Monday, August 5, 2013

The Susan Wood trilogy

1. Time for Labour to start addressing the issues that matter deeply to Susan Wood

If I were running Labour I would stop banging on about woman only seats, about social engineering. Those things are distractions. Just ask Labour candidate and women’s rights enthusiast Stuart Nash. I would instead focus on something far more important, something that I believe resonates with Susan Wood New Zealanders.

I’m talking about inequality, about the growing gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’. But I am not talking worker versus beneficiary here. Those people should be poor. Frankly, I wish they were poorer. No: I am referring to the great many New Zealanders who get out of bed every day who go to work. Some of them in radio and television broadcasting.

Cares that some people are poorer than others

More than half of our working households get some sort of government benefit. And there is new research out showing that in terms of income distribution, New Zealand has become one of the most unequal developed countries in the world. This is not something that has happened overnight, it is not something that we can blame on one government or another. It is something that has crept up on us over the past 30 years. That’s right. I said that no government is responsible. I said ‘crept up’. Who could have foretold that slashing benefits to the poor and simultaneously cutting taxes to the rich would create this situation? None of us are to blame. Least of all those who have been professional journalists the entire time as opposed to, say, asleep or dead.

Did you know that the wealthiest 10 per cent of this country own more than half of it? And that the poorest half own just five per cent? In the United States the numbers are even more exaggerated with the top one per cent owning 93 per cent, leaving the remaining 99 per cent of Americans with a measly seven per cent of total wealth. I would hate to see that happen here. Probably.

I, too, at different times of my life I have been one of the ‘have nots’. For instance I ‘had no’ place to put all the money TVNZ threw at me to host Close Up after Paul Holmes left. One time they tried to renew my contract at a lower salary – $100,000 less per year, down to a paltry $350,000 – and I took them to the Employment Relations Authority. I wanted that money very badly.

The fact is New Zealand is a low income nation. Not me, obviously. I’m talking about non-Susan Wood New Zealanders. There’s only one reason Aussie companies are sending their call centres here – because they are cheaper to run, cheaper to man. In this country we have always prided ourselves on our universal education and health, that no matter how poor our parents are we can get an education, we can get ahead.

I, Susan Wood, am beginning to wonder if that is still the case.

When we talked about inequality on Q+A yesterday we were overwhelmed with feedback because people care, because it matters, and it's time Labour started addressing the things that matter and stopped fighting amongst themselves.

PS: Do you know the best thing about that time I took the state broadcaster to the Employment Relations Authority for lowering my salary down to a paltry $350,000?

I won.

2. Protesters should be committed enough to get jobs. But not my job. Not Susan Wood’s job.

Here’s the thing. If you are well enough, if you are passionate enough, if you are committed enough to get out and to protest on a cold winter’s day, you are probably capable of getting a job.

Is going to win this argument using logic

Protesters from Auckland Action Against Poverty were out on the streets yesterday afternoon protesting against the social welfare reforms that came into effect yesterday. The reforms are sweeping, probably the biggest changes to welfare since the Social Security Act was passed by the first Labour Government in 1938. And it is time for a change. We all know that welfare payments in this country are out of control – what I, Susan Wood, and others are paying is unsustainable. Or maybe the word is 'insufferable'. Either way, we’d like to pay less.

Talking to Social Development Minister Paula Bennett yesterday morning, there was no sense of throwing beneficiaries onto the scrap heap. Also, when she walked into the studio our sound system didn’t spontaneously start playing the Imperial March from Star Wars, so I know Paula is not a bad person. She talked about offering support and help to get them back into work. Frankly when your children are 14, why shouldn’t you be working? I’m not going to talk about the other changes, about compulsory ECE, about forcing the disabled and the mentally ill on the unemployed roll. I’m going to sit here and pretend that it’s all about what happens when your children are 14. Yeah.

It’s as if scarce, underpaid, precarious, dangerous or dehumanising work is some sort of evil. But for the great many of us who participate, sure it is about incomes in excess of $400,000 per annum or it’s off to the Employment Relations Authority, but it’s also about camaraderie, about being part of the community and making a contribution.

I am not anti-beneficiary. On the contrary, I am proud of a country that looks after the least advantaged. This country is Sweden. But when I hear comments like those from one of the Auckland protesters yesterday, I lose all sympathy.

This woman says she can’t work. She says in fact she might have to resort to prostitution if she loses her benefit because she can’t face people properly, that she gets too frightened and hides. Well if that is the truth, how is it she managed to say it to a complete stranger, to a journalist no less? Everyone knows that when you suffer from an anxiety disorder, depression or other psychological impairment, it is always on, always completely debilitating, and that anything you might ever do that might look like work or the ability to sustain complex and demanding social interactions – even if all you can manage is one hour a day, every second day – proves that you are completely fine. I, Susan Wood, whom an unjust God has blessed with sophistication, utter professionalism and the gift of skilled ad-libbing, have thought deeply about this. I have also investigated the specific case of this protester, to make sure I wouldn’t be doing her a disservice before insinuating on my nationally syndicated radio show that she is a carping bludger.

What do you think I am, some sort of monster?

PS: When TVNZ tried to restructure my contract and cut $100,000 off my salary, I asked for compensation for ‘hurt and humiliation’.

No, really, I did.

3. Benefit fraudsters stealing from you and me. But mostly me, Susan Wood.

So more than 3,000 cases of welfare fraud have been uncovered. 3,000 cases that cost the taxpayer just shy of $34 million a year. The fraudulent activity was uncovered after increased information sharing between Inland Revenue and the Ministry of Social Development.

To put this in some kind of context, I, Susan Wood, am not going to put this in any kind of context.

Hates benefit fraud and context

That information double check uncovered 1,900 cases of people cheating their unemployment benefits and 550 sickness beneficiaries doing the same. Overall more than 3,100 illegitimate benefits were discovered. The increased information sharing between IRD and Social Development showed up beneficiaries whose taxable income did not match what they had declared to Ministry staff.

Prosecutions may well follow and the agencies are working to try to recoup some of the millions of dollars. Good luck with that. I suspect that will be about as likely as getting money back from a failed finance company. Were I, Susan Wood, interested in comparing benefit fraud to any other sort of fraud, I would pursue this analogy further.

What frustrates me here is that who do these people think they are ripping off or stealing from? The Government? Well no. It’s you and me who get out of bed, go to work and pay our taxes. We are the Government, well certainly the Government’s funding. But mostly me, for I am very wealthy. Let’s face it, I am a lot more the Government than you are.

I believe the vast majority of us, Susan Wood, are willing to support people who genuinely need our support. But those people who deliberately cheat the system, who rip us all Susan Wood off, do nothing but give all beneficiaries a bad name, they create resentment and perpetrate stereotypes. Yes: I said ‘perpetrate’ even though I meant ‘perpetuate’. I am so rich and successful I don’t need excessive literacy.

These people, these fraudsters, should be pursued and prosecuted. Which his exactly what happens. And it’s not that many people. And they don’t steal all that much money. Still, it’s an outrage.

PS: ‘Extreme, extravagant and even obscene’. That is how Employment Relations Authority member Leon Robinson characterised how people might view salaries such as the one I was receiving from the taxpayer-funded TVNZ.

Won the case, though, didn’t I?