Friday, March 20, 2009

When the ACC first morphed into a welfare agency

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, March 17.)

MUCH has been said about the blowout in ACC spending that resulted when the Labour government extended coverage to include medical misadventure, work-related stress and free physiotherapy. But anyone seeking to identify the point when the ACC strayed from being an insurer to a welfare agency should go back to the 1980s, when it began subsidising the sexual abuse counselling industry.

In 1988, the ACC accepted 221 claims for sexual abuse – or, more precisely, mental illness arising from alleged abuse – at a cost of $1.9 million. By 2004, claims were running at an average of 5000 a year and annual costs had risen to more than $27 million.

One claimant got more than $150,000 in backdated compensation and several were being paid more than $60,000 a year in weekly compensation payments based on their earnings before their “injury” was diagnosed.

No doubt many claims were legitimate – but 5000 a year? And was compensation for alleged sexual abuse ever envisaged by the architects of the scheme?

No corroboration of the alleged abuse was required other than a supporting statement from an ACC-registered counsellor. There was no requirement that the supposed victim lay a complaint with the police, still less obtain a conviction. The alleged abuser didn’t even have to be identified.

In many cases the alleged abuse was far in the past, raising suspicions about “recovered memory” syndrome.

This was a tidy little racket that benefited both the claimants and the burgeoning counselling industry, which pocketed generous fees from the ACC for two-hour assessment sessions which invariably resulted in the counsellor confirming that sexual abuse had taken place. Acceptance of a claim usually led to further counselling sessions, thus ensuring a steady income stream for the therapists.

“Counselling” was a rubber-stamp process similar to the charade women go through when seeking a state-funded abortion.

The Bolger government curbed the worst excesses of the scheme in 1992 by stopping lump-sum payouts, but otherwise the rort continued. I remember questioning the then ACC Minister Bill Birch about the potential for bogus claims and being fobbed off with bland non-replies. He didn’t want to rock the boat.

One of the few politicians with the guts to speak out was ACT MP Heather Roy, who in 2004 compared sexual abuse payouts with Lotto prizes. By then Labour had reinstated lump-sum compensation, which predictably led to a quadrupling of costs.

At the same time the ACC funded a $600,000 study of the mental effects of sexual abuse – a nice gravy train for Labour-voting academics – and spent $200,000 bailing out an Auckland counselling service that was about to fall over. Whoever said New Zealand governments had given up subsidising industries?

Interestingly enough, an Auckland survey of women being counselled for sexual abuse found that 30 per cent had undergone 100 or more ACC-funded sessions of therapy. Despite that, many expressed disappointment that they were not getting enough.

This confirms that in a grievance-obsessed culture, there can never be enough nannying.

* * *

WELL, well, well. Some greedy dairy farmers, having invested millions converting sheep and beef properties into industrial-scale dairy farms, have been caught out now that Fonterra has reduced milk payouts from last year’s giddy $7.90 per kilogram to a sobering $5.10.

They should have seen this coming. Agricultural commodity prices have always been cyclical and it was inevitable that what went up would come down again. But some of the new dairy millionaires were blinded by the dollar signs flashing in their eyes.

There has been collateral damage too. Farmers who grow maize and other fodder crops for the booming dairy industry are now in trouble because financially hard-pressed cow cockies either can’t afford, or don’t need, supplementary feed.

Unfortunately we will all pay the ultimate price for the mad rush into dairying. The aesthetic and environmental damage done by indiscriminate farm conversions, often in areas unsuited to big dairy herds, will not easily be undone.

* * *

MEMO to Patricia Reade, deputy chief executive of Work and Income:

Beneficiaries are not “clients”, as you referred to them in a recent letter to the editor. A client is someone who pays for professional services. Perhaps you haven’t noticed that the state – that means the taxpayer – pays beneficiaries, not vice-versa.

Some dictionaries, bowing to political correctness, now permit the word “client” to apply to someone using the services of a social worker, but I don’t buy it. The fact that dictionaries have recorded a change in usage doesn’t automatically make the new usage valid.

No one concerned for the precision of the English language should be misled into thinking “clients’ have magically metamorphosed into people who get paid, rather than those who do the paying.

That a word should be so completely turned on its head is a demonstration of what happens when we allow the language to be politicised. George Orwell, bless him, was wise to this 60 years ago.

No comments: