Friday, December 11, 2009

Just what a creaking economy needs - more middle-class welfare

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, December 8.)

IT’S TRUE that the devil makes work for idle hands. This is confirmed by the Families Commission’s report urging the government to extend paid parental leave to fathers.

Things that would really make a difference – such as getting families off the dead-end street of benefits and finding ways to ensure more children have fathers in their lives – are in the too-hard basket, so the commission turns its attention to soft options like asking the government to subsidise middle-class parenthood.

I have several misgivings about paid parental leave. The main one is that it gives the state an excuse to intrude into yet another area of our lives in which people previously looked after themselves. In other words, it’s another insidious whittling away of individual responsibility.

Couples once made their own decisions about having children and bore the consequences, but paid parental leave effectively makes all of us responsible for what should be individual concerns – the collectivist’s dream. While sold to a gullible public as warm, fuzzy and caring, it implies that people are now so helpless they can’t even make decisions as basic and personal as having children without the intervention of a benevolent state.

The more we become dependent on government assistance, the more we invite the state to exert further influence in our lives. That alone is a reason to regard paid parental leave with suspicion.

The commission’s request for taxpayer-funded leave to be extended to “dads”, as commissioner Greg Fortuin prefers to call them in his ingratiatingly folksy manner, also demonstrates the perils of benefit creep.

Invariably, when the government extends a helping hand to one group of claimants, it creates grounds for others to claim discrimination and seek similar assistance. If new mothers are paid to have time off, why shouldn’t new fathers too? This is the logic by which welfare dependency grows inexorably, imposing an ever-increasing burden on a creaking economy.

* * *

SPEAKING of which, here’s a question: If John Key and Bill English are too timid to tackle meaningful economic reform at this stage of the electoral cycle, when the government’s popularity is still high and the voters have two years in which to adjust to tough decisions before the next general election, will they ever summon the courage to tackle them?

Here are a couple more questions. The prescription for economic growth set out in the 2025 Taskforce report may be “too radical” for Mr Key and Mr English – but isn’t it true that the longer change is postponed, the more radical the solution will have to be? Or do they have a less radical solution up their sleeves that we don’t know about?

New Zealand has spent more than it earned in every year since 1973. In that time we have slipped from the top 10 in the OECD rankings to a lowly 22nd out of 30. The average Australian family of four is now $64,000 better off per year than its New Zealand equivalent.

These are stark economic facts but the human impact is visible in other ways. Virtually every New Zealand family now has close relatives living in Australia, a fact evident from the death notices in the paper each day which show that some families now have more members in Australia than here. Comparisons with the Irish diaspora of the 19th century, when poverty and starvation forced the talented and able-bodied to migrate en masse, are only slightly exaggerated.

Yet we remain in a state of denial, antagonistic to any suggestion of change. The recommendations of the 2025 Taskforce were howled down by the forces of reaction before a debate could even get started.

For nine years under Labour, we were gulled into thinking the economy was humming when all that was keeping us afloat was a spending binge on property and consumer goods, using borrowed money. Now we have a government that acknowledges the economy is in dire trouble but apparently lacks the guts to do anything about it.

I suppose that’s progress, of sorts.

* * *

I SEE THERE’S a new Katherine Mansfield biography coming out soon.

Thank God for that. It must be at least six months since the last one. She was in danger of being forgotten.

Mansfield mania is one of the few growth industries in an otherwise largely moribund economy. Air New Zealand’s profit would take a severe hit if it were deprived of revenue from the literati and academics who regularly fly off to events such as the recent Mansfield symposium at Menton on the French Riviera, which reportedly attracted “50 international Mansfield scholars”. I wonder how many scholars the symposium would have attracted had it been held in Gore or Waipukurau.

Publishing industry sources tell me the forthcoming Mansfield biography, the 47th, will include previously undiscovered entries from her exercise book at Karori School in 1894, when the six-year-old Mansfield wrote a seminal essay describing her first day in the primers. It is thought to provide fascinating new insights into the evolution of her writing style, and the literary world is understandably abuzz with anticipation.

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