Karl du Fresne on agenda-driven reformers

Karl du Fresne has a brilliant column on agenda-driven reformers.

The American economist Milton Friedman once said that it’s a great mistake to judge things by their intentions rather than by their results.

Unfortunately it’s a mistake repeatedly made by agenda-driven reformers on a mission to create the perfect society. A Radio New Zealand Spectrum programme brought one such instance to public attention earlier this month.

Until 2007, intellectually disabled people in New Zealand were exempted from minimum wage laws. This meant they could be employed doing menial work in facilities known as sheltered workshops.

It was a system whereby thousands of New Zealanders who were incapable of holding down proper jobs were nonetheless able to occupy themselves each day doing simple, repetitive work.

They were paid only a token sum, but the money wasn’t important. What really mattered was the companionship they enjoyed in the workplace and the satisfaction they got from having a job to go to each day.

It was an arrangement long supported by the IHC (originally the Intellectually Handicapped Children’s Society) and by parents with working-age disabled children. The IHC was itself the country’s biggest operator of sheltered workshops.

Then ideology intervened. Disability became politicised.

My brother-in-law was one of those affected.

Sheltered workshops may have admirably met the needs of those working in them, but reformers looked at them and saw only exploitation and discrimination.

Where others saw contented workplaces, left-wing activists saw a vulnerable minority being deprived of their rights. Sue Bradford, then a Green MP, called it “systemic oppression”.

Pumped up with reformist zeal, the Labour government in 2007 repealed the Disabled Persons Employment Promotion Act, which since 1960 had allowed disabled workers to be employed for less than the minimum wage.

A system was adopted whereby everyone working in sheltered workshops was individually assessed to see whether they were capable of mainstream employment at normal pay rates. Those who were judged incapable were given a continuing exemption from the minimum wage law.

The IHC applauded. It too had been ideologically captured. Over opposition from many of its bewildered members, the IHC seized the opportunity to shut down 76 workshops and “business units”.

In Blenheim, locals were so appalled by IHC’s plan to sell a nursery and plant centre which employed intellectually disabled workers that a community trust was set up to buy the business and keep it going.

Part of the problem was that the IHC itself had changed radically. Originally an organisation run largely by parents and volunteers, it had evolved into a government-funded Wellington bureaucracy led by disability-sector careerists.

The reforms had predictable consequences. True, a minority of the more “able” disabled found paying work. But the closure of those sheltered workshops deprived hundreds of intellectually disabled people of the satisfaction of going to work each and enjoying the camaraderie of others.

Despite extravagant promises, no satisfactory form of alternative activity was found for most of those tipped out of work.

The sheltered workshops that ’employed’ my brother-in-law were dismantled almost over night. A hand-to-mouth operation that was really a sitting service was no longer viable. Everyone lost their ‘jobs’ and their ‘wages’ and it was replaced with stupid activities like “bussing”, which was putting them all on a bus and driving around Christchurch.

It left our family disgusted at the actions of the politicians. Not a single handicapped person has benefited from this law change, and much to National’s shame they never repealed it.

Where previously they had delivered firewood, done ironing, mowed lawns, made letterboxes, worked in garden centres and sorted goods for recycling, they now watched TV, sat idly in “day bases” or went for walks. This was euphemistically called community participation.

In many cases, denied constructive work, their behaviour deteriorated. Some became difficult to manage.

Parents and caregivers were left bitter and disenchanted. Many felt betrayed by the IHC, the very organisation they looked to for support.

Of course none of this directly affected the well-paid ideologues, politicians and bureaucrats in Wellington, who were safely insulated from the consequences of their policies.

Now it seems the reformers aren’t satisfied with the damage already done in the name of bogus “inclusiveness”. As Spectrum reported, the exemption permits issued to more than 800 disabled workers nationwide are now under threat of cancellation.

This is presumably Phase II of the project commenced in 2007 – the final solution, if you like.

Let’s give the reformers the benefit of the doubt and assume they want to create an ideal world in which no one is disadvantaged.

The problem is, they’re willing to make people suffer for it to happen.

Very willing to make people suffer. My brother-in-law still talks about how he lost his job and how it was Helen Clark’s fault and Labour…and he tells everyone who will listen.

The damage continues though.

Spectrum focussed on Southland Disability Enterprises in Invercargill, one of a small number of independent sheltered workshop operators that continued to function after IHC abandoned the field.

The 80 disabled people working at SDE were all issued with exemption permits, but now the government wants to cancel those permits. If that happens, SDE will cease to be viable and the people who happily work there will be out of jobs. This is madness.

The Wellington bureaucrat driving the change explained that exempting disabled people from the minimum wage law was “out of step with modern thinking”.

She went on to pronounce that people with disabilities mustn’t be treated differently from others. Problem is, they are different. Or perhaps she hasn’t noticed.

And what’s being offered in return? Nothing at all, if you unpicked the bureaucrat’s vague and non-committal reference to possible subsidies, employment supports and training schemes.

I was reminded of the far-fetched promises made in 2007, when the reformers cruelly misled intellectually disabled people with phantasmic visions of the fulfilling new life that awaited them.

Now it is on National’s watch and there will be 80 families who will blame their local MP and National, and likely John Key, when their family member loses their job.


– Karl du Fresne


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  • Observer

    This is appalling. Who is the minister responsible for this type of issue?

  • Vlad

    An important, very well-written and researched report (as you would expect from this REAL journalist).

    Something must be done to correct this.

  • Muzman349

    Now this is something that makes me really mad. People are different and those differences must be respected and allowances made for everyone to be able to enjoy the happiness that the camaraderie of work can bring. This Wellington based government servant has obviously not been involved with the disabled or actively been out to see what they can achieve.

  • Seriously?

    This article reminded me of a song lyric by The The: “Anybody can be a millionaire, so everybody’s gotta try but by the laws of this human jungle only the heartless will survive. And down there — but for the grace of god — go I”

    That lyric might have been written as an indictment on capitalism, but it is more than apt for the left and their belief that everyone is equal. Everyone ought to be entitled to a university education. Everyone ought to be entitled to a a say on whether or not the TPPA is a good idea. Everyone who is employed out to be paid a set minimum. No exceptions.

    No understanding of the pressure and, yes I’ll use the word, the unfairness that such a zealous demand of equality brings: If don’t succeed you’re a failure, just being you is not good enough.

    We end up with unemployed with a useless BA, a student debt, having waste 4 years of their life. And we end up with people like those talked about above.

  • kereru

    This attempted homogenising of human beings is nothing more than Communism under the pretence of ‘equality’. On the one hand our society is to celebrate diversity and on the other we’re expected to embrace sameness. Of course the disabled need to be treated differently – differently doesn’t mean condescendingly. They love what they’re doing and feel they’re contributing, which they are. What’s next on the agenda – all must wear the same drab uniform that the Maoists demanded?

    • Blockhead

      Cultural Marxism, again

  • Big fella

    I employ one of these unemployables. I pay him bugger all, bus fares and a few dollars. He absolutely loves coming to work three days a week, 4 hours a day. He is a part of our team and we include him in everything. Sometimes it is bloody hard to keep him employed and find enough basic tasks for him to do, folding packaging, labeling product etc. Cannot do many tasks and requires close supervision, however it gives meaning to his life rather than vegetate at home. Can we do without him? Absolutely but we have a social conscience. These do gooders need to think more about the welfare of these people and not equality, because they are different, always will be. We are not all the same.

  • Stuarts.burgers

    Do the ̂ employees ̂ of Southland Disability Enterprises receive a cash benefit from the state. If we were to direct that benefit via the ̂employer̂ plus the ̂ wages that Southland Disability Enterprises pays them would this be equal the minimum rate of pay, maybe we would also need to cash up some of the ̂housing benefit the employees of Southland Disability Enterprises receive to bring the ̂ wages ̂ to the required level

    We need to think outside of the square as a lot of the pressure being applied is coming from UN type groups offshore. If we can use some smoke and mirrors so be it, I think for Cams brother inl aw the benefit was not so much the cash earned but the pride in having a job and doing it to the best of his ability. T

  • localnews

    That is a very sad story. I also wonder how many after school jobs, holiday jobs etc have disappeared with the requirement to pay adult wages. I had after school jobs from 14, I assume these days I wouldn’t be able too, but in those days $3ph was great and with no expenses all sending money