The government now intends to prosecute the partners of people convicted of welfare fraud. The amount of welfare fraud is minuscule compared to the fraud committed by the wealthy - but the government isn't pursuing the rich through the courts.
The Government is expanding its war on beneficiaries to include the partners of beneficiaries. The government's 'answer' to the rising level of unemployment and underemployment is more intimidation and bullying of the victims of the economic crisis.
Associate Social Development Minister Chester Burrows, a man of little intellect but who knows how to say 'yes', told Parliament that new legislation would be enacted that would allow the it to charge partners or spouses of beneficiaries who are found guilty of wrongly collecting a benefit.
As well the Government is further invading the privacy of beneficiaries by removing the requirement for investigators to inform beneficiaries that their financial records and other details are being searched for evidence of fraud. Surprisingly the extremely vocal critics of the 'nanny state' have had nothing to say about this. Where are the protests of the talkback hosts who raged against the 'nanny state' of the last Labour government? They remain silent.
If a government wants to divert attention from the increasing levels of unemployment and underemployment, the growing level of poverty and the yawning gap between rich and poor, the favourite method is to attack beneficiaries and the poor themselves. It can, after all, expect a sympathetic media to ratchet up the level of intimidation against beneficiaries. Attack dogs like David Farrar, Mike Hoskings and Michael Laws will do that job unquestioningly.
Let us remind ourselves that the intention of the welfare state - perhaps social democracy's greatest achievement -was to liberate people from hunger, poverty and want. It was designed to allow people to live expansive lives, to be citizens of their country and feel as if they had a stake in it.
New Zealanders, I think, took pride in the welfare state but its dismantlement began with the fourth Labour Government who launched a neoliberal agenda that had received no mandate from the electorate.
And now in 2013 there is an attack on all fronts against beneficiaries and the poor. The government narrative is that beneficiaries and the poor are different and that they have no rights. They are parasites, bludgers, a blight on the country. We can ruthlessly pursue them and no one should give a damn.
You can bully and intimidate people off welfare but, after a while, the level of social destitution becomes more and more apparent. This level of destitution cannot be explained away so you label beneficiaries as bludgers and parasites - and many of them are getting benefits they are not entitled to! What better way of destroying any empathy people might have with beneficiaries and the poor by implying that many of them are ripping off the taxpayer? And they're partners are implicated as well!
I have talked about 'welfare fraud' on this blog several times before and it is less than encouraging that, thanks to a docile media that is receptive to the government's agenda, the attack on 'bludgers' and 'parasites' is allowed to dominate whenever the government feels the need to bash beneficiaries to divert attention from its own glaring inadequacies.
The fact is that there is no evidence of widespread welfare fraud.
It was Labour which established the special fraud unit in 2007. In 2010 the special fraud checked 29 million records, and found the benefit fraud rate (as a percentage of the total benefits paid) was - wait for it - a mere 0.1 per cent.
In fact benefit fraud has actually been declining. In 2004-05 the value of 'overpayment' was approximately $56 million. In 2009-10 it had shrunk to $20 million.
It doesn't seem to matter that the fraud committed by the wealthy is far greater than anything committed by welfare beneficiaries. This is of no consequence to this government because it has no intention of going after its mates.
In June last year the Inland Revenue announced the results of a ten year investigation into the tax dealings of the country’s 250 richest people and their 7,500 companies and trusts. It turned out they have avoided paying $500 million worth of tax.
Is the government pursuing these shysters through the courts? Of course it isn't.
Twenty years ago the writer and artist John Berger wrote:
"The poverty of our century is unlike that of any other. It is not, as poverty was before, the result of natural scarcity, but of a set of priorities imposed upon the rest of the world by the rich. Consequently, the modern poor are not pitied but written off as trash."