New policy is not necessarily better

STEVE MAHAREY
Last updated 10:40 09/03/2012

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OPINION: One of the most noticeable features of policy debate in New Zealand is amnesia.

For some decades, we have been embroiled in a rolling maul of ideas about our future. Problems are identified, groups are formed, policies are written, debate takes place, opinions divide, resistance builds, mud is slung and the whole cycle starts again.

Take welfare reform. This is a troublesome debate caught up with misunderstanding, prejudice, ideology and distrust of the less well-off by the more well-off.

Under this burden, it is hard for any rational debate to occur.

One thing that could help is for each new round of debate to take up from where the last left off.

The recently announced Government reforms and the report on which they are based do not. It is as if the past does not exist. We are advised that finally action is being taken, that we can no longer let people rot on the benefit. Policies are rolled out as if no-one had thought of anything like them before, backed by the certainty that "something has to be done".

Tempting as it is, I am not about to comment on the policies. My purpose is to point out that a little policy memory might have been of assistance.

In 2002, the government at the time released a policy framework related to social development based on the notion that the old welfare state, with its focus on income transfers, was no longer fit for purpose. Instead, the country needed to focus on social development and social investment to ensure all New Zealanders could participate fully in their rapidly changing society.

Key elements of the framework were: a simpler benefit system, making work pay, investing in education and skills training, supporting families and children, mutual responsibility, building partnerships, and reducing poverty.

There is not the space here to list the policies developed to implement the framework, but it is worth noting that they were the result of a concerted effort to draw on the best of international and national thinking.

Did it work? Yes. Unemployment fell dramatically and the number of people on the domestic purposes benefit declined.

Unlike in all other OECD nations, the increase in the number of people claiming a benefit because of a disability or an illness began to slow.

Evaluation showed that the policies made a measurable difference. Treasury was so impressed when $300 million was returned to it in one year that it made the advances in social policy a feature in its annual report.

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Despite this, when a change in government occurred, it was as if a new start had to be made. A welfare reform working party was established and it operated as if in a vacuum.

Years of experience were wasted. Now, we have a new policy framework which seems to be based on the idea that benefit numbers are rising because people do not want to work. History teaches us that this assumption is not well founded. There are those for whom work is anathema, but most people take work if they have the skills for the job, it pays a wage they can live on and details, such as having a safe place for their children to stay, are taken care of.

Sole parents are a good example. Although current policy portrays sole parents on a benefit as young and irresponsible, they are typically women in their early 30s who have left a relationship. They stay on the benefit for a few years at most and then get on with their lives.

How much better current policy would be if it had built on previous experience.

Governments of all hues like to wield a new broom to show they know best, but it is time for some maturity in the policy debate.

The challenge should be to improve on what has been done. Thinking of new ideas and sound policies is hard work. It is not for everyone, but it should be for people who want to lead the nation towards a better future.

Steve Maharey is vice-chancellor of Massey University and a former Labour minister of social development and employment.

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