Thursday 8 September 2022

Left To Rot.

Recovering Their Voice: Not bereft – not this time. Anomie cannot survive the rebirth of hope. Alienation flees before a compelling story. In 1984, it came from a party promising to “lift them up where they belonged”. In 2022, it is coming from a party urging them to lift themselves up.

IF YOU WANT TO KNOW why Labour leaves the most disadvantaged New Zealanders to rot in motels – ask the Rogernomes. Ever since Labour abandoned its democratic-socialist beliefs and embraced neoliberalism in 1984, the party has been at pains to keep the disadvantaged politically disorganised and dependent on the good will of the state. They do not do this in expectation of their votes – any votes they get from the welfare underclass are a bonus – they do it because they don’t want them to vote at all.

To fully appreciate the reasoning behind Labour’s demobilisation strategy, it is necessary to go back to the year 1984 and take a look around. New Zealand society was mobilised in a way that “Rogernomic’s Children” – the generations that grew up with no memories of what New Zealand was like before the neoliberal “revolution” – would struggle to accept. Civil society had power in those years. Citizens had power. Even the poor and the unemployed had power.

Right across the country unemployed workers and beneficiaries were being organised. The state bureaucracy still believed that its primary purpose was to help – not hinder – its citizens. Accordingly, the state made funds available to just about any organisation set up to help citizens in need. This included groups set up to assist the unemployed and beneficiaries access the support and services to which they were legally entitled. Centres were established where people on benefits could meet and discuss their problems. By the middle of 1984, more and more beneficiaries were becoming politicised. How politicised? Politicised enough to turn out and vote in record numbers. In 1984, nearly 94 percent of registered voters made it to a polling-booth.

In spite of the fact that these politicised beneficiaries had voted overwhelmingly for David Lange’s Labour Party, the neoliberal cabal of Roger Douglas, David Caygill, Richard Prebble, Michael Bassett and Mike Moore, were acutely aware that politicised workers and beneficiaries were, potentially, their worst enemies. The changes they were about to unleash on New Zealand would swell the numbers of the poor and the marginalised. The last thing the Rogernomes needed was for the victims of their neoliberal policies to find a voice.

The Fourth Labour Government’s solution was as cynical as it was clever.

First, it set up an elaborate employment programme for middle-class people who had lost their jobs called “Access”. Come up with an idea for “helping” the poor and disadvantaged and the government appointed Regional Employment and Access Councils (composed of one third employers, one third unions, and one third representing the rest of society) had money to give you – lots of money.

The key difference between these Access schemes and the Project Employment Programme schemes which had resourced the organisers of the beneficiaries’ movement was that the Access schemes had to be strictly apolitical. The people running them (on excellent salaries!) were to be the poor’s responsible helpers and guides – not their political advocates.

Ostensibly, the people attending these Access schemes were there to be assisted into appropriate paid employment. In reality, they were there to provide a rationale for the generous resourcing of Access managers. Unsurprisingly, very few of these were willing to bite the Labour hands that fed them.

To those unemployed and beneficiaries lacking the entrepreneurial skills to take advantage of the Access schemes, the Fourth Labour Government offered the dole: the whole dole; and nothing but the dole. The bureaucrats in charge of social welfare were not encouraged, as they are now, to micromanage their “clients”. Their “stick” was nowhere near as big and frightening as the one they wield today. The idea was brutally simple: give the poor money, herd them into low-cost housing, and let them rot.

Poverty is only dangerous, politically, when it is widely shared. Confine real poverty to between a quarter and a third of the entire population, rob its victims of the political leadership needed to mobilise them as an electoral force, and the poor become the precise opposite of dangerous – they become harmless.

Once poverty acquires a stigma: once its victims begin to blame themselves for their misfortunes; self-hatred sets in. People begin to withdraw from a society that no longer offers them a place to stand. To alleviate their misery they turn to alcohol, drugs, gambling, sex – anything that serves to dull the pain of unbelonging. In the end they become anomic – beyond caring, beyond acting, beyond help. Or, from the neoliberals’ point-of-view: Safe.

The one weakness in the neoliberal plan for the poor is its cost. If poverty and unemployment grows, then the cost of keeping its victims safe rapidly becomes prohibitive. Ruth Richardson’s “Mother of All Budgets” slashed benefits obscenely. That lessened the state’s burden, but it did not remove it. Welfare roll reduction thus became the new priority: get the poor off the benefit – by any means necessary. It was a song National and Labour sang with equal gusto.

Until Covid.

Turns out that having between a quarter and a third of the population roped-off from the rest of the nation: prey to poverty, plagued by crime, prone to violence, and just not giving a fuck; isn’t all that helpful when it comes to fighting a pandemic. Even less helpful is the inconvenient fact that a disproportionate number of these unreachable ones have brown skins.

The state tried, and the state failed – badly – to reach out to the Māori and Pasifika communities being devastated by Covid-19. To vaccinate as many vulnerable citizens as possible, the hard-and-fast rule, enforced by successive neoliberal governments for thirty-five years, was set aside. Grass-roots advocacy groups were empowered and resourced to get the Covid vaccine out and into the arms of the poor.

The contrast between the “help” provided by the state, and the care provided by their own people, proved to be decisive. Because something else was being injected into them along with the Pfizer vaccine. It was a story in which even they, the poor and the stigmatised, had a place to stand. A story about a country that had once been theirs: about rights and resources guaranteed by a treaty that was not honoured; about a country that could be theirs again – but only if they made a conscious choice to re-create it.

This was a dangerous story for a Labour Government still content, like its predecessors, to push the poor out of the picture. Not into the low-cost housing of the 1980s – that is long gone – but into motels. Out of sight, out of mind. Second-class citizens in third-rate private accommodation. Cramped. Cold. Preyed upon by gangsters in uniform. Desperate. Left to rot.

But not bereft – not this time. Anomie cannot survive the rebirth of hope. Alienation flees before a compelling story. In 1984, it came from a party promising to “lift them up where they belonged”. In 2022, it is coming from a party urging them to lift themselves up.

That party is currently polling 5 percent. After nearly forty years, the poor have recovered their voice.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 8 September 2022.


David George said...

Chris: "In 2022, it is coming from a [The Maori Party] party urging them to lift themselves up."

They say this on their website: "The policy will support whānau to lift themselves out of poverty and hardship by focusing on lifting the incomes who have the least; low-wage workers, beneficiaries, and tertiary students, ensuring that they have a guaranteed minimum income that they can afford to live on."

Further: "The Māori Party will;

• Double baseline benefit levels

• Remove financial penalties, sanctions and work-test obligations

• Individualise benefits

• Increase the amount people can earn before benefits are cut by raising abatement rates

• Remove the youth benefit

• Cancel income support related debt and ensure that additional grants do not need to be paid back in future

• Ensure the special needs grant recognises additional cultural costs such as with the tangihanga process"

Not sure any of that is about "urging people to lift themselves up" as it's generally understood.

Gary Peters said...

There is a difference between lifting yourself up, and climbing on the back of someone else forcing them down to your level or worse.

You say "poor", I say undereducated and isn't that a choice?

Wayne Mapp said...

I know your passion for left parties such as New Labour, but the hypothesis here is simply absurd.

Do you really think Labour doesn't care (and hasn't for the last 35 years) whether the 20% least advantaged of society don't vote? I well recall Mike Williams saying in 2005 on election night, wait for the South Auckland vote to come in. Labour saw that vote as essential to their success.

Now I guess you could say that since voter turnout is typically 80% all the non vote is from the poorest. That is highly unlikely. While the non vote might have a substantial number in this category, the 20% also includes young people from all socio economic groups, people overseas and people who just don't get around to it.

As for the 5% support for the Maori Party in the latest Roy Morgan poll, that is hardly a surprise. Ever since 1993 the Maori vote has been swinging around. First to New Zealand First, then back to Labour, then to the Maori Party of Tariana Turia and Pita Sharples, then back to Labour and perhaps now back to a revitalised Maori Party. Unlike the Pacifica vote, the Maori vote is nowhere near welded on to Labour. In fact it hasn't been for nearly 40 years, when Matt Rata first established the Mana Motuhake Party.

As you know, Martyn Bradbury is proposing a strategy for a Labour/Green/Maori Party coalition that would be a radical departure from the present. Such a prospect may rather scare middle New Zealand, whether Maori, Pakeha or immigrant, and could play into the hands of the centre right. Of course the same could be said of National and Act. I suspect both major parties will be wanting to reassure middle voters that they won't just sell out completely to their respective left and right coalition partners. That the major party in the coalition will set the tone of the prospective government.

Of course their opponents will say differently. Just as Martyn says that Act will completely dominate National, which will be no more than a cypher for Act policy.

greywarbler said...

Cripes Chris what a load of old Scrooges; they would stand on someone's chest until the air went out of their lungs before allowing them to roll over and rise, with not much help, or a voice to speak and make requests with.

But spirit is all. Reading about *Mawson walking back on his own to try and catch the boat before it left the south to avoid getting iced in. Down to his last strength but with hope and determination he did it. Hope and a reasonable possibility to achieve, and determination and belief they are a heady mix. But get the scoffers off to some Devils Island and leave them to grump and lurk there first.

DS said...

Obvious point:

Pacific Islanders had excellent vaccination rates, and insofar as they trailed Pakeha, it was simply that the Pacific Island community tends to be younger, and as such had to wait a bit longer to be eligible.

The problem was with Maori, especially those in the upper North Island. Who, incidentally, seem to be disproportionately keen on Far Right nuttery.

Conflating all this under the generic heading of poverty is foolish.

Barry said...

Rogernomics and Globalisation happen to come along unfortunately at the same time. These two movements encouraged the export of meaningful jobs - jobs that were paid on the basis of what they produced. At the same time Feminists were demanding more jobs for women - just as jobs were disappearing towards China and India etc.
As a society NZ has never recovered fron those changes in the 1980s - and it looks like it never will.
Jacinda and her band of muppets not only have no idea how to manage the country, they dont even really understand what their 1980s predecessors have done.
The only way is to follow what Lee Kwan Yew said that Singapore needed to become great - a good health system and an excellent education system. Unfortunately the state of NZ equivalents are bottom of the barrel stuff.
My advice to anyone is "look after yourself because the Government certainly isnt".