Hard News by Russell Brown

Brilliant Day

Auckland Zoo was brilliant yesterday. The welcome winter sun seemed to have stirred every bird and beastie into action.

The emus, with their big, amber eyes, stuck their beaks over the barriers at small children; the kaka in the aviary swooped down and perched at our elbows to eat; the lion cubs, only a few days out in the open, played and bumbled around as if they were in a Disney film; and the sealions swooped joyously past their viewing window. The golden lion tamarins gathered in sunny spots on branches, glowing as if the light were their own, and the gorgeous Himalayan monal had more neon than Las Vegas.

This was all good. With my co-director working offsite, I am the sole responsible adult at Dubwise Towers these school holidays. The kids have actually been pretty agreeable, in part because I've largely let them do their favourite things: lazing around playing games and watching DVDs. This makes me a bad parent. But, hell, it's their holiday. And I do get them outside to shoot hoops and stroll around the zoo and stuff.

Anyway, Alex Spence, who has been researching a couple of relevant storiesfor The Listener and Metro, had some observations on the ropey benefit numbers cited by National this week, and Katherine Rich's speech in particular:

I'm glad you mentioned, even in passing, that some of the welfare growth over the past decade or so has been due to the transition of mental health services from institutions to community care. I've been researching the plight of those with a chronic, severe mental illness since the end of last year, particularly with regard to poverty and unemployment so this is a bit of a hobby horse of mine.

In Rich's speech, she talks about the "explosion" in the number of people on the sickness and invalids benefit, from 17,000 in 1975 to 115,000 today. I can only talk about the psychiatric illness component (which accounts for a quarter of invalids beneficiaries and a third of sickness beneficiaries) but I have to say, it concerns me that any politician would lump sickness and invalids beneficiaries in with those who are simply unemployed, using the rise in the number of people receiving those benefits as some kind of proof of a rise in indolence and wastefulness.

It may well be true that it's easier to receive a sickness benefit now than it was in 1975, but Rich ignores a number of complex reasons why the rolls have increased: first, as you point out, nobody with a mental illness lives in an institution any more. But moreover, the recognition of psychiatric disorders has increased several-fold since 1975. In those days, someone with debilitating depression, for instance, probably wouldn't have sought or received treatment or even a diagnosis, let alone been given time off work to recover.

Also, there is very clear evidence that the rates of illnesses like depression are increasing independent of social attitudes and access to treatment. Of course, you can get into an argument about whether society has become too ready to pathologise what is essentially ordinary human experience, and that diagnoses such as stress are open to exploitation. But that's a whole different ballgame than saying Labour has allowed the number of invalids beneficiaries to increase simply because it wants to encourage dependency. The phenomenon exists regardless of who is in government.

Rich talked about the rise of various kinds of welfare, but then proceeded to talk about implementing "work for the dole" without specifying who, exactly, it would apply to. I'm assuming Rich was only mentioning sickness beneficiaries to make a convenient point, and not actually suggesting they would be made to work for their benefit. I mean, that would just be daft beyond belief. It's true that most people with a mental illness want to work, but it's not nearly as simple as that.

Alex goes on to talk about Ministry of Social Development's new initiatives in "supported employment" ("ie, trying to put people in real jobs, where they'll be earning real wages, rather than letting them fester in sheltered workshops for less than $50 a week"). I won't blow the Listener story he has coming up next week, but, he says, "there is no silver bullet. Make Katherine Rich the minister tomorrow and she would have no better, swifter solution."

And, in conclusion:

At one of the drop-in centres I went to earlier this year, I sat in on a group counselling session for guys who live either on the streets or in scumhole boarding houses. They were all on benefits, all had alcohol and gambling problems, most had spent years living on the streets and had done time in jail, and all of them were dealing with voices and hallucinations. Yet they were marvellous company: friendly, lively, funny and insightful. I'd love to see Katherine Rich visit these guys, sit there for an hour and listen to them recount in the most humbling terms the fucked up tragedies of their lives, then lecture them about welfare dependence. Sure, she probably would claim these are the guys who genuinely need the safety net. But in that case, make the distinction. Don't lump all beneficiaries in together just because it's politically convenient.

We actually tried to get Rich to come on my Wire show on 95bFM today to talk about this sort of thing, but her press secretary said she was in the South Island "with her mobile phone switched off" - and in any case would not wish to pre-empt her leader's forthcoming announcements on welfare. I have some misgivings about the practice of making a speech like that and then going to ground, but I expect we'll eventually be allowed to discuss it in the course of National's next marketing round.

It turns out that Simon Pound, the host of the Thursday Wire on bFM, has been quietly keeping a blog. Allow me to out him by pointing to a good little post in which he, a Don Brash fan ("I love the idea of a libertarian in charge of the only big conservative party. It is great news"), gloomily ponders the National Party's lurch into base social conservatism "through stealing the unattractive ideas of the two most unattractive parties in parliament."

I agree: I thought Brash would bring some intellectual interest to New Zealand politics. The reverse appears to have happened.