Cat fight: Pagani vs St John

Josie Pagani and Susan St John are having a donnybrook over the direction of the Labour party and poverty.

One is an activist and member of the party the other is a lofty academic more attune with lecturing people.

My money is on the activist.

Susan St John accuses me of “visionless pro-work rhetoric” for writing in my blog about Labour’s position on extending the Working For Families tax credit to families not in work.

I’m not sure if Susan St John thinks it would be more visionary to be ‘anti-work’. I’m proud to support the core Labour value of work. The best way out of poverty is a well-paid job. The Labour movement is founded on the entitlement of working people to dignity through work and security when we can’t.

Those of us who have been in and around families needing benefits to live on have experienced the cycle of getting work, getting off the benefit and then getting back into it again. Work is the central security in our lives.

There will always be many who can’t work (or, often, could work but should not have to, such as many mothers of young children and many sick and disabled individuals among others.) Being ‘pro-work’ does not mean giving up on them or failing to represent them.

But my point was that you win the argument about doing more to help families on benefits if you can win the trust of those who are only two pay checks away from being on a benefit themselves.

Susan St John’s position implies the only way to help beneficiaries is by extending the in-work tax credit to beneficiaries. Yet we know that policy is unpopular.

So why don’t we get support to reduce child poverty and inequality? She implies the in-work tax credit for beneficiaries is unpopular because of the way it is framed. Others often say it is because voters don’t care about child poverty and inequality. I disagree.

Most New Zealanders really do care about child poverty. They understand the significance of increasing cash payments to beneficiaries. They’re not sceptical about the goal – they are sceptical about the in-work tax credit being the right tool to use.

It is revealing that, in an extensive quote from my previous column she left out this one:

Only when we do that job properly (representing working people) do we win the trust of people to increase benefit levels; because another Labour principle is compassion.”

Yet that is the main point I was making: we lost trust. We have to ask why.

For people like Susan St John the answer is always more money. Smart people will always respond to that by asking for the evidence. Working for Families is a case in point. Introduced by National, extended by Labour and kept by National, it was supposed to address poverty…and yet we are still hearing about child poverty and poverty traps…the money solved nothing…it created middle class welfarism…and seemingly can’t be got rid of.

Susan conflates everyone who doesn’t agree with extending the in-work tax credit, with beneficiary bashers. She says,“What heart would have been taken by those who despair at the crude work focus of current policies for children? Why was it so hard for Labour to devise a means of making work pay that did not damage children?”

There are many ways to skin the cat she is talking about – and realistically they involve some rethinking of the welfare system. Labour should be prepared to do this because we created the welfare system. We believe in it. We should be the ones to propose reform.

We should not be terrified of having a debate about re-thinking our models in case falsely accused of benny-bashing, because then the left will abandon welfare reform to the right – who don’t even believe in it. There are certainly some beneficiary bashers in this debate, and they can be noisy. But their values don’t reflect the attitudes of most.

Maybe one reason people don’t support extending the in-work tax credit is that they don’t believe it will be effective in getting through to the children who need it most; that you actually need to take responsibility as a wider community for the care of our most vulnerable. I think that’s what we mean when we support giving breakfasts to kids in school – we don’t just give their parents the money to buy those breakfasts because we need to make sure the kids actually get fed.

If you think just giving their parents more money is the only answer, then you don’t support giving the kids breakfast in schools because every dollar spent on the breakfast is a dollar not given to their parents and visa versa. It’s either extend an in-work tax credit to people not in work, or pay for the kids breakfast directly. Which is going to do more to reduce child poverty?

We could consider other models that devolve more of the welfare system to community groups working more closely with people in need than WINZ – I’m thinking of aspects of whanau ora.

I object to feeding kids at school…if we start doing that, then the next step will be feeding them for dinner as well and then hey, why bother having parents.

Parents need to be parents, and our welfare agencies need to start actually intervening instead of soft soaping indigent and useless parents…who are often parents in name only.


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As much at home writing editorials as being the subject of them, Cam has won awards, including the Canon Media Award for his work on the Len Brown/Bevan Chuang story. When he’s not creating the news, he tends to be in it, with protagonists using the courts, media and social media to deliver financial as well as death threats.

They say that news is something that someone, somewhere, wants kept quiet. Cam Slater doesn’t do quiet and, as a result, he is a polarising, controversial but highly effective journalist who takes no prisoners.

He is fearless in his pursuit of a story.

Love him or loathe him, you can’t ignore him.

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