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Jenée Tibshraeny on how National's outdated approach to welfare would be too disruptive for a conservative party to pull off

Jenée Tibshraeny on how National's outdated approach to welfare would be too disruptive for a conservative party to pull off
Simon Bridges.

By ​Jenée Tibshraeny

The National Party dangled some bait before us this week, and most of us took it hook, line and sinker.

The delicacy on offer - a 56-page social services discussion document from an opposition party - wouldn’t usually be that appetising to the media. But this was different.

Coming during a recess week in parliament off the back of a long weekend, there wasn’t a whole lot of political news for National to compete with.

It seized the opportunity; Leader Simon Bridges dropping a provocative teaser on the eve of the document being released on Wednesday - a tweet saying National “will block gang members from the dole if they can't prove they don't have illegal income or assets”. Included was a confronting video clip of Mongrel Mob members barking (literally).

The scene was set. A document that may otherwise have been skim read, was going to get attention. And it did.

The document was framed by Bridges’ tweet. The most punitive parts caught the headlines.

However, some of these ideas were only suggestions National is seeking feedback on, not policy set in stone.

For example, it asked the question of whether “sole” parents specifically should lose their benefits if their children aren’t immunised. And whether there should be consequences for young people not in education, employment or training, as well as their parents.

These ideas, seemingly plucked from thin air, gave National the airtime it wanted.

The reality is, it’s highly unlikely a National-led government would take New Zealand back to the dark ages of “cracking down on dole-bludgers” even close to extent Bridges is suggesting.

It might introduce policies on the edges aligned with its hard-line rhetoric, but to turn away from a global shift in thinking on welfare, and scrap decades of policy work done by Treasury, would be no easy task.

Treasury has been figuring out ways to enable governments to take a more holistic approach to policymaking - measuring the fiscal and social impacts.

Former National finance minister and prime minister, Bill English, championed the “social investment” approach.

This was a framework that saw spending focused on targeted interventions aimed at improving people’s lives.

The current government’s “wellbeing” approach has a similar focus, but is more broad-based.

While the previous government sought to use better quality data to really target those most in need, this government is taking a wider, inter-departmental approach to achieve set outcomes like improved mental health.

One of the world’s leading wellbeing economists, who's a Victoria University professor, senior fellow at Motu Economic and Public Policy Research Trust and former Reserve Bank chairman, Arthur Grimes, believes neither the previous nor this government have struck quite the right chord.

He says the Coalition Government’s approach lacks measurable targets, while the National-led Government’s approach was implemented poorly and focused too much on the direct financial cost of a policy, rather than weighing up its social benefits.

In other words, it might’ve seen a move to get a 55-year-old, who looks after her grandchildren, into paid employment as a positive, without recognising the benefits of her care-taking to her grandchildren and society more widely. 

Grimes admits this sort of thing is difficult to measure and put into policy, but maintains Treasury is doing some valuable work in the space.

In contrast to what the Government says, Grimes does not believe it’s breaking new ground on the wellbeing front “whatsoever”. In fact, he believes New Zealand has some catching up to do.

Sure, Grimes has dedicated much of his career to wellbeing research and policymaking, so his comments need to be framed in this context.

But it would seem insane for a party that was, and according to its latest discussion document, still is, all about social investment, to make a U-turn and undo several years’ work.

Indeed, National in its document, made some measured suggestions aligned with this approach.

In support of the wellbeing approach, it also said: “Across government, social sector agencies have been working together to increase alignment and minimise duplication.

“National would like to see this continue, with agencies demonstrating a greater degree of collaboration and working across silos in order to achieve the best possible outcomes.”

But would National have garnered any attention if Bridges said, ‘Yeah look, Bill was keen on social investment, Grant has broadened this approach without doing anything revolutionary, and we would probably do something kinda similar’?


National is a relatively conservative party.

As much of a beef as Bridges has with Treasury, it’s unlikely he'll try to undo decades of work to deviate drastically from the status quo.

At the edges - maybe, but not at the core.

The other issue is that National can't really attack the Government for its work on social services, as it hasn't done anything majorly different. 

In the year to June 2019, the Coalition Government spent $11.3 billion on "social services" excluding NZ Superannuation ($14.6 billion). It allocated $12.3 billion towards social services (excluding Super) for the year to June 2020. 

By contrast $11.8 billion was spent on social services (excluding Super) under National, in the year to June 2017. 

Changes to initiatives included in the "social services" vote in different budgets make it difficult to make exact comparisons over these years, but the general picture is clear - the Coalition Government has not been transformative. 

The Welfare Expert Advisory Group it commissioned to investigate the system suggested a range of changes to the system that would cost $5.2 billion a year. 

National is making cheap shots at the expense of our most vulnerable in a bid to solidify its base and pinch votes off NZ First, a party set to campaign more in National territory on issues like farming and the environment the closer we get to the election. 

Unfortunately, the more we bite at National’s yucky bait, the more it will throw at us.

Even though the last thing the world needs right now is more “us vs them” discourse; or further marginalising the marginalised, who are latching on to populism, and in some instances, extremism.

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Still shows their inate nature. They can go jump. And Labour are pretty much useless at executing anything, even if their ideas are at least a little better. *sigh*

Then maybe Labour needs more of a mandate and less of an albatross around their necks in the form of NZF

That would probably help.. But is it enough?

Only one way to find out.

Indeed, they do not have mandate.

The "mandate " was given by the electorates support of MMP in the referendum on voting systems ...

.. an unintended consequence being that NZF wields a power way beyond their electoral support... sadly ... Winston gets the baubles of office , and plays with who he chooses ...

Why is it an unintended consequence? Without MMP, National would still be governing today.

I think it's unintended. People believed with MMP we'd get more smaller parties in Parliament, so we wouldn't have a single kingmaker like NZFirst. Instead smaller parties have dwindled away, and the only way new parties have ever gotten into parliament in the first place is by an existing electorate MP defecting and creating their own party.

We need to drop the threshold to 3%. TOP don't really have a hope in hell of getting to 5% and that's a real pity.

Please no more talk of dropping the Percentage. Look at the mess now, Country would cease to function

Nothing wrong with that


I'm not so sure it is just "baiting the crowd".
Bridges refuses to answer the question as to "who is going to enforce these changes " ( and, yes, they do intend to go back into the past and undo whatever you suggest Bill English did).
Have a look at the recent "Breakfast" interview on this very topic, and see what Bridges says - or more importantly - what he refuses to say, and it's obviously going to be left to front line staff at the MSD to take the flack. Ashburton might just have been a forerunner of what's to come...(viz. " after Work and Income staff members were hit by shotgun blasts as they sat at their desks in Ashburton.")


National would be better to focus on increasing the budget of the FMA and SFO, to crack down on serious fraud and tax evasion. The cost benefit would be far greater.

Oh..I forgot, their the same crowd that give them donations, and lobbied the past National government to underfund these watchdogs.

Noddy is just grandstanding because he's desperate, and quite clearly hasn't got a clue on how to run the country; god help us. Just hope NZ First keep some balance with Labour in charge, while National sort their s..t out, and bring some sustainable policies that are good for NZ inc, rather than the overseas interests they have been pampering to.

Oh that's a good one, who was it almost stitched us into being unable to have any sort of control over who can and who can't buy our houses?


The value of tax evaded in 2014 was 40 times that of welfare defrauded, according to research done by Vic Uni Professor Lisa Marriott.

Not sure how much has changed in the last 5 years, but her findings (which I wrote about in 2015) are pretty stark:

Excellent post Jenee, those stats are truly shocking.

It's not fair that people try and keep money they worked for, this is far worse than simply taking more money which you don't need to do anything for. all commentators you overlook motivations to accurately report. Benefit fraud reporting relies on the motivation of msd to actually identify and report how bad things are. IRD is highly motivated to report tax fraud/avoidance in this respect - it gives them resources.

How motivated do you think msd are to accurately investigate and report the state of play? Think about it for a minute or two.

Rastus...Thing you have missed the most important point.

Tax fraud/avoidance is estimated to be $1.24 billion, as indicated in Jenee's table. I'm not sure the entire benefit would amount to that, let alone the underreporting of fraud.

Just imagine how may hospital operations and how much additional cancer treatment would be available with that $1.24 billion?

"I'm not sure the entire benefit would amount to that."
A rebuttal with indecision is easily dismissed. You missed Rastus' point of the IRD having significant incentive to report compared to msd

How motivated do you think msd are to accurately investigate and report the state of play? Think about it for a minute or two.

At some point you need to look at the numbers. Far, far more prosecutions were brought against benefit fraud than tax fraud (a multiple of ten). Obviously there's plenty of motivation there.

No i didn't. My point was that one govt department (IRD) is highly motivated to report on avoidance or evasion - this is how they get resources and funding. The other (msd) has very little motivation to accurately report (be it fraud or gaming the system) - as it exposes the flaws in their systems.

Comparing the two re prosecutions is no more relevant than caring SPCA prosecutions taken with those of the local Council. It means nothing.

The other (msd) has very little motivation to accurately report (be it fraud or gaming the system) - as it exposes the flaws in their systems.

That's an assumption.

However, it might be just as valid to assume they get more brownie points from government figures the more successful prosecutions they make, as it demonstrates they're doing a good job catching fraud.

If they're motivated to NOT pursue fraud...gee, they're certainly still pursuing it an awful lot.

I'd suggest MSD are the more motivated. It's easier to pick the low hanging fruit. It's also easier for the human ego to bash those at the bottom to improve one's own inferiority complex. It helps to propagate the class system, the divide and conquer tactics. IRD aren't interested. They want to be seen to be doing something. Tax law was written for the peasants not the "leaders" and nobody wants to upset that apple cart.

Oh those nasty Nats, where do I begin!

Some simple name calling is a good start, it seems to be sufficient for most people.


Don't worry about trying to force gang members to explain how they got their assets, they'll just do exactly what rich white folks do and hide them in a family trust! You know what I'm talking aboit don't ya Soyaman!

. . perhaps a more constructive question that the Gnats ought to ask is why do some people choose to join a gang ... what's the attraction ... where are we as a society failing some folks so much that joining a violent criminal organisation seems to be the best option .. .

From what I've seen of gangs at a very basic level they offer the opportunity for people who are alienated from the mainstream (its multi faceted...poor education, illiteracy, racial background, geographic and economic isolation, inability to partcipate in the economy only leads to searching for an alternative) to belong to 'something' rather than being isolated and vulnerable. However that something can quickly escalate into an entity that is far from benevolent as we know only too well. But think of the job and no prospects or join a gang and make millions selling drugs amd pursuing orhanised crime...what would you do? All I know is I think its a terrible shame that it comes down to that equation when equitable social settings are all that is required to at least offer a gang prospect the chance at breaking out of poverty and illiteracy and gaining an education and thus a means to participate equitably in the economy. If you asked any gangster why, I bet you be suprised at their response.

The very same question could be asked of Labour. People want a hand up not a hand out

Must be fun dinner topics at chez Bridges...
"Natalie Bridges, wife of National Party Leader Simon Bridges, has admitted that she grew up in a different political environment. "I came from a Labour family, a very hardcore family, so we had some interesting discussions."

I don't agree. The state of the economy will determine which political party wins the election. People wont focus on National's social policy when voting.

However I agree that National's policies are absurd.

National needs to change tack and fully adopt Bill English's social cost benefit approach to developing policy.

That's the only way we will lift the NZ boat for everyone.

. . call for a plumber ... the Gnats have a massive drip ... their leader , Soyman ...

Luckily for them... Labour has a worse drip , much much worse : Phil " the tool man " Twyford ...

. .. 2020 is gonna be a hoot ... who's the least worst to lead the country . . Not who's the best ...

Who to vote for. Who not to vote for. What’s the difference. No wonder less and less can be bothered. Cannot think of one identity in the current lot of MPs that I would like to employ, be employed by or employed with. There it is.

Chris Luxton is pretty awesome to work for and with. I hear he is joining the National party.

Chris Luxon faces stiff competition for pre-selection for the Gnats in the Botany seat ....

.. and , incumbent ex Gnat , Jami-Lee Roast seems fairly popular amongst his electorate ...

Really! Just hope for their sake the good people of Botany, if it so happens, get a better shake out of him than the treatment of passengers by Air NZ under his helm!

He seems to get very mixed reports from folk from Air NZ.

.. it would be fair to say that every individual person on the planet would receive " mixed reports " about themselves , should we go to the effort of asking everyone who knew them...

In comparison to his predecessor.

Hmmm,have you worked for him....not too many people at Air NZ are sorry to see him go,he got a free ride following on from Rob Fyfe,who changed the culture at Air NZ,upgraded the aircraft cabins,ordered new 787 aircraft all the while fuel prices were at there highest.Luxon takes over,Air NZ gets the super fuel efficient 787's delivered 4 years late (they should have arrived during Fyfes watch),fuel prices were at their lowest and all competion on the AKL / LAX route pulled out...he hit the sweet spot,all he was known for was cutting costs and engendering a dog eat dog Nth American culture.
When things started to turn ie fuel prices up,multiple airlines competing on routes,the "flygskam" movement,meaning flying is becoming politically incorrect to travel....all of a sudden its becoming hard to turn a good what does he do...gets the hell outta there...not to mention how much money he extracted for himself,on top of a very generous salary,he managed to pull approx $20 million in bonuses and share issues scheme is even going to pay him more in the future even though he doesn't work for the airline anymore...

As long as someone else does the lifting I am in full support of your proposal.

NZ is a democracy supposedly. If we're dissatisfied with the current political parties anyone is entitled to start their own party. Why don't we do this instead of firing blanks of outrage? Probably because we don't have the drive, organizational skills and funds to start our own party. Even a rich-lister like Gareth Morgan couldn't succeed. However, Bob Jones, another rich-lister created NZFirst which did succeed and is still ruling the roost today. So under MMP another party can succeed but it seems it would need someone to finance it.
But this alone wouldn't guarantee its success: witness the conservative party. The Greens are the exception but even they are financed, by a sympathetic public.

... sadly ... our MMP has crumbled to just 2 major parties , 3 minors , and a disgruntled ex Gnat independent ....

To get across the 5 % threshold is exceedingly hard ... or to be given a leg up as ACT is in Epsom , is unlikely ...

MMP is not working as well as we wish... but lest we forget , Bob Jones's NZ Party got 18 % of the popular vote in 1984 , and zero seats ... nothing , under FPP ..

We should just give everyone a seat in government, that would be fair, that way nobody would be left out.

About time the MMP threshold was lowered to 1/number of seat

It needs to be much lower than that.