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Māori proverbs make it OK

Last week the government’s Welfare Working Group issued its options report, asking for submissions on various proposals for dealing with NZ’s beneficiaries. Gordon Campbell is not impressed: “Reality check: when work was available in the 2000s and job searches were being case managed, unemployment sank to record lows with fewer than 20,000 on the dole. Conclusion: when jobs are there, people work: and when they aren’t, they can’t.” (Also, Danyl at the Dim-Post has an instructive chart on the nature of the “problem”.)

Nevertheless, this manufactured Welfare Crisis now has its response. The whole exercise has the air of a political fait accompli – the decisions have already been made, so the WWG is a lengthy exercise in developing a rationale for a pre-chosen course.

However, I’m not going to talk about the options under discussion or the frustrating ideological basis of the group’s activity. I just want to point at one tiny aspect of the report that infuriated me no end.

The very first words in Reducing Long-Term Benefit Dependency: The Options, appearing before indicia and publication details, are a proverb:

“Anei tātou nā ko te po: ana tātou nā he rā ki tua”
Here we are in the night, and the day is yet to come.

When I saw this I became so furious I couldn’t go on. This reveals rather more about the paradigm of the WWG than I think they realized. Providing support to the weakest members of society is equated to the awful, painful night; a stricter regime to reduce that support and make life more difficult for beneficiaries is cast as the relief of day.

It’s just dumbfounding. I mean, even if you buy into the WWG premises (long-term benefit dependency is a major problem, our current welfare system is an unsustainable economic burden, stricter controls are necessary), it takes a particularly blinkered perspective to decide that the best metaphor for this is night passing into day.

And of course the bitter irony that this a Māori proverb, when Māori will be disproportionately affected by the measures within (not least because many Māori live in rural areas where jobs are hard to come by anyway, thanks to the vagaries of the economic system we’ve imposed on their country over the last 170 years).

Sure, it’s a minor thing, and presumably Enid Ratahi Pryor and Sharon Wilson-Davis, Māori women on the WWG, think it’s an appropriate inclusion. Perhaps I’m over-reacting. Nevertheless, I think that choices around such small details can communicate more than pages of carefully neutral policy-speak, and this specific choice and the worldview it suggests sit very wrong with me.

(More about the proverb can be found on Google Books.)

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  1. Pearce | November 30, 2010 at 9:19 am | Permalink

    How about this quote from Paula Webstock, chair of the Working Welfare Group, in a recent article in the Listener?

    “Like many people, I knew that New Zealand had one of the lowest official unemployment rates and I probably felt that we had done really well over the past 10 years, before the recession, to deal with unemployment. The sad truth is we actually had huge numbers of unemployed people sitting on other benefits.

    “The working group has had to come to terms with the high degree of hidden unemployment and the medicalisation of labour market dislocation.”

    This was the lead for a cover story in a magazine that used to have Gordon Campbell as its politics editor. Now they bash beneficiaries and puff out editorials on what should be expected of someone marrying into the British royal family.

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