Written By: - Date published: 11:04 am, September 30th, 2012 - 176 comments
Categories: activism, benefits, blogs, child welfare, class war, crime, greens, labour, mana, paula bennett, political alternatives, political parties, politicans, Politics, poverty, Social issues, socialism, welfare - Tags: paula bennett
As Split Enz once sang, “History Never Repeats”…. Or does it?
With Paula Bennett’s punitive and destructive welfare reforms, many are now contemplating the rise and fall of social security in NZ. They look back to Labour PM Savage and the Social Security Act of 1938 as the benchmark of civilised and dignified support for those who lose their income. Some seem to want to find a way back to those ground-breaking policies enacted by “noble” Labour MPs, still in touch with labour’s traditional values. They simplify history into an uncomplicated story of heroes tackling evils. This can be seen in the first couple of minutes of the Labour Party 2011 election campaign video, which talks about Michael Savage stepping into the political vacuum during the 1930s depression in NZ, and leading the first Labour Government. But the historical record is always the outcome of complicated interacting struggles, and the outcome is never totally certain in advance. It is often written from the point of view of the winners.
Back in the 1930s there was a good deal of campaigning from different left wing positions to counteract the devastating impact of the depression on many people’s lives. A Labour MP at that time, John A Lee (1891-1982) came from an impoverished background. His was mother was unmarried, and was often destitute and unable to care for him. He left school with a limited education and eventually landed up in prison for breaking and entering and liquor smuggling. He was decorated for his military service in World War I. “Bolshie Lee” was a bit rough around the edges, was considered too radical a socialist to be a minister, but put a lot of his parliamentary efforts into the development of state housing. He increasingly came into conflict with Savage, and was expelled from the Labour Party in 1940 for criticising the terminally ill Savage. Is there equivalent positioning within the parliamentary Labour Party? The Greens? Mana? Or are are political careers more specialised, with the routes to success, less open to someone from a such a difficult and varied background such as Lee’s?
Can we go back, and begin again, resurrecting comprehensive social security? With hind-sight, can we avoid the pitfalls leading to the current descent into bennie bashing, social control of the poor, and pressures to enter enter low paid, demoralising work? Or does the left need to take a totally new direction?
Like today, many New Zealanders in the 1930s had notions of the ‘deserving’ and ‘underserving’ poor. But does the current dominance of the visual image, brand focus, excessive media scrutiny and the requirement to be always to be “on message” result in all (or most) left-leaning MPs being safely moderate and lacking in personal experience of debilitating poverty? In contrast, in his street and radio campaigning, and diverse writings Lee provided some insight into what it was like to grow up in the care of a single mother struggling to survive in meagre circumstances. He drew on this background in his novel Children of the Poor (1934), which, according to the online Encyclopedia of New Zealand, His mother appeared as a victim; poverty bred immorality and crime; and, as New Zealand Truth proclaimed, frank discussion of such matters produced a ‘sensational book on vice, poverty, misery’. .
In the 21st century, do we have any one person drawing on their experiences of moving between different worlds, such as those of poverty, crime, parliament, literature and political activism like John A Lee? It’s certainly NOT John Key or Paula Bennett, who succeeded with the help of more generous welfare provisions, then pulled up the ladder after themselves. People’s lives have become more compartmentalised.
We have various people and organisations trying to convey what poverty in 21st century NZ is like, while many still respond with disbelief. Recently we have had Campbell Live, with its regular focus on child poverty and empty lunch boxes? On 27 Sept 2012, for instance, John Campbell described the desolate conditions he has seen in people’s homes, where many of the inhabitants said they are too ashamed to go on TV to talk about their experiences of destitution. One young woman, Liz, did go on camera to talk about her memories of growing up in poverty, sometimes unable to concentrate at school because she was suffering from hunger-induced headaches. She said Sometimes we were cooking over gas and seeing with candles because we had no power.
We have bloggers trying to convey the division between the haves and have-nots in NZ today, as seen in Chris Trotter’s recent post. Here he puzzles over the separation between those whjo have not witnessed real poverty, and those, like his policeman nephew who regularly sees inside the desolate houses where many South Auckland children live?
“The first thing we do is check to see that the kids are all right. So, it’s: ‘Where’s the fridge?’ No fridge. You’d be amazed how many houses I’ve been in that didn’t have one. So you look for the pantry. Nothing. No food. And there’s five kids in the house.”
My nephew isn’t judgemental. He simply tells me: “It’s a totally different world. People’s expectations are completely different. If you haven’t seen it, you just can’t imagine it.”
And we have political campaigners and street activists like Sue Bradford: ex MP, never in government, never a party leader, and still out on the streets campaigning? But her background and early years are different from those of Lee. Her criminal record was gained from arrests on political protests. Nevertheless, she has worked alongside, with, and for, many of those with little resources and disadvantaged backgrounds.
Lee’s Children of the Poor should be a warning as to what life was like for many New Zealanders, before we had the 1938 Social Security Act and other welfare provisions. Crime was seen as pretty inevitable for many who grew up in poverty . Won’t that be one of the results of Bennett’s plans to cut benefits of those who don’t comply with the government’s new bit of social engineering? (Of course this may have nothing to do with the government’s shift to privatising prisons and building new ones?!) Should we return to something more akin to the original 1938 Act? Or do we need a whole new approach to ensure everyone in society (adult and child) has the means to survive without undue hardship?
If you are able to attend this Friday 5 October, why not be part of the current struggle? Join the National Day of Action Against Welfare Reforms. History in the making!