OPINION: There's nothing new about welfare reform, it's as old as the ideas advanced in its justification. Managing the poor and vulnerable is just one of those perennial problems with which governments of every stripe have to contend. Mostly, politicians restrict themselves to tinkering but every so often a government engages in the sort of ruthless reform that leaves deep scars upon the body politic.
Fortunately, the bitter historical memories handed down by its victims serve as a prophylactic against similar "reforms" for generations. But eventually popular memory fades and, when it does, the threat of root-and-branch reform returns. And tragedy follows it.
New Zealand may soon be facing just such a threat and, curiously, it's as likely to come from the Left as the Right. If that sounds improbable, then perhaps we should all remind ourselves that it was the supposedly Left-leaning Labour Party which unleashed the "New Right" economic reforms of the late 1980s.
And that it was no less a "liberal" than Bill Clinton who campaigned on a promise to "end welfare as we have come to know it" and who, in 1996, affixed his presidential signature to the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act.
But why would Labour do such a thing? How could attacking the poor and vulnerable possibly help it reclaim the Treasury benches? Part of the answer lies in the "communitarian" beliefs evinced by followers of Labour's "Third Way".
This philosophy asserts that too much emphasis has been placed on "rights" and not enough on "responsibilities" in the formulation of public policy. Society, they say, has a duty to see that one group of citizens' rights are not upheld at their neighbours' expense.
The implications of communitarianism for solo mums, the unemployed, the sick and the disabled are readily imagined. Indeed, they'd do well to remember that David Parker, Labour's finance spokesperson, is a strong believer in communitarian principles.
The other reason Labour might opt for root-and-branch welfare reform involves the same reasoning that went into the National Party's own root-and-branch solutions to the "problem" of "welfare dependency": poor people don't vote. In the last election, 800,000 New Zealanders failed to cast a vote.
Most were young, many were poor, and practically all didn't give a stuff about politics. Motivating them to vote requires immense effort, so National has opted instead to appease its more conservative supporters by transforming the young and the poor (Maori and Pasifika especially) into handy targets.
Labour's challenge is to find some way of mobilising the young without at the same time making itself a political hostage to the needs of the poor. One of the easier ways to do this might be to provide younger voters with a hate figure: a stereotype capable of igniting both their indignation and their fear.
Fortunately for Labour, such a stereotype already exists: the Selfish Baby Boomer.
By encouraging Generations X and Y to blame the Baby Boomers for everything from the price of real estate to the rising cost of tertiary education, and enlisting their support for a "root-and-branch" reform of New Zealand's "irresponsibly generous and fiscally unsustainable" system of universal superannuation, Labour could offset its declining levels of support among older voters.
By attributing New Zealand's indebtedness to the "intergenerational theft" of Baby Boomers, this stripped-down, communitarian Labour Party could, at least in younger voters' minds, transform "austerity" from a political swear-word into a righteous electoral virtue.
In combination with the Greens' bracing mantra of ecological restraint, they could be on to a winner.
In 1834 the newly enfranchised English middle-class shrugged-off its responsibilities to the poor and vulnerable by passing a new Poor Law. Its hated symbol, the workhouse, was immortalised by Dickens in Oliver Twist.
The new Poor Law's sponsor was not some Tory reactionary, but the liberal Whig, Lord Melbourne.
Baby-boomers, be on your guard.
- © Fairfax NZ News