Always with us, Alison Gray

Society and Politics: New Zealand Social Policy
Grant Duncan
Pearson Sprint Print Prentice Hall, $29.95,
ISBN 1877258962

Past Judgement: Social Policy in New Zealand History
ed Bronwyn Dalley and Margaret Tennant
University of Otago Press, $39.95,
ISBN 187727657X

Greed, blame, hypocrisy and spite, leavened with an occasional dollop of compassion. If you think I’m reviewing fiction, you’re wrong. Such passions are at the heart of social policy, where judgement and self-justification regularly wage war against the spectre of inclusion, altruism and universal entitlement. The term “social policy” is unfortunate, dry as bones, off-putting. It is hard to get excited about “a governmental strategy for managing scarce resources” or “actions which affect the well-being of members of a society through shaping the distribution of and access to goods and resources in that society.” It is when the policies are applied to real people through real intermediaries that the flesh covers the bones and the policies come to life.

These two books provide both the skeleton and the flesh. Grant Duncan’s excellent primer Society and Politics: New Zealand Social Policy is designed as a first-year university text, but, let’s face it, most of us could do with a refresher in political ideology. In crisp, plain prose, Duncan reminds us how philosophers and economists like Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Marx, Spencer, Smith, Keynes and the Fabians contributed to the plaits of thought that have influenced social policy in New Zealand. We like to think we have led the world in social matters, but our political thinking is firmly based in international trends.

The first European settlers came armed with liberal beliefs in self-reliance, minimal government intervention, private ownership and a firm distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor. They had little understanding of or truck with concepts of customary rights, communal ownership or the Maori system of mutual obligation and social justice. One hundred and sixty years later, their voices ring out loud and clear. It is not surprising that Duncan raises the Treaty of Waitangi as a cautionary flag early on and never takes it down.

The strength of Duncan’s book is that it is written for and about New Zealanders. It is diverting to feel the connection between the curmudgeonly Duncan McGregor, inspector of lunatic asylums, hospitals and charitable institutions in 1866, berating the unworthy, the selfish, the ignorant, the wasteful and the imprudent, and Jenny Shipley calling on us to “dob in a dole bludger” in 1998. I can see the two of them ensconced in leather chairs by a blazing fire, shaking their heads over a wee dram, while they compare notes about lazy solo parents, irresponsible drunkards and death-dealing drug addicts. Jim Bolger, Bill Sutch and Helen Clark are there, so is Simon Upton, piously promoting the virtues of the market and self-interest:

In pursuing his own interests, the individual benefits society as a whole. The market rewards this unintended act of generosity by rewarding the individual whose actions are most beneficial to others …. Equally, the player whose activities are not approved of is left to learn from the consequences of his failure, at the same time benefiting the rest who are warned of the consequences of pursuing this particular path …. There can be no intervention to prevent the costs of failure falling on its perpetrator – otherwise, the vital process by which information is sifted and faulty material is discarded is disrupted.


If only people would learn, life would be so simple. But somehow poverty remains, and families’ and individuals’ lives continue to be disrupted by sickness, disability, death, violence and unemployment (not caused, of course, by any action by self-interested individuals). Someone does have to meet at least some of the costs of failure or misfortune and come to terms with the vexed issues of rights and entitlement, equality, social justice, freedom and need.

Bronwyn Dalley’s and Margaret Tennant’s collection of historical essays puts flesh on the social policy bones. Twelve contributors explore the issues in the context of Maori health and well-being, child abuse, child health, the voluntary sector, the contribution of religious and charitable organisations and that great perennial, mental health. Each essay revisits the big questions. Should we provide any support to people who fall
on hard times? Do we need to know why they are poor or sick or alone? Who decides what help they get? Who provides the help? And above all, who provides the money?

Margaret Tennant and others suggest that in New Zealand individuals have always put more emphasis on making money than on giving it away. Neighbours are much more likely to share cups of sugar and bowls of soup than cash. The kindness of the liberal heart might be relied on in a crisis but don’t expect the rich to provide funds to meet the ongoing demands of the poor, the sick and the unemployed. Doing so is not only tiresome and unglamorous, but, as Simon Upton opined 120 years later, potentially detrimental to the recipients’ moral well-being.

So the government, which until recently has been composed of the comparatively well-off and the comparatively powerful, has had to step in and make decisions. They have had to balance supply and demand, decide how big the welfare cake should be and who is entitled to a piece. Until 1936, they felt quite comfortable excluding Asian citizens, even if they held British citizenship, and until the late 1940s felt perfectly happy paying Maori less than Europeans. As Margaret McLure notes, “the extreme poverty of Maori communities became the rationale for different treatment. In critical Pakeha eyes, Maori poverty was a sign of lower expectations rather than greater need.” After WWII, when Maori were granted equal benefits, their spending was still checked obsessively. A social security officer in Ruatoria drew up a list of forbidden goods including “clothing for parents, tobacco and alcohol, patent medicines, soft drinks, biscuits, pickles and sauces, and food for a tangi.” That approach would feel very familiar to Work and Income clients seeking a Special Benefit today.

Discretion in entitlement to benefits provides a fine opportunity for the public and government agents to moralise, blame or support. These days people on the DPB, sickness beneficiaries and the unemployed are fair game for politicians and the media as well as Joe Public. They are subject to case management, which has, of course, the potential to help as well as hinder, and must present themselves for judgement at regular intervals. Older people, on the other hand, can claim their pension simply by presenting their birth certificate and completing a form. They don’t know how lucky they are. Under the Old-age Pensions Act of 1898, would-be pensioners had to complete a claim form and appear in an open court to support their application before a stipendiary magistrate who was responsible for investigating and adjudicating claims, and determining eligibility and the rate of pension appropriate to the applicant’s income and assets. This happened every year. Who knows, perhaps the tide will turn, as the bill for superannuation grows and the working classes rebel.

The question of who should provide services remains as vexed now as it was in the 19th century with the same issues of patronage, entitlement, resourcing and discretion.  Several essays discuss the complex relationships between government and voluntary organisations, the role of the church in social policy, and the contribution of the “community” in areas like mental health and parental support. On the one hand, trends towards increased professionalisation and greater accountability in organisations like Plunket can be attributed to changes in the role of women and their availability as volunteers; on the other, calls for greater community responsibility for people with mental illness contradicts the push for greater participation of potential caregivers in the workforce. Social policy would like to have a bob each way, of course, with a high degree of control over expenditure and a high level of delivery by poorly resourced and overstretched community organisations.

Threaded through the two plaits of liberalism and social democracy that inform both books is the ribbon of Maori welfare and Maori rights. Both books describe ways in which Maori have worked inside and outside the system to retain or claim control over their own values and systems, usually without financial support and in the face of public opprobrium. They have used tribal committees, Maori courts, the Maori Women’s Welfare league, Maori welfare officers and other avenues in their search for “a community life that balanced material progress with social and cultural features”. Their struggle continues, and, as Duncan notes:

If we consider the millennium-long struggle of the Scots and Irish for independence from London, then we cannot expect that similar demands for Maori sovereignty and self-determination will ever go away. The rights of Maori and the status of the Treaty will continue to spark debates that reach to the core of our sense of nationhood.


Sometimes it feels as though social policy in New Zealand is simply a reaction to perceived moral or economic crises or individual events. These two books show that this is not the case. Read them and you’ll soon realise that the “new” initiatives launched in every election cycle are firmly based in tradition. And they come with a whole set of intellectual baggage. It may not be clearly labelled but it is unmistakably there.


Alison Gray is a Wellington writer and researches current social policy initiatives.


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