It has been a rare experience to see New Zealand’s “underclass” coming in for such sustained comment over the past week in the wake of John Key’s first major speech as National Party leader.
On the one hand it was good to see Key take some ownership of the issues as it was his party’s policies from the 1990’s which drove working class New Zealanders into poverty in their hundreds of thousands and then held them there.
When John Key talks about people being trapped on the bottom of the social ladder with the rungs missing he should have added that it was his former National Party colleagues Ruth Richardson and Jenny Shipley who smashed the rungs.
Ruth Richardson was positively swelling with pride as she delivered her infamous “mother of all budgets” in 1991 which put the boot into families struggling from Labour’s reforms. But National’s worst social crime was the Employment Contracts Act of 1990. This was quaintly referred to as “deregulation of the labour market” but what it meant in practice was lower wages, longer hours of work (without overtime rates) and heavier workloads.
The 1990s was a decade of despair which created the scene so accurately described in John Key’s speech. Social dysfunction, alienation, illiteracy, poverty and hopelessness are rife throughout our low income communities.
Key can rightly claim he wasn’t here through that decade and not responsible for the policies. He was working the international money markets trading in wealth created by others. Not socially productive but very lucrative.
And while no-one expected Key to provide detailed polices responses to the problems, from his speech we got enough of the flavour of his solutions.
He described his ideas as a mix of carrots and sticks. The carrots include redirecting government funding away from bureaucrats in Wellington to give more of a role to the private sector. Voluntary community groups would receive extra funding while businesses would be encouraged to provide school lunches and sports gear. The sticks would include those on the dole for more than 12 months being required to do community work for one or two days a week.
Unfortunately none of these proposals are heading in the right direction.
They won’t help a father of three I spoke to last week who works 50 to 60 hours each week (no overtime rate) on a 6pm to 6am security roster earning $13 an hour. His wife works a cleaning job for $10.75 an hour from 3pm to 8pm on four nights a week. A teenage cousin of the children looks after them when both parents are working. The father worries about his 10-year-old boy getting into trouble at school. Is it any wonder?
Various combinations of low pay, part-time, insecure, rostered, anti-social work are at the heart of social dysfunction. Unemployment is a much less important issue.
Key says his government aims to reward people who work hard. How? His target group are already working too hard.
Given half a chance the same people Key describes as lost in despair will have no problem raising good kiwi kids if government policy gave them half a chance.
Surely a person should be able to work a 40 hour week and bring home enough income to keep the family at a reasonable standard of living? A policy based around full employment on decent pay should be the centrepiece for social transformation.
Couple this with raising the minimum wage and pegging it to 75% of the average wage and we have the making of a policy which will let families fly and end the litany of problems associated with alienation and dysfunction.
When these two polices are in place we could abolish the dole.
Instead Key, like Labour, shows the same lack of faith in people to run their own lives and their own communities. His solutions are a continuation of the patronising policies which see money tossed around to people trapped at the bottom of the cliff.
Instead of asking businesses to buy school lunches what about a call to businesses to pay decent wages? It’s not that hard. In recent years company profits have increased at twice the rate of wages. Buying a few school lunches and sports gear is a cop-out.
Key won’t adopt policies such as this but as a small step in the right direction he could stop using the term underclass. It is demeaning and disrespectful. These are New Zealanders struggling in low income communities who have been denied a fair go. Let’s give it to them.