and Income could lose a bonus if the target is not achieved. The welfare target is among 10 specific targets the Government has set for the public sector to achieve over five years in policy relating to welfare, vulnerable children, crime, skills and employment, and digital advances.

Key emphasized that the targets were not to be treated by public service bosses as merely aspirational, either:

Prime Minister John Key said the targets were “not a wish-list – they are a to-do list”. Some would be very hard to achieve but with focus could be reached.

Love that “with focus” term. As with ACC, bureaucrats are being offered pay bonuses if they skew their decisions and kick people off the welfare rolls regardless of eligibility, the state of the job market, or the consequences for the recipient. As with ACC, it is an invitation to treat all long term claimants as malingerers, until they can prove otherwise to the satisfaction of front lie staff who are trying to make a quota. This, remember, is being framed as a “to do” target.

It would be marginally more acceptable if this directive to the managers of the front line staff making the assessment decisions was accompanied by some job creation efforts by government – so that you know, people could see the government was at least making a token effort to keep its side of the social contract. No such luck. That would defeat the tough love image that is being pursued here. In fact, whenever Key talks about government’s ability to create jobs, he insists it can do nothing but …create the general conditions for growth. Which is (a) untrue since job creation options in infrastructure building etc can be created by government and (b) on current settings, the “conditions for growth” he is promoting actually entail cutting labour costs and eliminating jobs.

Formerly, political leaders took it upon themselves to try and protect the vulnerable, not kick them around for political gain. We also used to have a neutral public service which enacted policy with a degree of fairness and even handedness, and which was not up for pocketing bonuses for denying people their lawful means of support. The targets announced yesterday are a recipe for abuse.