Over 1 million people didn’t vote in the last election, many of those people didn’t/don’t believe their vote matters. The majority were low income New Zealanders. Yesterday we heard from the Salvation Army that children in Auckland are living in cars, garages, camping grounds and emergency housing. We heard that this is due to a lack of housing, but also a lack of awareness of entitlements or people having had such negative experiences that they are avoiding Work and Income. They find living in a car preferable to dealing with Work and Income. There has been a breakdown in trust between the Government and people who find themselves needing Government assistance.
Last night the Government passed legislation, under urgency, that further erodes that trust. They passed a bill that many low income New Zealanders are saying denies them their legal entitlements. For 18 years the Government has been underpaying beneficiaries for 1 stand down day each time that they have needed a benefit. I have blogged about this previously. While a beneficiary who misses an appointment because of a late bus, or problems at work, will most probably have their income cut by 50-100%, the Government is not being as brutal towards its own lapses. This is being interpreted as further proof that the government doesn’t care and the government is a law unto itself.
The process regarding this bill did nothing to reassure those people. This original retrospective law change was buried in another significant law change. There was only one submission on this point as most people were not aware of the context or significance of the ‘remedial matter’. Through this process we found out that despite two court rulings Work and Income had not changed their practice to meet their legal obligations. Their practice changed over a year after the first court ruling but just 13 days after media attention.
Advocates, on low incomes themselves, took it upon themselves to inform people they could claim for their legal entitlements. Many people thought this was a scam and didn’t bother, but when those that took the risk did start getting their money, more people started applying. Then we got this legislation introduced under urgency to deny a large group of people the right to be paid from tomorrow.
Normally there would be a Regulatory Impact Statement (RIS) tabled on bills before the house, because it affects a large number of people and money. To my knowledge the only reasons for a RIS not to be provided are if the law makes no substantive change to legislation and it has little or no impact outside of government. It is very clear to me this legislation did change legislation and has a significant impact. The government also refused leave for other advice from officials to the select committee to be tabled so it could be used in the debate.
This process should severely discomfit anyone who cares about our laws and our increasingly fragile constitutional arrangements. There has been very little reporting of this. I understand why, but this case demonstrates more clearly than any other the importance of media scrutiny.
I understand that many people think politics is inherently corrupt. I used to, but now I’m a politician I rail against this idea. Democracy, the rule of law, and human rights are values that are essential to the Green Party vision for New Zealand. I’m okay taking flack for being an MP, but when the accusation of corruption is generalised, it’s not personal. It undermines confidence in the entire system and creates the conditions for corruption to flourish. If we’re all corrupt then you can’t vote for honesty and that is the primary way citizens can hold politicians to account. But actions like we have seen recently from this government give those that didn’t vote good reason to be suspicious of politics. We seem to be increasingly entering the territory that might suggest ‘The first rule is the government is never wrong. And when the government is wrong… see rule one – the government is never wrong.’
I don’t want to live in that society. I want to live in a society where parliament, the media and government seek to strengthen trust in government and public institutions and do our best to protect the human rights of everyone.