Week in Review

Our compassionate PM’s mean policies

Our Prime Minister is lauded overseas for her compassion, but her Cabinet is refusing to properly support tens of thousands of jobless migrants and beneficiaries struggling through the Covid-19 crisis, Bernard Hickey argues

Over the last year since the March 15 attacks, our Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has become a paragon of virtue for many on the centre-left around the world: a symbol of compassion and competence in a leadership landscape dotted with clownish buffoons and would-be dictators more interested in themselves than the welfare of their citizens. 

Ardern has featured on the front pages of The Guardian, The Washington Post and Time magazine as a beacon of kindness and sensitivity in the wake of her instinctively authentic and literal embrace of New Zealand's Muslim community in the immediate aftermath of the Christchurch mosque shootings. Her decisive and clear leadership almost a year after to the day to "go hard and go early" in locking down New Zealand's 'team of five million" in late March to "squash" Covid-19 has sealed the deal in the eyes of many, both overseas and here.

She is the anti-Trump, a mirror image of Boris Johnson's calamitous decision to initially opt for 'herd immunity'.

Our Prime Minister is clearly a master communicator able to convince more than 90 percent of New Zealanders that one of the toughest lock-downs in the world was the right thing to do. Now it seems to be paying off, not just in public health terms and an earlier loosening of restrictions than in other countries. And opinion poll support for both her and the Labour Party has surged to record highs.

So why is our Child Poverty Reduction Minister allowing her Cabinet and Government to ignore the advice and pleas of both official advisers and her coalition support partner to properly support tens of thousands of stranded and jobless migrant guest workers and over 350,000 people on benefits?

Why would a paragon of compassion allow tens of thousands of children to live in crowded, unhealthy shacks, garages, vans and motel rooms without enough food to eat?

A team of five million?

In recent weeks the Prime Minister has taken responsibility for Cabinet decisions not to use a clause in the Social Security Act to pay benefits to migrants on temporary work visas. It means that thousands of people in the tourism, hospitality and construction industries are now stranded here with no way to earn a living to pay for food and accommodation.

Their visas restrict them to working for a particular employer, which means when they are sacked they can't work for anyone else, unless and until their visa conditions are changed for a new employer. The Government has changed the law so the Immigration Minister, Iain Lees-Galloway can do that, but he again signalled on Tuesday the Government is still looking at whether to free up migrants to work for other employers, or whether to help them with extra benefits. 

Lees-Galloway even agreed with Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters that these jobless guest workers should go back to where they came from, even though most either can't find flights, couldn't afford them, or legitimately hope they can gain full permanent residence, as was suggested to them by Governments of both flavours over the last decade. 

The Prime Minister has pointed to token relief offered by Civil Defence and Emergency Management (CDEM), which includes cans of food.

Newsroom's Dileepa Fonseka reported last month how CDEM assistance consisted of two cans of baked beans, two spaghetti tins, along with onions, potatoes and canned chickpeas. Rice, flour, and sugar were provided in small ziplock bags. 

He reported how one migrant worker's family of seven - three children and four adults - worked their way through the rations in one day while locked down in a cold and mouldy two-bedroom $350 per week converted Auckland garage. When she called up a couple of days later for a food parcel top-up, she was told the pack was meant to last her the entire length of lockdown.

Over 300,000 guest workers and students on temporary visas are ineligible for the benefits. Many have been sacked by employers who retained a government wage subsidy and did not pass it on. They are now destitute and stranded without funds to pay for food and accommodation.

Beholden to an anti-migrant politician?

The Prime Minister has denied in public that New Zealand First has blocked attempts to pay migrant workers benefits, let alone access a special $490/week benefit for resident workers who have lost their jobs because of Covid-19. But it's clear from sources behind the scenes that New Zealand First's opposition to allowing migrants to get benefits or be able to easily apply for jobs residents could apply for is holding up resolution of the issue. 

It is also seen to be behind the Prime Minister's resolve to not reform the main regular benefit payments to more than 350,000 New Zealanders, despite an official advisory group's recommendation to make a one-off payment and large increases costing over $5 billion to immediately improve the conditions of beneficiaries, tens of thousands of whom look after children classed as living in poverty.

The Welfare Expert Advisory Group also recommended the removal of a range of sanctions for beneficiaries who leave a job, have another child or don't have drug tests. 

The Government's support partner, the Green Party, has pushed for these increases in benefits and removal of sanctions, but to no avail, even as the Government's previous arguments about fiscal affordability dissolved in a hail of spending from a $50b support package in the Budget, including $20b that hasn't even been allocated.

The hypocrisy is front and centre

The meanness of the Government's policies was highlighted by its own announcement late last month of the $490/week payment for workers who had lost their jobs specifically because of Covid-19. It is around twice the main benefit.

Green Party Co-Leader Marama Davidson, who, crucially, is outside of Cabinet, said the main benefits should be increased to match the $490/week Covid-19 benefit.

"We’ve been consistently clear that this needs to happen urgently and desperately. It hasn’t happened yet, but we won’t give up,” Davidson said last week.

“Both New Zealand First and Labour need to come to the table on this," she said.

The key part of that statement is the New Zealand First part.

The Prime Minister has essentially decided not to challenge or over-rule Winston Peters on these issues because it could risk a blow-up just months before election that makes the Government appear unstable. It also betrays a lack of confidence about her ability to turn record-high personal and party popularity into a majority Labour-Green victory.

Tough on Scott, but not Winston

The irony is painful when the Prime Minister pokes her Australian counterpart, Scott Morrison, over the way Australia does the same thing to New Zealanders working in Australia who lose their jobs and aren't entitled to benefits, despite paying taxes.

The Prime Minister has played up the united effort of a 'team of five million' beating Covid-19, but they are hollow words to the 700,000 people living here on a benefit or on a temporary work visa when they are receiving an inadequate benefit or no benefit at all.

There is an 'A' team of 4.3m and then there's the rest, a group of second-class people who are treated as undeserving of the Government's compassion. The rest of the world may not notice, but that 'B' team knows the Prime Minister's reputation for compassion is being sacrificed on the Cabinet altar of Coalition cohesiveness and the retention of power in a similar form in the September 19 election. 

Jacinda Ardern consoles a woman at the Kilbirnie Mosque following the Christchurch terror attack. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

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