A few days ago, The Dominion Post published an opinion piece by former Labour cabinet minister Steve Maharey, now vice-chancellor of Massey University. It was quite late at night when I read it the first time and it didn’t seem to make much sense. So I read it again this morning, when my mind was clearer, and it still didn’t make much sense.
Maharey is a past master of the fuzzy, impenetrable marshmallow-speak we heard so much of during the years of the Clark government. He doesn’t like what the government’s Welfare Working Group is up to (surprise!) so he proposes an alternative that is kinder to beneficiaries. But if you analyse the verbiage, which is not easy because it’s so glib and imprecise, what Maharey seems to be arguing for is the continuation of the status quo, dressed up as something new called “social development”.
Maharey writes: “What we need is an approach that will harmonise social policy with economic development and identify social programmes that make a contribution to economic growth.
“I call this alternative social development because it provides a justification for redistribution by advocating resources be put into social investments that will impact positively on the economy."
We’ve heard all this before; it’s classic New Labour “Third Way” stuff. We were bombarded with it by Labour’s spin factory between 1999 and 2008. But as is so often the case, Maharey is conspicuously light on concrete proposals. He prefers to deal in vague, utopian prescriptions that place a caring, paternalistic state at front and centre.
“Social policy would be seen as investment that makes a contribution to individual and collective prosperity,” he writes. “There is also a link in the other direction because economic growth is able to be harnessed to social ends.
“As we know, left to itself economic growth can lead to very unsatisfactory outcomes like poverty, social division, crime and conflict. A social development approach advocates strategies that increase employment, lift incomes and make a positive contribution to the life of the community. Once a social development approach is adopted, a policy programme readily takes shape.
“Instead of focusing on income transfers and maintenance programmes, the focus becomes one of investing so people can participate in the productive economy.”
Goodness me, he makes it all sound so easy. Why didn’t anyone think of this before?
Rather than being stigmatised and vilified, Maharey says, beneficiaries need practical assistance to gain skills and find employment that pays a living wage. He then reels off a textbook example of airy-fary New Labour mumbo-jumbo:
“Social development wants more than people in jobs. It wants higher levels of education, individuals and communities building assets, communities working together to improve their lot, and support to start small businesses. It wants to see social programmes that do not make a difference closed and existing programmes carefully monitored for effectiveness.
“It wants a social support system that is about opportunity instead of maintaining people on a benefit. More broadly, social development is about making sure that no matter what a person’s background or circumstances are, they get a chance to get on with life.”
In other words, if we all hold hands, close our eyes tightly and think positive thoughts, everything will be grand. The dead weight of welfare dependency that has sandbagged the New Zealand economy for decades will magically be eliminated. We’ll thrill to miraculous stories of personal transformation as lifelong beneficiaries, inspired by caring social workers, cast off their drug habits, cease their indiscriminate rooting, enrol in life-changing tertiary courses and end up making taxpayer-funded hip-hop videos for New Zealand On Air.
Maharey thinks all children should have a KiwiSaver-style account established for them at birth. He suggests that superannuation should be made compulsory and part of the savings made available for more small business start-ups. It’s the social democrat’s vision of the perfect world: more big government, more bureaucrats meddling in the private sector where they have no business and less expertise, more tertiary institutions offering useless courses, and more jobs for third-rate lecturers and teachers (who can, of course, be counted on to vote Labour for fear the gravy train will be derailed).
The social democratic states of western Europe are currently unravelling largely because of this naïve belief in the virtues of big government, but Maharey remains a true believer. If his thinking is representative of the Labour Party at large, it suggests they have learned nothing and still can’t be trusted.