A guest post by John Darroch, PhD student , University of Auckland
This week the current Labour Government unveiled their first budget. The budget was a lot better than it could have been, and it’s a welcome relief to have a government which actually cares about people and demonstrates this in its spending. Despite this there have been some glaring omissions in the budget. I believe that we can, and should, do better.
One, relatively small, area I have been keeping an eye on has been issue of post-graduate student allowances. In 2013 National got rid of student allowances. At the time, Labour’s Grant Robertson, had this to say about the cuts:
Thousands of students, mostly from low income backgrounds, will no longer have support to do postgraduate qualifications. For many this will mean that they simply will not be able to complete or even undertake their course. This means they may never achieve their potential and that as a country we will all miss out,” (“Student allowances a thing of the past for post-graduate students, 2013).
As Grant Robertson clearly explains, the lack of a student allowance is a matter of social justice. It is those who are poorest and who face other barriers who are most affected. As an (occasional) social work educator I’ve seen first-hand how post-graduate students are affected by the current lack of support. I’ve had numerous conversations with students who are in tears, trying to hold down a social work placement, raise children and work part time in order to pay the bills.
My concern at the level of stress this places on students led me to communicate numerous times with the current Minister for Education, Chris Hipkins, as well as the Green Party Spokesperson for Tertiary Affairs, Chloe Swarbrick. Soon after the election I contacted both and stressed to them the importance of reintroducing the postgraduate student allowance. Both responded positively and assured me that they would be pushing for this. Chris Hipkins included a caveat though; that any reintroduction might come in a later budget during this term of government.
After receiving this email from Chris Hipkins, I knew that, despite campaigning on reintroducing student allowances, and the stirring words of Grant Robertson, the 2018 budget wouldn’t contain this policy. Unfortunately, this week I was proven right. I’m left to hope that next year, or the year after, they will follow through.
This seems to be the key theme from this budget. Labour politicians acknowledge that certain policies should be funded but make it clear that they won’t be doing so at the moment, due to fiscal constraints. At one level this type of response might seem relatively straight-forward and understandable. Labour have a limited amount of money and are seeking to be prudent in how they meet their goals.
Accepting this explanation though grants considerable ground to those who are pushing fiscal conservatism. It validates National’s rhetoric which they used to under-fund public services – with disastrous consequences for the most vulnerable in society. It ties into broader narratives which have allowed Western governments to cut vital services with the explanation that this is merely prudent economics (rather than vicious attacks on the most vulnerable in society).
It’s important that we speak up and clearly state that those at the margins of society can’t, and shouldn’t, have to wait until the governments books improve. This critique of the current budget is captured articulately by Susan St John in her recent article “New Zealand budget: Ardern’s efforts too little, too late for poor families” (2018). In this article Susan St John outlines why the policies that Labour have chosen to implement are insufficient – and what would actually be required to solve child poverty.
Susan St John highlights how the current systems, while failing to meet basic needs, are also inefficient and de-humanising: “The welfare bureaucracy is eye-wateringly complex and laborious to navigate. It can be gruelling and dehumanising; and families do not necessarily get all the assistance they are entitled to.”
This reflects my own experience and the stories I hear constantly from students. Just this week I gladly excused a student from class so that they could advocate for a family member at Work and Income. I knew that, without their presence, the family member was likely to be humiliated and to not be given what they were entitled to. I know how much time social workers waste navigating these systems. These are the types of issues which Labour (and the Greens) should have fixed already (or have well underway).
The reality is we can, and should, demand more from Labour. “Let’s do this” was supposed to be more than a campaign slogan. It was supposed to represent a radical new approach to government. One which saw problems and acted on them immediately. We need to hold Labour responsible for the choices they have made to postpone funding in key areas. We need to demand that politicians reject outright the rhetoric of the right.
For social workers, and academics, this means challenging politicians who we may respect, and sometimes know personally. We need to be vocal online and in the media. Done carefully this will not undermine Labour, but instead function to move the public debate away from whether Labour has been conservative enough, to the responsibility of the state to provide essential support to those in need. Importantly, we need to make sure that in 2020 Labour and the Greens do not sign up to the Budget Responsibility Rules which have prevented greater spending – and which have been criticised as pointless economically (Budget 2018 doesn’t go far enough; Govt should drop rules – Bernard Hickey, 2018).
Long term, we need to make sure that no future government can ever implement the fiscal austerity which has swept the globe over recent decades. This means challenging the rhetoric and discourses being put forward by the current Labour government.
Budget 2018 doesn’t go far enough; Govt should drop rules – Bernard Hickey. (2018, May 17). Radio New Zealand. Retrieved from: http://www.newshub.co.nz/home/politics/2018/05/budget-2018-doesn-t-go-far-enough-govt-should-drop-rules-bernard-hickey.html
Student allowances a thing of the past for post-graduate students. (2013, January 4). New Zealand Herald. Retrieved from: https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10856986
St John, S. New Zealand budget: Ardern’s efforts too little, too late for poor families. (2018, May 18). The Guardian. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/may/18/new-zealand-budget-arderns-efforts-too-little-too-late-for-poor-families