Axver (axver) wrote,

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I have been following with increasing agitation the moves being made by the right wing parties in Australia and New Zealand to cut back social welfare. In New Zealand, the governing National Party unveiled a raft of changes in March, while in Australia, the leader of the opposition Liberal Party, Tony Abbott, has been mouthing off about restricting the dole so that only those over 30 can receive it. National's proposals remind me all too much of Ruthanasia in the early 1990s, which is one of the main reasons why I do not live in New Zealand any more.

If ever you need proof that the right wing completely misses the point on how to look after the poor in society and is totally out of touch with daily realities in the working class, this is it.

Although the New Zealand measures and Abbott's hot air target somewhat different aspects of social welfare, they come from the same ideological place and I think it is quite reasonable to discuss them together. Both seem to view recipients of benefits - whether single mothers, the young unemployed, sickness benefit claimants, and others - as lazy, bludging, or at the least not doing all they can to obtain employment (which is idolised as a social ideal). The measures are inherently punitive and do not seek to meaningfully change the underlying socio-economic conditions that engender poverty and other forms of disadvantage; they punish individuals for being in the position they are in, and deprive them of assistance from the state. Never mind that the reason for the state's existence is to provide security and stability for its citizens. The measures fundamentally reflect a failure to understand that people who are actually rorting the system will keep finding ways to rort the system regardless of such punitive measures, while people who are sincerely struggling will find themselves struggling further.

Whenever a political party introduces a social welfare policy, you need to sit down and ask some basic questions. "Who is this policy meant to appeal to?" "Who will experience negative outcomes and why does the party in question not care that this will lose votes?" Those can be broken up and more can be added, but I think they get to the heart of the matter.

Who are these policies meant to appeal to? It's sure as hell not the actual recipients. It's not really the upper class either - they're already largely in the pocket of National and Liberal and there are more effective ways to keep them onside (though the possibility of reducing taxes on the high end of town by reducing social welfare spending is appealling). The main target is the middle class, especially aspirational middle class voters who don't want to see "their" money help "bludgers" while they've had to work all their lives - usually in stable self-employment or mid-level office jobs. Politics has become quite mundane and centrist as both parties have fought for the support of the middle class, especially as the left's traditional working class demographic has declined in size relative to the middle class. In Australia, Abbott is pretty keen to snag the middle class back from Kevin Rudd; he can't win the next election if he doesn't. In New Zealand, John Key's position is somewhat more secure, especially in the absence of any particularly charismatic Labour alternative, but his government needs to be seen as active to maintain support and not risk Labour encroaching on National votes. After all, Key doesn't want to become the first Kiwi PM since Walter Nash in 1957-60 to lose election after a single term despite being elected to said single term.* Prime Ministers contesting their first election as incumbent tend to have it pretty easy in New Zealand.

(*New Zealand has had many single term Prime Ministers since Nash, but none of them were actually ELECTED to their term. They all took office after the sitting PM resigned or was ousted by party colleagues, or in the case of Bill Rowling, took office after Norman Kirk died. Prior to Nash, I'm honestly not sure if any PMs since the rise of party politics at the 1890 election have won election and then lost the subsequent vote. I can't think of any.)

So, who will experience negative outcomes and why do National and Liberal not care? Simple. The people who will be negatively affected are those who actually receive, live on, and rely upon the welfare payments in question. These are poor working class people, and they are often in a position of socio-economic hardship or marginalisation. This is not fertile right wing territory (even if Howard was able to court racists and bigots from the working class). It is traditionally Labour territory, and very few votes are being gifted to Labour by alienating these people, while there are many votes to be gained from Labour in the middle class. The equation is obvious; lose a handful of people in the working class that are not enough to cost anybody their seat in order to secure some votes in the middle class to hold or gain marginal seats in middle class areas.

The Australian example is overlaid by another factor - age. Abbott will punish the under-30s, about whom he is not particularly concerned. The under-30 demographic is predominantly left-of-centre to leftist, hence he is again not gifting much to Labour while potentially stealing marginal seats from Labour with over-30 middle class votes. Or to put it another way, when was the last time you met an Arts student who votes Liberal? That's right, you haven't, except for a couple of nutters cruising through on Daddy's money. And maybe that self-important Arts/Law dual degree tosspot, but you didn't want to ask, lest he suck your blood and turn you into a lawyer too. The minority of under-30s who do vote Liberal won't be alienated by this anyway, as they are typically financially secure upper-middle to upper class people; in other words, the voters Abbott has under the age of 30 are voters who are unaffected and would support this anyway. Abbott is quite happy to let the rest of the under-30 vote split itself between Labour and Green, and use the over-30 vote to win in the face of this split; classic divide and conquer, though Australia's preferential voting system means this isn't quite so easy as it would be under first-past-the-post.

In other words, National in New Zealand and Liberal in Australia barely care a jot about the people living on social welfare who are going to be affected and disadvantaged by their policies. It's all political posturing, and if some single mothers and poor people suffer, that's not of much concern to them as it doesn't really affect them. They're busy looking tough, active, and fiscally responsible to the middle and upper classes, especially middle class people in marginal seats, by cracking down on the sort of people and the sort of expenditure such voters don't like. "I got mine."
Tags: alp, australia, liberals, nationals, new zealand, politics, poverty, social welfare, tony abbott, unemployment

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