The Beneficiary Experience

For the past six months or so, I’ve been volunteering as a beneficiary advocate with Auckland Action Against Poverty. As a white man from a fairly well-off family, the most I’ve had to deal with the Ministry of Social Development in my life has been with StudyLink who are a nightmare at the best of times. Beneficiary advocacy has really opened my eyes to the ways in which beneficiaries are treated by our social welfare system.

At AAAP, I deal with people who have been screwed over by Work and Income on a daily basis. They are told “no” and, almost without exception, it isn’t properly explained why. Case workers and managers alike routinely act unlawfully, they’ll happily sanction benefits without explaining the reason why in writing, then turn around and require you to produce endless bank statements for a measly food grant. This is despite the Social Security Act requiring written explanation of sanctions 5 days before they’re applied (s113(2) for the wonks), and the obvious response to a request of a bank statement “what if they’ve just taken their money out?”

Receptionists at Work and Income are trained to turn people away, I’ve seen a heavily pregnant woman declined a food grant at reception on the last weekday before a 4 day weekend, and the worst thing was it wasn’t even surprising. Receptionists are trained with a million different lines to drive people away; “we don’t do walk-ins between 12 and 2”, “we can’t book an appointment to sort out your eviction notice, it’s not immediate”, “I can book you in if you want, but it’ll be a long wait and you probably won’t get that food grant.”

And if you thought you were over the hill when you finally made it past the receptionist, through the 3 hour wait and into an appointment with a case manager for the food grant you so desperately need, you’re sorely mistaken. Case managers are not what you expect, they aren’t social workers constrained bureaucracy orchestrated by a nasty government, but gatekeepers standing between you and the social welfare system that is supposed to be helping you. They’ll tell you “no, you’ve run out of food grant entitlement”, despite knowing full well that all that means is you have to check with a manager for the next food grant. They’ll try and tell you that you can feed your family of 6 for a week on $120. They’ll tell you they can only give you a $60 food grant, because that’s how much the Otago Food Cost Survey says you can live on, but they won’t reduce your debt offsets, even though they leave you with $40 a week for food and are the reason you’re coming in for a food grant anyway.

I used to wonder why Work and Income offices were open plan, rather than having private rooms for what are often private conversations. It’s a stark contrast to other public services like doctors’ clinics. I understand why now, Work and Income are not there to help you, they are only there to make it look like they’re helping.30

Our Fourth Estate on the TPPA

It’s the new year, and parliamentary politics has yet to heat up again. There’s only one big event on the horizon, the signing of the TPPA here in Aotearoa. Despite the lack of activity, and the abundance of information produced on the TPPA, our media is failing to produce any sort of cognisant reporting on the issue. Case and point is John Roughan’s Saturday article in the Herald. He shows a complete lack of understanding of the criticisms leveled against the agreement, and succeeds only in throwing random facts around with empty rhetoric.

Roughan’s piece seems to be mainly suggesting dissenters are incorrect to continue their dissent, as the released text of the TPPA isn’t as bad as we feared it could be

[The signing of the TPPA] is bound to attract the mother of all protests, which will finally discredit those who have been marching in the streets, for the text has been out for two months and it has become clear it is not the sell-out to the US they were led to expect.

While it is a relief that we are trading less than all of our sovereignty for an expected 0.9% increase in GDP over the next 15 years, or around 0.06% per annum, it’s no reason to stop criticising the agreement. We are still signing an agreement which expands global corporate hegemony, potentially costing us billions of dollars.

Roughan goes on to suggest the text is completely benign, because he hasn’t seen Professor Jane Kelsey point out a smoking gun

[Law] professor Jane Kelsey has been studying trade position papers for years and I’ve been waiting for her to find something explosive in the fine print

This is the level of journalism we can expect from the New Zealand Herald these days, gotchas and smoking gun politics. He follows this up with a misunderstanding of claims that New Zealand’s signing of the TPPA is undemocratic

I don’t know what kind of government protesters have in mind when they call the TPP’s dispute provisions a threat to “democracy”

Despite the fact we have never had a chance to vote on the TPPA, and the government is planning to sign it without a referendum or any sort of public consultation, even though polls show only 34% support the agreement. There’s a word for governments who change their countries without consulting the people, and it’s not “democratic”.

Roughan finishes off with a classic piece of personality politics rubbish, suggesting John Key is doing a good job because of how well he schmoozes with other world leaders.

Key, elected in the same week as Obama, established an important personal rapport. At times when the talks failed to reach predicted agreement and Key was asked whether he still thought the TPP would succeed, he’d say, “I think so. Obama wants to do it.”

Our media is failing in their duty of providing accurate information to the citizenry, and checks on government. Instead, we have a paper which reads like a fan club newsletter, obsessed with the people in charge and offering only the shallowest of analysis. The sooner the trite that is the New Zealand Herald moves into obscurity, the better.

Back Of The Envelope TPPA Calculation

MFAT’s generous prediction for the GDP increase we could see as a result of being partner to the TPPA is $2.7 billion (real 2007 NZ dollars) 0.9% over the course of 15 years. Here’s what that means in more tangible terms

Some maths to work out the annual increase in GDP we can expect, if the increase is spread evenly:

100% + 0.9% = (100%+x)^15
100.9% = (100%+x)^15
100.06% = 100%+x
x = 0.06%

That $2.7 NZD really doesn’t stack up to much when you put it in these terms, it won’t be noticeable at all when you consider our GDP growth currently.

Climate Change

I’m a pessimist when it comes to climate action by our governments. We know anthropogenic climate change is a massive issue, in the coming decades there will be deaths as a direct result of it, even if we take aggressive action. But the government has a terrible track record when it comes to making required change.

Look at the effects of colonisation here in New Zealand. Even after 175 years of Māori protest, Māori are still massively overrepresented in negative social statistics. People have been calling for a remedy to this ever since New Zealand was founded, but we still don’t have a solution.

The issues arising from the continued oppression of Māori shouldn’t be understated either. As a demographic, they have worse healthshorter lifespans and higher incarceration rates. There are literally people dying because of the government’s failure to act.

Our government has historically been very slow to act on even things which are just common sense. Women not being able to vote is unimaginable in Aotearoa today, but it took 60 years between women being explicitly banned from voting (in Britain 1832) until women were given the vote (1893). Admittedly, we didn’t have a central government until the Treaty of Waitangi was signed, giving the governor of the time, William Hobson, power to act in place of the Queen and we didn’t have voting rights until they were codified in 1852.

Even today, we have yet to relinquish adequate power to women, only 31% of our MPs are female. It’s amazing that, even after 180 years, we still don’t treat women as equal on the political stage.

It’s worth keeping our history in mind as we look to the future, the past is a good indicator of what’s to come. Our system of representative democracy has failed in sticking to its agreementland was still being confiscated as recently as 2004. It’s also failed at providing democracy, with women not being able to vote for our first 40 years of elections, and still being horribly under-represented in positions of power.

Compare this with our current government. The National Party dismisses any Green Party proposal as economic suicide without even considering that to fail to implement such policies is regular suicide. Like previous governments, who took vast swathes of land from Māori or elected not to let women vote, the National Party decides to ignore the consequences of climate change.

Even assuming next election we bring in a Labour/Green government who actually takes action, it’s only a matter of time until the wind blows in National’s direction again, and any progress gets undone. And even if Labour does happen to get in, they are likely to continue the inaction of our last Labour government.

Realistically, to cause the required change to happen, we need to destroy the existing parliamentary system and replace it with something functional.