Anne Tolley says another unbelievably gross thing

At this point, dear readers, I’m starting to ask myself if Anne Tolley is either a masterful piece of anti-Tory performance art, or sacrificing her own humanity in order to make either Paula Bennett or Judith Collins look much more electable as leader human.

There was describing systemic sexual violence against children in state care as “some people were let down badly“, there was the retrospective legislation to deny people a day’s worth of benefit payments which they had been unlawfully denied for 18 years, and then she suggested pushing sterilisation on people who have kids while on a benefit.

Then there was this, in response to revelations that people going through cancer treatment are having to provide monthly medical certificates to Work and Income to justify why they’re not looking for a job:

Minister of Social Development Anne Tolley acknowledged that having to provide monthly medical certificates in the early stages of cancer was difficult, but said the government had to draw a line somewhere.

She said if cancer patients were given special consideration, other people would want those considerations as well.

Because God forbid that we have special consideration for people in incredibly difficult, painful, special circumstances.

Anne Tolley is a revelation of the real attitudes of this government. Literally everyone – even people with serious cancer who actually have jobs to return to when they’re able – is assumed to be a parasite on the system. The government, in her worldview, isn’t here for people. It doesn’t have a role supporting people in difficult times. Its only purpose is, by any means necessary, to squeeze the maximum possible economic value out of every meat widget person.

This is something our present government has been pretty good at hiding, largely thanks to its hyperfocus on a relaxed, bland, average-Joe-millionaire Prime Minister. I don’t know what it is, but 2015 just seems to be the year the whole facade comes tumbling down.

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Anne Tolley’s next abhorrent idea: forced sterilization of poor people

It’s going to be incredibly difficult not to Godwin the hell out of this one, people.

Appearing on TVOne’s Q+A programme this morning, Social Development minister Anne Tolley would not rule out more actively trying to limit or prevent births to families which have come to the attention of authorities.

“Well, we’ll wait and see what the panel report. I expect that they’ll be saying, ‘We should get much, much faster contraceptive advice in. We should be offering, you know, tubal ligations, all sorts of things and counselling those families’,” she said.

Tubal ligation is not a form of contraception. Tubal ligation is a form of sterilization.

And sure, anybody who wants to make an informed decision to get a tubal ligation should be able to. I know plenty of childfree people who’d run at the chance, after many years of “you’ll want kids when you’re older” concern-trolling from the medical establishment.

But let’s not confuse Anne Tolley’s suggestion with any kind of progressive reproductive healthcare policy. This is simply National applying further bullying to “undesirable” people not to have children. And there are many words for that, and most of them are rightly associated with, shall we say, certain fascist societies.

Let’s remember how this government generally acts towards people on benefits, and ask ourselves if we really believe the “offer” of sterilization or counselling or long-term contraception is actually being made in an open-minded, compassionate way.

Let’s remember that their plan of offer free long-term contraception – which was an expensive failure – wasn’t just targeted at beneficiaries, but at their teenage daughters – and what kind of message that sends about “those kind of people”.

I support reproductive choice. I support the state making options available to people, on their own terms, to control when they have kids and how many kids they have. It’d be great to see a government which actually cared enough about stopping unwanted pregnancies to extend free doctor’s appointments for sexual health to more young people, or ensuring quicker access to abortion services.

But that’s not what we’re getting. We’re getting another dystopic, daddy-state interference in the lives of people who are already pushed to the absolute limits. We’re applying the power of government to threaten people who have incredibly little with even less if they dare to have a family the powers-that-be don’t approve of.

It’s grotesque. And worse, it’s probably not even sincere. Anne Tolley knows this won’t solve any of the problems she says exist in our social welfare system. But it will get great headlines about cracking down on those filthy bludging breeders-for-a-business. And even people on the left won’t be rushing to call it out for what it is: a repugnant attack on basic human rights.

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Some people want to see the good in everything and think we should focus on the important stuff – better access to contraception – instead of calling out Tolley’s horrific agenda. Unfortunately, the coverage this morning makes it all pretty clear:

The Minister for Social Development wants to find a way of stopping the most at-risk beneficiaries from having more children.

Anne Tolley admitted it was a tricky subject, but said something had to be done about the women who have multiple children taken into care.

Emphasis mine; coercive restrictions on poor women’s reproduction all hers.

The myth of focusing on front line services

I saw a shocking thing on Twitter yesterday:

A National Party minister admitting that the state has responsibility for something? Ridiculous!

Of course there’s a sting: the way “frontline” services are specifically mentioned.

This is another of the great National Party myths: that frontline services are vital, important, definitely necessary – but of course we can’t just throw money at them or they’ll end up bloated and wasteful and inefficient, like all those back office services we slashed to the bone.

key on public services

It’s fairly smart marketing. Very few people want to see a massive reduction in the public services they use – no one wants to see DOC scrapped or higher teacher:student ratios or longer hospital waiting lists. So when DOC faces cuts, it’s “office-based jobs” that are going. When they’re mashing agencies together willy-nilly it’s “[reducing] duplication of roles and back office functions“. When they decide to focus on preventative healthcare, it’s literally because “back-office cuts will no longer produce the savings required“.

We’re all just meant to accept that “frontline” workers like social workers, police and nurses aren’t just important – they’re all that’s important. We’re meant to buy the idea that anything which isn’t “frontline” – dealing directly with troubled kids, arresting bad people, treating hurt people – is a waste of time and money. Like so many of National’s successful memes, it just feels natural to accept that we should focus on the “core business” and get rid of anything which isn’t “core”.

The problem is that the work doesn’t go away. The notes have to get typed. The paperwork has to get filed. The timesheet reports have to get run. The roster has to be set. Someone has to fix the damn printer. And when there’s no one left in “the back office” to do it, somebody working on “core business” has to stop, find the phone number for the bloody technician, and explain to their boss why they had to pay for a call-out when the only problem was the yellow toner had run out.

That is a waste of time and money. That is a drain on frontline services. And the downstream effects are serious. How can the government tell if targets are being met when the data isn’t being recorded the same way or stored in the same place? How can supervisors measure people’s performance or oversee their workloads when everyone’s so busy the record-keeping is mostly taking place in their heads? How can people access services if their case manager is off sick and literally no one else can find or read their file?

How often do I see journalists or activists complaining that this Department or that Ministry has refused to fill an OIA request because either they don’t have the resources to collate the information, or they don’t even know how to find it? At that point, cutting the back office isn’t just counter-productive, it’s undermining our democracy.

We’ve taken a baby-step forward with Tolley’s admission that at least some CYF work can’t be outsourced to operators like Serco. We have to keep challenging the idea that the rest of the public service is up for grabs, challenging the false economy of splitting “back office” functions away from “frontline” work, and challenging the government’s deliberate strategy of running down public services until the point they can say “look, the state sector can’t deliver. Bring on privatisation!”

That’s just, like, your legal opinion, man

Almost nothing irritates me like the way politics is reduced to a series of “they saids” – as though nothing is factual, everything is relative, and it’s all about the game, and how you play it.

A classic example which is burned into my brain for no particular reason is the initial reporting around the Employment Relations Amendment Bill back in 2013:

Labour Minister Simon Bridges said the bill would speed up the process at the Employment Relations Authority, increase confidence and make it easier to get jobs.

But CTU president Helen Kelly believes the bill will remove workers’ rights and make it easy for employers to simply walk away from collective agreements.

If you read that, the amount of weight you give to either side is probably most informed by where you already sit on the political spectrum. You either think Helen Kelly is a staunch advocate of workers and therefore is more trustworthy than a Tory who hates unions, or you think unions hate the entire concept of work and always demand too much from innocent businesspeople. Or maybe you’re not particularly political and you honestly don’t know who to believe – because all you’re getting to base your judgement on is warring “he said, but she believes …” statements.

But “the bill will remove workers’ rights” isn’t a matter of opinion. It’s a testable statement. Previous to the bill, workers had the unequivocal right to a minimum set of rest breaks, depending on the length of their shift. After the bill passed, they didn’t.

You can debate whether this is necessary, ethical, safe, exploitative, fair, too far, not far enough – those are subjective matters of opinion. You can’t debate “this bill removes existing rights from the law”. It either does or it doesn’t.

And so we get to Anne Tolley’s recent comments on the establishment of a sex offender registry.

Attorney-General Chris Finlayson tabled a report on the bill, saying it breached the Bill of Rights Act.

But Mrs Tolley had a different view.

“There are no restrictions placed on where the individual can live or work, who they can live or associate with, or when and where they can travel – including overseas.

I’m honestly not sure exactly why Anne Tolley’s opinion – based on her extensive lack of legal expertise – is relevant to the question of whether the bill breaches the BORA.

BORA vetting is something every government bill has to go through. From the Ministry of Justice website:

Under section 7 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, the Attorney-General is required to notify the House of Representatives of any provision in any Bill introduced into the House that appears to be inconsistent with the Bill of Rights Act. Parliament may form a different view about whether a particular right or freedom is limited or whether the limitation is justified. The purpose of section 7 is to help ensure that decisions made by Parliament to limit fundamental rights and freedoms are not taken without its full knowledge and proper consideration. The section 7 process also ensures that Bill of Rights considerations are a significant focus in the development of policy and the drafting of legislation.

Yes, Parliament isn’t bound by the vetting process – they don’t have to change bills to be in line with basic human rights if they decide it’s “justified”. Anne Tolley is entitled to her unqualified, self-justifying opinion on the matter and even to pass whatever legislation she can get on the table.

My issue is that there’s no context given. We don’t know what the specific BORA issues are with the bill. We don’t have a public conversation about whether or not people’s human rights are being breached, or if that breach is justified in some way. It’s just “a bunch of Ministry of Justice officials said there are some problems with this, but Anne Tolley said ‘nah, bro, she’ll be right.'” As though those two sets of opinions on the matter are equally meaningful.

As though we should trust a minister in this government to take human rights seriously when they’ve got their eyes set on publicly punishing another demonized group of people in order to bolster their tough-on-crime credibility.

No Right Turn is also scathing about the supposed benefits of the register.

Anne Tolley desperate to screw down beneficiaries even further

So for 18 years, people who have been on stand-down periods from benefits – i.e. forced to stretch whatever savings or credit or charity they can access just in case they’re not really in desperate need of paying the rent or buying food for their kids – have been consistently underpaid.

Radio New Zealand reported Work and Income had underpaid some beneficiaries by a day since 1998, as it had paid people from the day after their “stand-down” period ended.

When people applied for a benefit, they often had to wait two weeks for it to start.

Work and Income was meant to pay a beneficiary from the day after the two week period ended, but instead had been starting payments the following day, RNZ reported.

And the government’s response to this persistent underpaying of poor and vulnerable people, who are already expected to live on less than it actually costs to live?

The Government was now trying to retrospectively change the law dating back to 1998, when the provisions took effect.

Of course they are. As many people have said in response to this article, if WINZ found out you’d been over-claiming for a day’s benefit since 1998, you’d be in jail, castigated as the worst kind of bludging, greedy parasite.

When WINZ has been stiffing beneficiaries for an extra day’s benefit for nearly 20 years? Oops, better make that all go away really quickly, we certainly don’t want people to think they’re entitled for restitution after being simply, wilfully, defrauded by the government.

(Unless they’re Saudi millionaires who totally reckon they were promised cushy trade deals.)

In fact, they’re going to “fix” the law not by making WINZ obey the damn law, but by changing it so everyone has to wait one day more before they can get the government assistance they desperately need.

This matters. We might be tempted to say “oh it was ages ago for some people and it’s not much money per person”. But benefits in this country are already at unsurvivable levels. The New Zealand Council of Christian Services says:

Real net benefit rates compared to the real net average wage have declined steadily and significantly over the past 30 years and are at levels that leave people in poverty. The Working for Families package has helped wage earners but this has further increased the income disparity between the waged and unwaged.

Benefit levels do not allow families to feed, clothe and house themselves adequately. For example, the PIP Update Report found that the disposable income of food bank clients (most of whom are reliant on benefits) is barely sufficient to cover the estimated food costs required to feed a family of two adults and two children.This leaves little or nothing for other household costs.

And that PIP Update Report was completed in 2007. We’ve had a bit of a global financial crisis since then. You reckon things have gotten any easier?

This government, and Anne Tolley in particular, have declared “success” for their punitive welfare reforms because the numbers of people on a benefit are going down. And that’s often what makes the headlines: benefit numbers down! Economy obviously hunky-dory! But when you dig beneath the numbers it’s clear this government hasn’t achieved anything meaningful. Thousands of people are being lost in the system because they haven’t managed to complete the (obscene amount of) paperwork to renew their benefit. Others may be checking out because the system is so – deliberately – difficult to navigate.

This is just wrong. It’s inhumane. It’s cruel and unnecessary. That’s why we have to talk seriously about the role of the state in supporting every person who cannot be in paid work, for whatever reason. We have to challenge the rightwing idea that paid work is the only valuable contribution a person makes to their community and society. We have to get real about new ideas like a universal basic income. We have to stop, absolutely stop, walking into the trap of blaming beneficiaries for broader economic circumstances or pussy-footing around about whether the poor are “deserving” or not.

We have to do better than this.