This thing about the roof-painting sickness beneficiary in Shearer’s speech keeps rumbling on (I’m too lazy to link to the various posts), so just to make one final point.
In New Zealand there used to be a cross-party consensus around work and the welfare system. The government would intervene in the economy to ensure a very low level of unemployment, and provide a welfare system for people transitioning between jobs, or otherwise falling through the cracks. (And if people had mental health issues, like a severe problem with drugs and alcohol they were institutionalised).
That all changed in the 1980s. Mental health facilities were closed and the patients released into the community to live on benefits, and the state sector was scaled back to make it more efficient, which meant the government couldn’t absorb marginal workers during economic downturns. So they all go on welfare instead, and that creates all sorts of problems for Finance Ministers during recessions, when they’re suddenly forced to borrow money to pay for a welfare system with a terrible return on that investment at the same time their tax revenues have fallen.
Now, National plays the benefit-basher card roughly every 72 hours – but there is an intellectual argument behind the populist scape-goating: that paying people to go on welfare sends the wrong economic signals, and that it incentivises people (and then their children) not to work, thus the welfare state perpetuates itself, and we have to discourage this. I think you have to ignore a huge amount of modern history and empirical evidence to buy that, but it’s what some people believe and so they say it, and the public responds to it.
So if Labour wants to reconsider their attitude towards the issue of employment and the welfare system then that’s fine. But I don’t see any evidence of that in David Shearer’s speech the other week. All I see is a politician and his advisers looking at their market research and saying, ‘Hell, the Nats are absolutely killing us on welfare. Let’s say something to shut that down.’ But there’s nothing substantive behind it.