Russell Brown's HARD NEWS

27th April 2001 - A Shambles in Paradise

Copyright © 2001 Russell Brown

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yes, it's me down the phone line again, but from parts no more distant or exotic than Pt Chevalier. Where, I am happy to report, the weather is pleasant and the vista a delight.

It was something of a revelation, walking out of the airport on Saturday afternoon. The mild temperatures, the size and scale of the sky, with its piles of cumulous cloud; bugger me, I thought - I live on a Pacific Island!

Most places this nice do not, of course, enjoy the advantages of a sophisticated economy, a varied culture and good Internet connectivity. You kind of need to go away for a while to grasp what is meant when some survey or other declares Auckland the sixth best city in the world in which to live and work. It boils down to: it's right at the far end of the earth, but it's nice here, isn't it?

But of course, the clouds are not all white and fluffy. Sometimes, they are grey and angry. Metaphorically speaking, there ought to be a raincloud parked over the Beehive right now, because something rotten has happened in Wellington.

Whatever strife it has encountered with accident-prone ministers, stroppy business lobbies and closing gaps, the current government has generally appeared to run the business of government fairly well.

The ministerial A-Team has appeared largely well informed about and attuned to its portfolios. After the experience of the last government, where we sometimes seemed to be verging on a collapse of governance, this is no small blessing.

Well, you can scratch that now because Health minister Annette King and Social Services minister Steve Maharey have contrived to create an eye-watering cock-up.

It began recently when superannuitants and beneficiaries received a 3.98% raise in their allocations. This was intended to keep pace with inflation and was sensible enough. But the raise had the effect of pushing 1270 superannuitants over the income threshold for the Community Services Card, depriving them of subsidised health care.

So as not to disenfranchise those people, the threshold for the Community Services Card was raised. But under the new threshold, an extra 48,000 low-income working people became eligible for a card. Would this be a pleasant surprise for those plucky strugglers?

Anything but. Under the guidance of Michael Cullen, the coalition has been seeking to dispel the idea that Labour-led governments are spendthrift. If it can pursue its policy goals whilst maintaining fiscal rectitude, it nullifies one of the right's key pitches in the next general election.

So the purse strings are tight. So tight that, this close to next month's Budget, the $15 million required to fund an extra 48,000 holders of the Community Services card simply wasn't available - not unless Annette King chose to slash budgets elsewhere in her domain. Which she didn't.

So the new threshold applies only to beneficiaries. Workers earning the same - or even less - money will not have access to the card. This is not only a shambles, it is morally wrong. But it won't change.

King has promised a top-to-bottom review of the card scheme, which was going to take a year, but can now - following representations from the Greens - apparently be knocked off in six months. By the way, was anybody else struck by how much more effective and articulate Sue Bradford was than Jenny Shipley on this?

But that's by the by. This is simply a shocker. And the irony is it appears it need never have happened. If the responsible ministers had read their own glossy pamphlets, they'd have discovered that all beneficiaries automatically receive a Community Services Card anyway.

The immediate upshot is that King and Maharey, who dwell in the inner circle of the administration, are currently enduring the Prime Ministerial Death Ray hitherto reserved for junior ministers and ministerial officials. And so they damn well should.

On the back of the weird decision to merge the social policy and income services in order to get rid of Christine Rankin - and lord knows, that's a nice idea - this is creating the impression of distinctly arbitrary oversight. That Budget better be pretty good.

Anyway, that'll do for now. Brevity is good and I'm way, way busy. I haven't quite decided on weekend activities: my angry-but-lovely friends Hip at the King's Arms; Nathan Haines at the St James - and believe me, his record's everywhere in London; or just plain kicking back on the deck under an autumnal sky. The choice is ... choice


    ==  ==      Russell Brown
  [ @ / @  ]                      
     /        ________________________________________
    (_)         "The views expressed on this programme
    ____)       are bloody good ones." Fred Dagg, 197?

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Last update: 27 April 2001

Text Copyright © 2001 Russell Brown.
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