The New Zealand Government and the unemployed
For some sixty years prior to the 1984 general election, New Zealand had been a somewhat
socialist, largely egalitarian society of approximately two and three quarter million people that
had had strong ties to Britain as the country that had colonised it.
Even today, (1998) New Zealand is the only Anglo-Saxon Commonwealth country to hold as its
highest court the British Privy Council.
Upon being elected in 1984 the New Zealand Labour Party apparently abandoned its collectivist
roots and introduced polices of the so called "New Right". It is generally considered that
the Party had not sought a mandate for the policies they were to introduce, but it claimed
that the policies were necessary because it had inherited an overseas debt that threatened
the country with bankruptcy.
(It is of interest to note that today the country's overseas debt is greater than it was in
1984 yet the move to the right continues and the media are strangely silent on the matter.)
The period of power of the New Right Labour Party included swingeing changes to the nature of
New Zealand society including large scale sell-offs of government owned infrastructure such as
the railways and telecommunication organisations.
It is generally argued that, by international standards, New Zealand went from being one of
the most highly regulated countries in the Western world to one of the least highly
The Labour Party held power for two three year terms until it was defeated in the general
election of 1990 by the then centre right New Zealand National Party; the loss apparently
coming about as a reaction to the changes that were made without the consent of the people.
In fact the Labour Prime Minister of that period, the Rt Hon David Lange, said some years
later in a television documentary, Revolution, that his government had treated the
people with contempt.
It is generally considered by political commentators that the incoming National government
saw the opportunity to introduce policies that were even further to the right than the Labour
Party's had been and so the process - referred to in New Zealand as "reform" - continued.
For example, in the 1991 budget some twenty five per cent was cut from the amounts received
by beneficiaries. The concept of belittling beneficiaries appears to have its roots in the
attitude of National Government MP's, to the point where those on benefits in general and the
unemployed in particular are reviled. One National Party MP who was to become Minister of
Health, once said publicly that those under forty were becoming sick and tired of paying for
So widespread has this attitude - known colloquially by its opponents as "beneficiary
bashing" and verging as it does on bigotry - become, that it has been suggested that, in New
Zealand, beneficiaries are the New Jews. A reference, albeit of course an extreme one, to
In a more general comment on the direction of the National Party, its President Mr Geoff
Thompson said on the occasion of his stepping down from office (May 1998), that some
Ministers were threatening the party's support base by pushing through even more reforms.
He said that some Ministers were pushing through "ideologically pure" programmes without
sufficient consultation. Mr Thompson went on to say that "I think they need to be reminded
that there are limits . . . there's a perception that we're not listening enough anymore".
Apparently as further reaction to the the New Right policies of both the Labour and National
parties, two new political parties arose, the Alliance representing the conventional
political left and the New Zealand First Party which represented the traditional political
right. In addition, a referendum in 1993 saw the introduction of Mixed Member Proportional
Representation (MMP) as a method of electing governments. It is generally considered that
the people sought this change as an attempt to rein in the elected representatives who
increasingly appeared to adopt the attitude that the government was the only group of people
in New Zealand who knew how the country should be run.
The general election of 1996 resulted in a situation in which no one party had enough seats
to form a government and after a series of negotiations with both the Labour and National
parties, the third highest polling party, New Zealand First, formed a Coalition Government
with the National Party. A scheme requiring the unemployed to work in order to qualify for
unemployment benefits had been a plank of the New Zealand First Party during the election.
The driving force behind the scheme was and is the now Minister of Employment Peter McCardle.
Prior to entering parliament for the National Party Mr McCardle had been a manager with the
government's New Zealand Employment Service and been instrumental in setting up a local
work scheme for the unemployed. Unfortunately, the National party government saw little or
no merit in Mr McCardle's plan to have the pilot scheme instituted nationally.
For reasons which are not clear, but which the political commentators opine was a trade off
for support for his national scheme for the unemployed, Mr McCardle left the National Party
prior to the 1996 general election to become one of the four New Zealand First members of
parliament. In the 1993 general election New Zealand First had gained only two seats, but
with the defection of both a Labour MP, one Jack Elder, and Mr McCardle, that party had
increased its number of MP's from two to four.
With the success of his aim of the introduction of a nation wide "work for the dole" scheme,
Mr McCardle has been described as one of New Zealand's most successful single issue
In May of 1998 the government announced that the scheme, known as the Community Wage, was to
be extended eventually to those receiving single parent, widows, sickness and invalid
Letter to Prime Minister Bolger and the reply here
Correspondence with the Minister of Justice here