Election 2017 Live: National threatens to halve benefits for Kiwis on drugs

In another push for potential New Zealand First voters, National has threatened to halve the benefits of those with drug problems who refuse treatment or a job. Bernard Hickey reports from the campaign trail.

National's Social Development spokeswoman Anne Tolley announced a package costing $72 million over four years that included guaranteed work experience and budget planning help for long-term unemployed and rehabilitation places for job-seekers struggling with drugs. But she warned that beneficiaries who refused to attend job interviews or rehabilitation sessions would have their benefit halved, and would only be able to spend the remaining half on rent and food. 

Labour and the Greens accused National of beneficiary bashing and questioned the evidence behind Tolley's assertion that unemployed people had chronic drug problems.

Meanwhile, Steven Joyce and Bill English continued to insist there was a $11.7 billion hole in Labour's fiscal plan, but the weight of opinion across the economic spectrum is that National has over-egged the pudding with its claim of an accounting mistake. 

Elsewhere on the campaign trail, Bill English ventured into his home territory of Southland to appeal for more National party votes, while Jacinda Ardern was in the Waikato to appeal to pensioners, students and mill workers.

There are 16 days to go until the election, although overseas voting opened today. Polling booths open for advance voting next Monday (September 11).

New threat to beneficiaries on drugs

Tolley announced National's new policy for jobseekers early this afternoon, allowing plenty of time to get it on the television news programmes for centre-right voters thinking of voting for New Zealand First. National has also appealed to them with its crackdown on P-dealing gang members and the higher 110 km/hr speed limits on some roads.

She said National would spend $72 million over four years on the new policies for beneficiaries under the age of 25.

The Government would guarantee work experience or training for those who had been on a job-seekers benefit for six months or longer. It would also provide financial management training for young people on the unemployment benefit and provide rehabilitation services to those where drug use was identified as a barrier to employment. They would also receive intensive 'one-on-one' case management to get a job.

Only 10 percent of young people on a jobseekers benefit stayed on the benefit for more than six months, but those who did stayed on the benefit for an average of 10 years, she said.

“In addition, one in five beneficiaries tell us that drug use is a barrier to them getting a job - so we are increasing the support we give them to kick drug use and get work ready," she said.

"Jobseekers without children who refuse work experience or training or recreational drug rehabilitation will lose 50 percent of their benefit entitlement after four weeks of not meeting their obligations, with further reductions if that continues. This will also apply to those who continue to fail recreational drug tests, where these are requested by prospective employers."

Tolley said the lower benefit payments would only be able to be used for essential needs such as rent and food. Currently Work and Income already provided a money management programme for 16-19 year olds.

“This significant extra support we are announcing today will come with obligations and personal responsibilities, so those who won’t take the opportunities available to them will lose all or part of their benefit until they take steps to turn their lives around," she said.

“We know benefit sanctions are an effective tool to help people into work, as 95 per cent of people who receive a formal warning meet their obligations within four weeks.”

WINZ staff would have the discretion to cut benefits to take account of individual circumstances and those who met their obligations would have their benefits reinstated.

“New Zealanders are creating real opportunities for themselves and for New Zealand, through hard work and a commitment to doing better. National supports those efforts and is focused on helping all New Zealanders get ahead, even our most vulnerable.” 

National would roll out the changes from July 1 next year, she said.

'A punitive policy that makes assumptions'

Labour social development spokeswoman Carmel Sepuloni said National's proposal was punitive and made assumptions without evidence.

"It's very punitive and deficit based. It's making assumptions about people, rather than seeing them as people to be invested in. They're already assuming they're failing to comply with the rules and regulations," Sepuloni said.

"I can't see how repeating the same strategies is going to improve people's situations," she said, referring to the 74,000 people who were Not in Education, Employment or Training (NEETs) in the June quarter.

"They're reverting back to old language. They want to be seen to be getting tough on beneficiaries, despite there being no evidence to support some of the shifts that they're making."

Sepuloni referred to information provided by MSD via a written parliamentary question on May 9 this year showing that over the last year there had been 170 'obligation failures' over the year to the end of March where beneficiaries applying for jobs requiring a drug test had either failed a drug test and failed to take it. That was out of 39,271 job referrals over that period and represented a failure rate of less than 0.4 percent.

Greens inequality spokeswoman Marama Davidson said the announcement was cynical and designed to distract from the pressing issue of poverty.

“National’s latest cynical announcement ignores the evidence of how to properly treat drug addiction and will punish already vulnerable people,“ Davidson said in a statement.

“We know that sanctions are expensive to administer and push people further into poverty. If you believe that people deserve help to overcome drug addiction, why would you turn around and push them under the poverty line if they struggle to overcome those habits?" she said.

The black hole that isn't

The guts of the dispute is that Joyce said Labour had not rolled forward its operating allowances for new spending to account for population and cost pressures. That meant, he said, that there was a simple mistake in its calculations worth $9.4 billion of the $11.7 billion. The trouble for him is that Labour had included those cost pressures for health and education in its 'modernising health and education lines'. That accounted for $8.6 billion of the 'missing' $9.4 billion.

Joyce was also wrong when arguing Labour had not accounted for its paid parental leave spending or three months of its families package spending.

However, he was right in arguing that Labour is relying on containing spending growth in areas outside of Education and Health to make its numbers add up. Grant Robertson said on Monday Labour planned to reprioritise spending in areas such as Defence and Justice to give it room to deal with those pressures.

The problem for the Government is that the narrative flipped yesterday from being about a potential budget black hole for Labour to National being accused of scare-mongering and insisting Trump-style that white was black.

Finance Minister and National Party Campaign Manager Steven Joyce talking at National's annual conference in June. Photo by Lynn Grieveson

I pointed out on Monday evening before the debate that there was not a budget black hole and that it was really a political argument about spending priorities and whether Labour could control and reshuffle costs outside of Education and Health.

Others, including Brian Fallow, Keith Ng, Vernon Small, the New Zealand Initiative and ANZ's Cameron Bagrie have argued that Joyce's $11.7 billion figure was massively overstating the issue. Ganesh Nana from BERL, which checked Labour's fiscal plans before they were released, described Joyce's claims as "fiction".

Both TV networks hammered the Government last night and Steven Joyce was on television and radio again this morning to defend his decision to use the $11.7 billion number.

What will voters think?

It remains to be seen how the public has viewed this debate about fiscal mathematics. Some may just have heard the 'Labour has a $11.7 billion hole' claim and not the rebuttal or the independent views. That may reinforce their views about Labour's fiscal skills. Others may have seen National's shouting as another scare tactic that reinforces their views about the need for change. The floating voters may not be watching television or have noticed at all. I suspect debates about fiscal issues are an excuse for most voters to reach for the remote.

Robert Muldoon was fond of saying the public would not recognise a budget deficit if they fell over one. I'm not sure of that, but the pushing and shoving is likely to continue. National know they could lose and shouting is one way to get through to voters in an increasingly atomised and splintered media environment.

The risk for Joyce is that he is seen as the Minister and Campaign Manager who cried wolf. He has used up some of his undoubted credibility over the last couple of days, although his continual engagement and lack of grumpiness has limited the damage.

What the Tax Working Group will look at

Robertson later told Newsroom's Lynn Grieveson at a disability rights election debate in Kilbirnie late on Tuesday that Labour's Tax Working Group would look at the balance of how assets and wealth were taxed, as well as income.

"We are not ruling in things or ruling out things, so it is completely untrue to say. We have no plan for a land tax but we want to listen to the working group about how we create that balance," he said.

"Obviously with the family home, we want to make sure we protect that – but if we are going to do this properly we actually have to look at all of the options, that’s what they are doing," he said.

Robertson said National was scaremongering and a TVNZ poll published this week showed the public were interested in the idea of a capital gains tax.

"We are saying that the tax system is not fair and the direction of travel is there – we are extending the bright line out to five years. So I just think National is just trying to whip up a bit of fear here. But actually I think from that poll we can see that many New Zealanders actually understand."

The electoral mathematics of age

Electoral Commission figures showing how many people there are in each age cohort and how many had enrolled by the closing date for normal enrolment of August 23.

One key thing to know about electioneering and electoral mathematics is that there are a lot of older people and they vote at much higher rates than the youngest.

The chart above from the Electoral Commission shows the enrolment rates by age group and shows at least 309,000 18-39 year olds had not enrolled by the August 23 deadline for normal enrolment. Special enrolment is still possible but time-consuming up to voting day. A further 150,000 young people will be enrolled, but not vote, going by the voting rates at the last election.

That means it pays off for political parties to target their policies at the elderly, even though the demographics mean there are now more millennials and Generation Xers than baby boomers. The problem for the young ones is they don't vote at the same rates. It's one of the reasons Jacinda Ardern recommitted to Andrew Little's decision to rule out an increase in the retirement age from 65 in the debate on Monday night.

National's policy to increase orthopaedic surgeries announced yesterday also reflects the electoral mathematics of ageing populations and low voting rates among the young. Elderly voters are more concerned for their own knees and hips, whereas spending on primary health care for the young could be more effective in the long run. Coleman defended the Government's record on primary health care spending.

But it's interesting to hear doctors talk about the choices between spending on expensive surgeries versus spending on public health measures to reduce obesity and improve lifestyles many years before knees need replacing, diabetes needs treating or feet need removing.

Coming up...

Bill English visits Invercargill for campaign events today, including a 'stand-up' news conference early in the afternoon.

Jacinda Ardern is visiting a Grey Power meeting in Hamilton before visiting Waikato University and the Kinleith Mill. Her 'stand-up' is also scheduled for early afternoon to give time for the TV networks to get their material.

September 7 - The Press/Stuff leaders debate will be held in Christchurch

September 11 - Polling booths open for early voting.

September 20 - The final leaders debate on TVNZ.

September 23 - The General Election.

October 12 - Winston Peters has said he will make a decision about which party he 'crowns' to be in Government by October 12, which is when the writs with the final election results are returned. That is assuming the current polling is replicated on election night.

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