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Dr Muriel Newman

A Triumph of Ideology Over Common Sense

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In politics, ideology can be very dangerous if imposed without proper constraint. Nine years of rampant socialism saw New Zealand’s public policy framework inundated with ideological dogma. From the dumbing down of the education system, to the massive expansion of the welfare state, to the undermining of the family, to the erosion of private property rights, to the imposition of extreme environmentalism, to the relentless expansion of the state sector at the expense of the country’s wealth creators – the list goes on and on.

It is fair to say that those voters who have recognised the damage caused by socialist ideology live in hope that one day a review process will be adopted by Parliament that will amend or repeal laws that are causing serious harm to society. In fact, in Parliamentary democracies around the world there is widespread acknowledgement that a post-legislative review process should be implemented as standard practice, not only to ensure that laws are achieving their stated objectives, but to make certain that there are no damaging unintended consequences.

In Britain, the House of Lords recommended just such a review process, proposing that the explanatory note of Parliamentary Bills should include an outline of the criteria by which the Bill – once enacted – can be judged; that a review of new laws should be undertaken within three years of the commencement date; and that such legislative reviews should be dealt with by a special Parliamentary Select Committee, which has the ability to commission further research as and when needed.1

Here in New Zealand such a legislative review process is urgently needed, since under MMP fringe parties that hold the balance of power are often more ideologically driven than those elected under a First Past the Post-type system. A case in point is a law change that is hurting some of the country’s most vulnerable citizens that was driven by the former government’s blind adherence the union movement’s agenda, coupled with an obsessive approach to human rights ideology. Let me explain.

When Labour became the government in 1999 it embraced a new rights based approach to disability issues, launching a new Disability Strategy and creating an Office of Disability Issues. This strategy, which was driven largely by those with physical rather than intellectual disabilities, was designed to create an ‘inclusive’ society where people with disabilities could expect to be employed in the open labour market, instead of having to work in ‘sheltered workshops’.

Sheltered workshops, a core part of New Zealand society, had been established during the 1920s to provide employment for disabled people who wanted to work but were not able to hold down regular paid jobs. Many of these workers needed significant additional support including health and hygiene assistance. As a result of their special employment situation, sheltered workshops gained an exemption from minimum wage laws in 1960 through the Disabled Persons Employment Promotions (DPEP) Act, enabling them to pay a token wage to people with limited productive capacity.

The situation worked well. Most of the workers at sheltered workshops suffered from disabilities that impaired their productivity. Many had tried to work in open employment but found they needed the additional supports provided by sheltered workshops. Most sheltered workshops paid the minimum wage to employees with minor impairments, and while many of those with severe disabilities received only a few dollars a week in remuneration (on top of their disability payments), the pride they had in their ‘employment’ gave their lives real meaning and purpose.

However the unions objected to the fact that sheltered workshops had blanket minimum wage exemptions and urged the Labour government to deride them as profit-driven ‘businesses’ operating ‘sweat shops’ to exploit disabled workers. Nothing could have been further from the truth; most of these organisations operated in the not-for-profit sector only able to exist because of the considerable support and goodwill of their local communities.

At that time I was a Member of the Select Committee that was dealing with Labour’s bill to repeal the DPEP Act and take away the blanket minimum wage exemptions for sheltered workshops. As a result I visited sheltered workshops around the country to better understand the impact that this bill was going to have. At one workshop I met Sam, a bright, young electronic equipment operator who was autistic. On a good day he was as productive as the best in the workforce, but on a bad day he needed all of the patience, understanding and support that his sheltered workshop managers could provide. While Sam was paid a full wage by the workshop, most of the other workers like Joe who had Down syndrome, were paid an allowance on top of their disability benefit.

Once Labour’s bill became law, the plan was that workers like Joe, who had been at his sheltered workshop job for 20 years, would have to undergo a regular ‘productivity’ assessment by Department of Labour inspectors who would then issue a productivity rating to be used as the basis for calculating his hourly wage – which the workshop would then be required to pay. However, most of the workshops I visited stressed that because their work contracts consisted largely of community subsidies, their ability to pay more to workers was severely limited. Many said they would be forced to close.

This week’s Guest Commentator is Karl du Fresne, a freelance journalist and former editor of the Dominion newspaper, who described the 2007 repeal of the DPEP Act as “a triumph of human rights ideology over common sense”. Karl decided to investigate for himself the effects of the law change (his full report is published in the latest edition of The Listener), and considering that 76 IHC sheltered workshops had been closed, what he found was much worse than he imagined. In his article The Road to Hell…, he explains:

“I spoke to parents of disabled adults all over New Zealand who felt betrayed and angry over the changes imposed in 2007. I use the word “betrayed” because the law change was enthusiastically supported by IHC – the very organisation those parents looked to for support. And although the government and IHC insisted there was widespread consultation beforehand, the parents I interviewed, many of them long-standing members of IHC, refute that. One said parents were shellshocked by the announcement that IHC’s sheltered workshops were to close. Another had heard only rumours before the changes were announced and said she suspected that the people consulted were a vocal group of the “higher-achieving” disabled who didn’t speak for those with intellectual disabilities.

“So what’s going on here? How come IHC, an organisation supposedly committed to the wellbeing of the intellectually disabled, was party to a law change that seems to have greatly disadvantaged many of the very people it purports to help? The answer is that IHC has been captured by a rights-based ideology that politicised the treatment of the disabled. In the process, it has distanced itself (in fact alienated itself might be more accurate) from many parents with intellectually handicapped children – the very people who have traditionally been its most loyal and supportive members. The depth of feeling against the IHC that I encountered, both from parents and IHC caregivers (though the latter wouldn’t dare be identified for fear of repercussions), was striking. The impression I got was of an organisation out of touch with its grassroots. In fact a secondary thread in my article touches on the dangers that arise when former voluntary charities such as IHC morph into large, politicised bureaucracies that depend on the government for funding (as IHC does, receiving more than $200 million a year from the state).

“As one parent pointed out to me, a conflict of interest occurs when the organisation charged with lobbying the government on behalf of the intellectually disabled is also beholden to the government for money. The pressure to fall into line with government policy – in fact, to effectively become a de facto arm of government – is obviously formidable.”

A shocking aspect of the way the Labour Government went about changing this law was their failure to consult with the families who were going to be affected. Marion Miller, the former Chairman of the Southland Regional Council along with her husband Russell, collected over 7,000 signatures for a petition to Parliament asking the government to delay the law change until the families of disabled workers were properly consulted. While their call was ignored, research I carried out at the time clearly showed the benefits of consultation: when a similar law change was introduced in Canada, families were not consulted and most workers in sheltered workshops lost their jobs; however, in Australia, job losses were minimised because families were properly consulted before the law change. What they found is what Marion Miller and thousands of other families had been trying to explain – that the social participation and camaraderie that workers enjoyed in their sheltered workshops far outweighed any wage issues.

Labour’s law change provided sheltered workshop workers who lost their jobs with ‘community participation’. Unfortunately this turned out to be little more than a glorified day-care programme, not only rendering the lives of attendees relatively meaningless, but also, in some cases, giving rise to severe behavioural problems. And it hasn’t all been plain sailing for those who were placed in regular employment either – Marion Miller explained that in her town, 50 percent of those who were placed into employment later resigned from their jobs because of their inability to manage the extra pressure of being ‘employed’ in the workforce.

All in all Labour’s policy has been a disaster that should never have happened. If the families who were going to be affected had been properly consulted – as was required under the New Zealand Disability Strategy – the heartache could have been avoided. The only hope now is that the plight of these families comes to the attention of a government that recognises that flawed ideology has driven this outcome. This, of course is a hit or miss approach. Surely it would be far better if New Zealand was to adopt a proper system of legislative review – along the lines of that proposed by the House of Lords – so there is a ‘catch-all’ for poor legislation that produces damaging consequences. Once established, such a special Legislative Review Parliamentary Select Committee could kick the process off by calling for public feedback on older laws that are either failing to achieve their stated purpose, or are producing serious hardship and harm to society. Several such laws spring to mind, including the Domestic Purposes Benefit, the Child Support Act, and more recently, the anti-smacking law; however, a prime contender for priority review must surely be the DPEP Act repeal that has so seriously damaged the lives of a minority of extremely vulnerable people in society – the intellectually disabled and their families.

  1. UK Law Commission, Post-legislative Scrutiny