Avuncular Intervention: Regional Economic Development Minister, Shane Jones, tells TVNZ's Q+A programme that he is determined to introduce measures which will ensure that his "ne'er-do-well nephews" get "off the couch" and into work. Historically, breaking the vicious circles of unemployment has required the state to become the employer of last resort.
YOU’VE GOT TO hand it to Shane Jones – he sure knows how to seize control of the political agenda! Ever since his provocative performance on last Sunday’s Q+A, his name has seldom been out of the headlines. More impressive still, his ideas are being debated everywhere.
Sparking a genuine national conversation on anything other than sport and celebrity sex isn’t an easy thing to do. Generally speaking, it’s evidence of somebody, somewhere, striking a nerve. In Jones’ case, the phrase that caused so many Kiwis’ knees to jerk was the one prompted by his determination to get his ne’er do well nephews “off the couch” and into work.
In many ways, Jones’ arguments for unemployed youngsters to be forced into the world of work are classic Labour. Traditional working-class New Zealanders have little patience with slackers and bludgers. Decent men and women measure their worth by the hours they put in. Neither are they fussy about the jobs they put their energies into. The main thing is to be busy; to contribute; and be seen to be doing everything possible to stand on their own feet and pay their own way.
The problem (if problem is the right word) with this “can-do” attitude, is that it’s, almost always, a reflection of the “virtuous circles” in which its exemplars have been raised. Families in which the virtues of hard work, and the need to “better oneself”, have been drummed into children from birth tend, strangely enough, to produce hard workers who better themselves. Success is thus rendered intergenerational: fixing the family’s upward social trajectory; and ultimately carrying them out of their class altogether. No matter how high such families may rise, however, the values that drove their success, providing they continue to be inculcated, prevent them from falling.
But, what about the much less fortunate inhabitants of “vicious circles”? Families broken by massive economic dislocation and enforced idleness. Families in which hope curdles and faith in the future withers. Households where all sense of self-worth is undermined by repeated knock-backs and rejections; where, even when work is secured, it is precarious, wretchedly-paid, and subject to conditions that only further erase any semblance of personal dignity. In these circumstances, the wonder is not that such vicissitudes precipitate addiction, desertion, violence and abuse; but that so many men and women struggle to resist the vicious downward spiral into indifference and despair.
The puzzle which Shane Jones has set himself, and (through sheer chutzpah!) the coalition government, to solve is: how to rescue those trapped in these vicious circles; and how to then install them in virtuous circumstances of sufficient permanence for that virtue to become self-sustaining?
Significantly, Jones is reaching back into New Zealand history for answers. Because, of course, this country has broken vicious circles before. To secure a decent life for the social casualties of economic depression and world war, the First Labour Government expanded dramatically the employment opportunities offered by the state. Tens-of-thousands of workers who might otherwise have subsisted from odd-job to odd-job, found permanent employment, with union-negotiated wage-rates and conditions, in the state-owned railways, postal and telegraphic services, and infrastructure projects. They may not have been the world’s most productive workers, but these state-provided jobs allowed them to establish homes and families, and to raise children untroubled by the viciousness of the downward spiral.
That Jones is experiencing resistance from his former Labour colleagues is one of history’s little ironies. Or, maybe not. Because it was the Fourth Labour Government who made such an issue out of the alleged “inefficiency” of New Zealand’s “feather-bedded” government departments. The much-vaunted process of “corporatisation”, out of which emerged the significantly-titled “State Owned Enterprises”, saw thousands of workers lose not only their jobs, but the economic and social security that came with them. Virtuous circles of fifty years duration were broken, and the vicious circles, which have become such a feature of the free-market era, began sucking thousands of New Zealanders into their whirlpools of dysfunction.
Shane Jones, and his boss, Winston Peters, both know that short bursts of employment, even for the minimum wage, cannot cure the effects of structural unemployment. They’re aware that the vicious circles of dysfunction can only be broken by the state-subsidisation of permanent employment.
And that will require the Labour-led Government to “get off the couch”.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 8 December 2017.