Tamihere Walking in the Footsteps of Roosevelt

New Zealand Herald, April 4, 2003

Denis Dutton



Daniel Patrick Moynihan, witty, bow-tied, and for 24 years a fiercely independent senator from New York, died last month. A famously outspoken liberal Democrat, he will be remembered for coining in 1970 the phrase "benign neglect" to describe the attitude he thought should be accorded to race relations in the United States.

Race was an issue, he said, that had been exploited by the extreme rhetoric of "hysterics, paranoids and boodlers" of every stripe. It was time to cool the rhetoric of race.

Moynihan was vilified at the time for seeming to favour neglecting the plight of blacks. This was far from the truth, as his later support for welfare programmes demonstrated. But on this issue, as in his uncanny 1980 predictions about troubles ahead for the Soviet Union, he was three steps in front of everyone else. He saw that in a continual, overheated din of civil-rights rhetoric, it was possible to go too far in a good cause.

Senator Moynihan's prescience came to mind as I read John Tamihere's controversial February speech to the Knowledge Wave conference in Auckland. In step with Moynihan, Mr Tamihere does not want welfare recipients to be left in the lurch. But he thinks we can be so generous with welfare that we create a state of dehumanised dependency. As he put it, the state acts as a charity, handing out "enough to get you through until the next handout".

"There are no mutual responsibilities" in the current welfare system, he said. "Recipients are denied a sense of worth and equality."

Tamihere is entirely serious about what he views as the degradation that accompanies long-term welfare dependence. A few weeks later he expounded on crime and a lost sense of community: "We've got to build connectiveness with one another like our parents had."

It's a long way down the road since Michael Joseph Savage gave us the welfare state in the Great Depression in the spirit of a connectedness and community that our grandparents took for granted. The idea then was that no New Zealander should starve or live without basic dignity.

Until the 1970s, fewer than 40,000 welfare recipients were supported by a million workers. Today, if we leave aside superannuitants, 360,000 people, between 9 and 10 per cent of the population, receive welfare. Most disturbing is that while something like a quarter of these people cannot work because of a physical or mental incapacity, nearly 300,000 able-bodied people, including long-term welfare recipients, are able to work but are not doing so.

Kiri Te Kanawa complained to an Australian newspaper about Maori living on benefits in New Zealand. With lowered expectations for life, they scrape by, the Government paying all the while, as though welfare was permanent entitlement. Yet it is quite unfair to single out Maori in any brief against welfarism, which spreads throughout our society.

There are three reasons John Tamihere's critique of the welfare system was so timely and welcome.

First, as Don Brash has convincingly shown, levels of welfare dependency are bad economic news for us all. With virtually unrestricted access to benefits and the lack of incentives to get off welfare, we have built an unaffordable monster.

In 1970, there were about 28 full-time workers for every full-time benefit. Now there are four full-time workers for every benefit. There is no way to sustain such welfare spending and adequately fund health, education, superannuation and all of the other general services of social good.

Second, if we want to function as a harmonious polity, one in which social relations and Government action are built on friendliness and respect, we must avoid creating a sense of inequality under the laws.

A sure way to corrode public trust, to squander the goodwill that holds society together, is to treat any citizens as, in Orwell's pungent phrase, "more equal than others".

When workers read of orchardists who cannot hire fruit-pickers or moteliers who cannot find cleaners in areas of high unemployment and welfare dependency, it creates gnawing resentments. Tune into talkback radio most nights and you will hear complaints, crude but often justified, about the "bludgers" who live off the backs of workers and divide the welfare pie into ever-smaller pieces left for the truly needy.

Finally, as Mr Tamihere has emphasised endlessly, renewable welfare offerings are bad for many of their recipients. It is a fact of human nature that the ancient Greeks understood: a well-lived life involves active, creative engagement with the world. Those for whom welfare is a lifestyle choice are robbed of the deep satisfactions of meeting the world's resistance and overcoming it: in particular, of getting up in the morning and doing a day's job of work.

It is little wonder that able-bodied men and women who treat welfare as a permanent entitlement so often slide, as the statistics sadly show, into a drug-hazed indolence in which life's thrills come as bouts of violence or in outwitting the police in petty crime.

In 1935, three years before Savage introduced a modern welfare system, Franklin Roosevelt advocated a system of unemployment insurance, aid to dependent children and social security. In calling for these welfare provisions, he added the proviso that the lessons of history, as he put it, "show conclusively that continued dependence on relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fibre".

Welfare could be a narcotic, Roosevelt said, "a subtle destroyer of the human spirit". That is a lesson of history that should, if anything, be more apparent to us a lifetime later. It is, in fact, the same subtle destruction of the human spirit that John Tamihere alluded to in his speech on welfare dependency.

Mr Tamihere speaks as a native New Zealander and Maori with an insider's grasp of a difficult problem facing this country. To read letters to the editor or listen to comments from Opposition MPs (notably Dr Brash and Muriel Newman), his ideas enjoy wide, multipartisan support. If only Helen Clark, Steve Maharey and the rest of the Government would open their minds.

Mr Tamihere has ruffled some feathers. It may be that, like Pat Moynihan, he is just a little ahead of his time.