Tuesday, 29 August 2017

In Place of Fear

This election gets more and more interesting.  

Last Sunday, Winston Peters, leader of New Zealand First, revealed that he'd been overpaid on his superannuation. It appears that the Ministry of Social Development's calculation of his superannuation had been based on the single person's rate. As Peters is in a de facto relationship he should have received a lower rate.  The overpayment came to light when his partner applied for superannuation.  Peters sorted it out and immediately repaid the sum owing. He says he has no idea how incorrect information came to be on his records given he went through the paper forms with a senior MSD official, and his partner was present.  

Maybe there was a data inputting error but, as has been argued by National’s pollster, David Farrar, Peters should have received regular letters asking if the information on file is correct, which should have alerted him to the problem.

All I can say about that is, neither my husband nor I can recall ever receiving such a letter from the MSD. 

Peters will not waive his right to privacy to allow the MSD to comment, and why should he? His privacy rights have already been breached by the leaking of information from either the Inland Revenue Department (IRD), which administers the superannuation payments, or the MSD or, as is now emerging as a distinct possibility, the Beehive.

By going public on Sunday, Peters pre-empted the story that had been touted by Newsroom as the 'mother of all scandals' (MOAS) which was going to break on Monday. 
The co-writer of the story, Tim Murphy, former editor-in-chief of The Herald and co-editor of Newsroom, later claimed on Twitter that the MOAS claim had been 'hyperbole' to wind up Newshub's Political Editor, Patrick Gower.  

If that was true, Newsroom was about to reveal something that could end a political career and change the face of an election, yet its co-editor thought it was a good idea to wind up another journalist and set the Twittersphere on fire.

It may well turn out that the MOAS is not the Peters' overpayment and what caused it, but the use of private information in another dirty politics campaign in the lead up to an election.  If that proves to be the case, senior staff at Newsroom were either actively complicit in it, or were used as tools.  Either scenario brings their professionalism and political acumen into question and has caused some serious cracks to appear in Newsroom's glossy veneer. 

What it says about the National Party and its involvement in dirty tricks in the lead up to another election has yet to be made clear.  

What we know is that the overpayment was referred to Anne Tolley, Minister for Social Development, under the 'no surprises' rule on July 31st and again August 15th. It was passed onto the Prime Minister's Chief of Staff who says he decided not to tell the PM.  It was also revealed to the Deputy Prime Minster, Paula Bennett, who used to be the Minister for Social Development and who has been under public scrutiny for alleged breaches of MSD rules in the past; and - somehow - it was leaked to the media and went public just 3 weeks out from an election in which the subject of the leak is very likely to be a key player.

I can't understand why Peters - as a party leader, a wealthy man, a lawyer, the champion of superannuitants, a wily and very high-profile politico whose de facto relationship is well-known - would have claimed to be single on his superannuation application.  And why would he ignore letters asking him if the information on the system was correct? 

I'm not saying it's impossible, just that it seems highly improbable. 

Unlike poor superannuitants, for whom every dollar they get matters in real and pressing ways, Peters has no need to count every dollar he gets on his super and I can well believe that he simply had it paid into a savings account without stopping to think about the actual sum, and that he leaves all of his financial stuff to his accountant.  I bet he's not alone in that.
So, was this a dirty politics strategy to use the information to destroy Peters' credibility and, with the Green vote in disarray, push blue-green and NZ First voters to National to allow it govern alone with the increasingly noisome David Seymour of ACT?  

It certainly looks like it. 

And of course, there's the added bonus of softening up the public for future changes to universal superannuation - such as introducing means testing or even phasing it out completely.  After all, the rich don't need it, the affluent can manage without it, and the poor can continue to subsist on welfare benefits - or die. 

As to the claim that Peters would have known precisely what he was due, my husband and I didn't.  We assumed the people who processed our applications were competent and would understand and fairly apply their own rules.  It was only when we encountered the retributive and potentially punitive nature of the system that we felt the need to do our own research.  

What I had thought would be a simple process of lodging a claim for NZ superannuation became embarrassing and anxiety inducing when, in an open-plan office, with no attempt to ensure privacy, I was told that my husband had been overpaid because he had not updated information about my income. The member of staff said that there would be an investigation; that it would be a significant sum; that there could be penalties, and that a prosecution was 'unlikely unless it was deemed to be a deliberate fraud'. 

It was shocking and it left me feeling highly stressed. It was also wrong. There had been no overpayment. Either the information on the computer did not match that on the original paper form and this was subsequently established and corrected, or the employee was wrong in her understanding of the rules.  We suspect the latter but we don't know because we never got a formal explanation, let alone an apology. 

We thought about lodging a complaint but frankly at the time I wanted nothing more to do with the organisation. I left there feeling deeply grateful that I do not have to deal with it on a regular basis.

Our experience with the MSD was a relatively insignificant episode but it was symptomatic of most NZ bureaucracies and especially so of the MSD which, at times according to my husband, could more properly be called the Ministry of Social Destruction.  

This sort of institutional culture :

works on a deficit model of human behaviour which makes employees assume the worst about people and encourages them to look for ways that can be confirmed;

is regulatory rather than facilitative i.e. the primary function is to apply rules in ways that erect, rather than remove, barriers;

is austere in that it encourages employees to depersonalise, and actively discourages them from empathising with their 'clients;

is moralistic in that clients are often informally labelled as either deserving or undeserving; and, 

is parsimonious in that it encourages its employees to see themselves as the guardians of the public purse which is always at risk of being pilfered by the undeserving.

All of this rests on the individualisation of the social contract - summed up in the vacuous Thatcherite notion that there is no society, that there are only families and individuals who are largely responsible for themselves. If they fail it is because of their own shortcomings; if they succeed it is because of their own merits.  

The current welfare system in many ways harks back to the ethos of the Workhouse which split families by forcing men and women to live separately and which made the conditions of relief so harsh, so degrading and so cruel that any sort of work, at any sort of wages and in any sort of conditions was preferable to it.  It is no accident that the Poor Law Commissioners and the Workhouse loom so large in British history and why they were so detested. 

Of course the welfare system today is not as crudely moralistic or as cruelly and overtly oppressive but it springs from the same rootstock.  A class of smugly content haves imposes forms of regulation and retribution on a class of increasingly discontented and desperate have-nots. 

I felt uneasy about criticising the MSD because of its punitive culture and the enormous power the state wields courtesy of the knowledge it has about almost every tiny detail of our lives. Imagine how it is for people who are utterly dependent on the state for their subsistence.

One of the worst things about the Peters' scenario and what happened to Metiria Turei, is the message it sends out which is that big brother really is watching you, and if he decides he needs to, or simply wants to, he can give you the father of all kickings.  

There's an important principle here. NZ is split end to end and if we don't heal the wound it will finally kill what's left of our culture of decency and a fair go. 

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