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.
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.