When I was young, kids appeared before a magistrate (a District Court Judge before 1978) sufficiently rarely that questions were raised about the young person’s family, and inadequate parental supervision. Sometimes the magistrate would rebuke the parents if a child had been wagging school, or had been out late and was unsupervised. Remedial action was usually fairly swift: parents took steps to look after their children lest there was further police action.
Over the last fifty years there has there been a steady movement away from holding parents to account for the children they bring into the world. Why all the hooha when National’s Christopher Luxon recently suggested it was time for parents of perennial young trouble-makers to be held to account? The short answer is that politicians, especially those of a left persuasion, fear voter backlash not just from the parents and the kids once they reach voting age, but from the significant industry that now farms the country’s underclass. Gradually a perception has been allowed to emerge that problems are always someone else’s responsibility to deal with, never the family’s. Yet that is where the heart of the problem lies.
All societies have an underclass. New Zealand’s grew rapidly from the 1960s for a variety of reasons. Following the Second World War, Maori, the bulk of whom lived rurally in marae settings, shifted towards towns and cities where jobs were plentiful. But the marae networks where grandparents, uncles and aunts, who helped supervise children, seldom accompanied the younger families. Urban living was a new experience, and adaptation to its ways took time. Some urban Pakeha were soon mixing with newly-urbanized Maori. The proportion of Maori blood diminished steadily, and the number of unmarried mothers rose during the 1960s and 1970s, encouraged by the introduction in 1974 of the Domestic Purposes Benefit (DPB) that paid them money, ostensibly to look after their kids.
Urged on by the National Party and brought into force by Labour, the number of DPB recipients shot up from about 5,000 in 1974 to more than 100,000 in the 1990s. Rising numbers of youngsters without two parents wagged school; boys in particular were easily recruited by gangs into both petty crime and the developing drug culture. Requirements that men should support the children they fathered decreased, particularly when birth mothers could refuse to name their children’s fathers. Under all these pressures, the underclass mushroomed. Quite quickly many children had no family link with anyone working for a living. The 100,000 recipients of Job-Seeker Benefits, with no experience, nor intention of working make up the bulk of a self-perpetuating stratum of modern New Zealand society. It costs the taxpayer hugely in benefits, Kainga Ora subsidies, criminal activity, police and prison time. Most of the ram raiding, knife-wielding, gun-toting young offenders come from this modern, politically-created social group.
Springing up alongside this growing disaster has been a cluster of public and private agencies that are meant to be wrestling the social tragedy into a more tolerable shape. Social welfare officers – God knows what their latest Maori label is – Kainga Ora officials who seem more scared of the underclass than it is of them, and low-level bureaucrats are all intent on safe-guarding their jobs. They feel threatened by any alternative suggestions about how to deal with, let alone diminish, today’s social problems. To you and me, a bit of tough love is fundamental to straightening out lives where bewildered and angry people lack the necessary education and life experience ever to hold down a job.
But the likes of Jacinda Ardern and Grant Robertson, who themselves never held responsible jobs before entering Parliament, always dismiss such ideas. They haven’t read about the great work done in the United States by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression with 2.5 million disadvantaged youths. Most benefited from a stricter regime than they were used to, and learned a lot both from enhanced classroom activities and from the conservation work they undertook. But Ardern and Robertson quickly denounce anything other than their own policies of muddle along; alternatives are “proven failures” or “futile”. Getting tough on school attendance might prevent children from going to tangis, said Ardern in what must surely have been her stupidest observation as Prime Minister. And the ministry averts its gaze from the growing number of outrages being perpetrated by today’s Kiwi underclass. The scourge of Hamilton ram-raiding and events like the Sandringham stabbing of a shop-keeper in the heart of the Prime Minister’s own electorate, get no more than a wringing-of-the-hands response and toothy expressions of sympathy from her.
Meanwhile, enormous sums keep on being spent on expanding Three (or is it now Five?) waters, centralizing Health and Education and lavishly funding “consultants”. This government has no respect for working people. Peter Fraser and Norman Kirk would not be able to recognize them, and Norman Kirk would have doubled back from the DPB many years ago.