Gordon Campbell on the real truth deficit in welfare

It has been astonishing to see the amount of time and energy being spent on what Greens co-leader Metiria Turei did or didn’t do properly as a beneficiary back in the early 1990s – as compared to how little time and energy is being put into the point of her personal example. Turei was citing her case in order to query whether much has changed – especially when it comes down to whether the current benefit levels and targeting rules at WINZ are helping or hindering today’s beneficiaries to escape from poverty.

Clearly, some people would prefer to re-litigate whether Turia can be retroactively held to account for lying to WINZ way back then. Sigh. Instead, maybe we should be asking for starters:

(i) whether current benefit levels are adequate to keep people and their children out of poverty
(ii) how pro-active WINZ staff are encouraged to be when advising people of their current entitlements, and what the take-up rates of those entitlements currently are
(iii) whether the current abatement levels at which added income is taxed are helping or hindering people to lift their families out of poverty
(iv) the extent to which the reported declines in those on benefits can be attributed to social and demographic changes eg in the declining numbers of sole parents
(v) what impact the Greens proposals on raising benefit levels and allowing for an abatement free zone of $200 on extra earned income would have, in helping people get out of poverty

The most troubling thing about the current emphasis of government policy is that “success” seems to be judged entirely on whether people are being moved off benefits – and not on whether those same people and their families are subsequently moving out of poverty. In like fashion, this imperative to get people off benefits may explain why relatively little effort is being put by WINZ staff into ensuring the poor are alerted to their assistance entitlements.

Do government ministers have a clue about what happens to people once they move off benefits? Not really. Hey, if you’re no longer getting a benefit, you’re no longer their problem. That’s why if we’re obsessed with politicians telling the truth I’d be far more interested in holding Social Development Minister Anne Tolley to account for the statement she made in Parliament yesterday. As she rejected Turei’s call for an amnesty for current beneficiaries who may be tweaking the rules to make ends meet, Tolley once again celebrated the government’s “success” in getting people off benefits:

60,000 children live in houses no longer dependent on a benefit. I think that is a huge success for this country, and a huge success for the people who are now living totally independent lives, now able to support themselves and their families.

Right. So how can Tolley be so ringingly confident about the quality of life that those people are now living, and how well they are able “to support themselves and their families”? Perhaps she could table any research her ministry has done into the numbers of children in houses who have moved off benefits, and out of poverty. Because anecdotally, even people in low waged paid employment have been sliding into poverty on Tolley’s watch. That reality seems a lot more important than what Turei did, or didn’t do 25 years ago, and whether she may have exceeded her ratio of fun to responsibility, back in the day.

Bridges, Not Over Troubled Waters

So State Services Minister Paula Bennett feels it fitting to apologise to the whistleblowers at the Transport Ministry who lost their jobs thanks to fraudster Joanne Harrison but hey, the Minister of the actual department concerned – Transport Minister Simon Bridges – feels he has nothing to apologise for to the people most affected by what happened:

Transport Minister Simon Bridges said he did not think he owed the whistleblowers an apology.”I don’t think so, because I think from my perspective if you look at my actions in this, and actually you think at the division of labour effectively if you like between the minister, the Ministry of Transport, and their responsibilities, and the State Services Commission.

“What I have always sought to do is that the chief executives, his senior leadership teams and the SSC have taken this with the utmost seriousness.”

True, Bridges’ office did instruct Transport ministry chief legal adviser David Bowden not to continue to take such a narrow and obstructive approach to the OIA requests emanating from Labour MP Sue Moroney, who had been seeking details of the Harrison affair. But then again, Bridges was not exactly the poster child for transparency and candour, either.

Another email obtained by RNZ shows Mr Bridges recommended in May that the Ministry not give further interviews about Harrison, and only provide written statements to the media.

This was at a crucial time when State Services were, as Moroney says, initially refusing to conduct an inquiry into the Harrison affair. It was only after media inquiries came to bear – the same inquiries that Bridges was advising his ministry on how best to shut them down – that State Services Commissioner Peter Hughes changed his mind, and launched his investigation.

If only for appearances, Bridges should man up, show some leadership of his Ministry, and tender his apologies to the staff affected and/or forced out by Harrison’s actions. Otherwise, it’s a weird sort of apology where the wider government is saying sorry, but the relevant Minister isn’t.

Ethiopia Calling

Hailu Mergia played keyboards for the Walias Band during the golden era of Ethiopian jazz and funk during the 1970s and 1980s. Eventually, Mergia moved to the US and released a few solo albums – some of them while he was driving a cab in Washington DC to make ends meet – and this mesmerizing cut comes from one of them :

And also check out this track:

Finally, from elsewhere in Africa – namely, the modern Democratic Republic of the Congo – the collective known as Kokoko! make some of their musical instruments from recycled scrap metal, and this video contains some stunning images of the band and its urban environment in Kinshasa.