Gordon Campbell on National’s misleading policy packaging

luxonupstonthumbTruth in packaging can be a political rarity, but the gap between what the Luxon administration says it is doing and what its policies will actually deliver is looking as wide as the Grand Canyon. Is it possible to run a government for three years purely on misleading slogans and labels – competence, efficiency, fairness, the healing of social divisions etc – while carrying out policies that are the polar opposite of those virtues? New Zealanders are about to find out if we are truly as credulous as this government assumes us to be.

Routinely, the coalition has bought votes by promising to cut taxes, regardless of the costs in unmet needs and decaying infrastructure. For the obvious recent example, here’s National’s cynical rationale for scrapping the Auckland regional fuel tax. It wants to “ help” with the cost of living.

In reality, no net savings will result. Whatever pittances Auckland motorists save at the pump will be outweighed by the loss of the 30 roading projects, big and small, that were to be funded by the fuel excise tax. Higher rates, increased congestion charging and road tolls will be required to make up the shortfall. Yet chances are, many Auckland motorists will still think they’re winners – and thank National for it – even as the city’s transport infrastructure crumbles, and roads become less safe.

On the campaign trail, National promised that its cuts to public services would occur only among backroom staff, not frontline services. Yet last week, it emerged that new classrooms (i.e. the places where kids were supposed to get those compulsory lessons in maths and literacy) are to be “re-prioritised,” or not built at all, because the government has decided to postpone or cancel investment in these services:

More than 100 new classroom builds are in doubt in a cost-cutting exercise ….The Education Ministry has confirmed to RNZ that it has paused major projects at 20 primary schools and colleges due to rising costs, changing roll growth forecasts or the reprioritisation of scarce funds.

Essentially, those new classrooms are to be sacrificed to finance National’s tax cuts, and its tax giveaway to landlords. Welcome to the reality behind the “back to basics” rhetoric.

Politics, as religion

As with any evangelical religion touting for converts, elections are won by the sect offering the more compelling moral vision. It involves swaying the public into making huge leaps of faith. In politics as in religion, querying the policy details tends to be an entry barrier to Heaven.

Here’s a further, really telling example of pouring the policy poison into pretty little bottles. On the weekend, Social Development Minister Louise Upston used her Q&A encounter with Jack Tame to portray National’s latest crackdown on beneficiaries as a moral endeavour – a quest to “support those on welfare” (including the sick and disabled) into doing their bit, getting their CVs up to date, chasing job openings of any sort, fronting up to interviews, and ultimately getting into work, to the social and financial betterment of themselves and their families.

Upston stuck to these utopian talking points even as Jack Tame’s questioning revealed the ugliness and incompetence beneath the shiny surface. More beneficiaries will be sanctioned on her watch. Moreover, as Upston said to Tame without embarrassment, she hadn’t read the Treasury advice concerning the 90 day trial to which job seekers were exposed by the last National government. According to Treasury, the 90 day trial had made no discernible difference to employment outcomes for job seekers. Instead, Upston said, she had talked to employers, and she was relying on what they’d said to her. So…. 90 day trials are back, and are once again being sold to the public as a way of enabling job seekers to get onto the job ladder – even though there is no research evidence to show that this happy outcome actually occurs.

Furthermore, Upston dismissed the findings by the Welfare Expert Advisory Group that punitive sanctions had no effect on welfare compliance. That, she told Tame, was just one viewpoint among many.

So…. Despite her own reluctance to read, let alone be guided by the research relevant to her job, Upston will be imposing a punitive “traffic light” system to compel job seeker compliance. Achieve “orange” status and you lose half your benefit and have the state take over your finances via a digital debit card that will deny you access to cash. Achieve “red”and your benefit gets cut off entirely, regardless of the impact that either “orange” or “red” status will have on the children of families. In effect, the state will have deprived them of a living income, and a safety net. Friends and families, Upston suggested, might help such people out.

By such means, beneficiary bashing is going digital, under the guise of “help” and “support.” Presumably, this crackdown on people already struggling to get by will free up more money for those promised tax cuts. The WINZ pressure will also force job seekers to accept whatever wages and conditions that employers choose to offer, on pain either of being fired at will under the 90 day trial, and/or of exposing people to the threat of having their benefits reduced or terminated entirely.

Plainly, there are votes to be won by looking tough on crime, and being tough on welfare. Welfare recipients, Upston stressed, have obligations. Yet the government evidently feels itself under no obligation to meet its side of the social contract, by ensuring that jobs exist, at fair and reasonable rates of pay and conditions. Keep in mind that this government has also abolished Fair Pay Agreements.

Footnote: Upston is imposing a traffic light system on job seekers at exactly the same time as Treasury, the Reserve Bank and most bank economists are predicting that unemployment will rise throughout this year, peaking at 5% by year’s end. That means National is demanding that people find jobs, even as the job market is headed into a downturn.

Some of this rise in unemployment is being deliberately engineered by the Reserve Bank to curb inflation. (People without jobs spend less money!) Some of the rise is also being deliberately created by the government cuts to jobs in the public service. Many people who have never been on welfare before will be forced into reliance on it for the first time.

Also at exactly the same time, the government is reducing the value of benefits, by shifting the indexation of benefit increases from wage rates to the inflation rate. This will significantly reduce the net value of benefits. Already in the December quarter, inflation was running at only .5% for the quarter, and is predicted to reduce sharply on an annual basis this year, back to within the RB’s 1-3% target range. As Tame put it:

Wage growth is projected by Treasury, the Reserve Bank, in the half yearly update in December to outstrip the CPI. So by an analysis in the NZ Herald…. beneficiaries will be more than $30 worse off every week… and more than $50 a week worse off by the end of the decade, than they would have under the previous system.

Upston: Yes, and I want to focus on fewer people receiving welfare, and have more people in work.

Until that happy day arrives when everyone is employed and whistling while they work, Upston is ensuring that beneficiaries and their families will receive minimal increases to help meet their living costs. Beneficiaries can expect increases to be significantly less than what they would have received beforehand, even though (as the Welfare Expert Advisory Group argued) those prior benefit levels were already grossly inadequate. As Tame also said, pension increases will still remain indexed to wages. As a result, pensions will systematically increase at a higher rate, compared to benefits.

How come there’s this difference in approach, Tame asked. Upston could offer no relevant answer. The only rational conclusion is that pensioners are a more valuable voting bloc to the Luxon administration than beneficiaries, who either don’t vote or vote centre-left. Beneficiaries and their children are being treated as relatively expendable, while pensioners will be better cushioned against the cost of living expenses that they face.

Despite the fine words of “help” and “support”, these are the ugly realities behind the government’s plans to pummel the poor into workplace compliance with whatever employers choose to put on the table. Little wonder if some turn to shoplifting and other forms of crime to make ends meet, while the rest of us pocket our tax cuts.

Iron and Wine, Redux

“You could make grey, and call it gold,” Sam Beam sings in the opening lines of the first new Iron and Wine music in nearly seven years, and “let it fool your eyes.” Exactly.

This “You Never Know”single begins in deceptively prettiness, before sliding into dissonance, and then out again into quiet resolution. Beam sings it beautifully, too: