Wrestling with the narrative

Sarah is on holiday in Melbourne, and suddenly the news cycle is being spammed with a press release from Paula Bennett about the thousands upon thousands of beneficiaries traveling overseas. Typically for a Bennett press release, there’s no real breakdown of the numbers. It’s just “these people are going overseas!” We’re apparently supposed to assume they’re all doing something dodgy, especially with the quotes about WINZ checking with Customs to catch people out, but there’s absolutely no evidence given for this whatsoever.

Personally I’m pretty sure that at least 95% of these people fall into (at least) one of the following categories:
- family or friends paid for a vacation for whatever reason
- it was already booked and paid for before they went on a benefit
- they’re traveling for an emergency or very special occasion
- they’re relocating to cut costs/look for work in a better market

I strongly doubt there are many beneficiaries who are paying for their own holidays out of their benefits.

HOWEVER. Even if they were, who cares? Remember, beneficiaries are not just people who don’t have a job but could be working. Not even the Jobseekers Allowance is only people on unemployment because they merged it with the sickness benefit. Some beneficiaries are on welfare their entire lives because they can’t work. But they get lumped in to this punitive authoritarian culture we have where they’re not allowed anything nice, ever, and they’re always assumed to be trying to get one over on the government. But to be honest, if a beneficiary is able to budget carefully enough to save up for a holiday, they fucking deserve it. That goes for all of them, sick/disabled or not. Because living on a benefit is fucking hard. The kind of constant stress it creates is dangerous and bad for you and having to spend all your energy on the basic necessities of living means it’s incredibly difficult to work to improve your situation. Getting away for a week or whatever and having some time to relax and clear your head is probably actually pretty damn helpful.

I feel like a lot of this really is down to jealousy. I see so many people who should know better saying that they work and they can’t afford whatever the big scandal is this time, and actually that’s kind of bullshit. They choose not to prioritise it. It’s not the same thing. And in this situation when the kerfuffle is over overseas travel, the assumption is that it’s something that’s 100% desirable when there are so many reasons where that would not be the case. Like going to a funeral, or to help with a sick relative. Or even something that seems good, like a wedding, but even if everything is paid for going overseas means getting your benefit cut but you still have to pay your bills, so that’s going to lead to some pretty fucking stressful times. If you would like to swap that with your comfortable secure income, seriously, get in touch, because I would fucking LOVE to. A full-time job at minimum wage is nearly $500 a week, let alone people who are earning enough to have a mortgage, and if it comes with no one obsessing over what I spend my money on and not having to get permission for the stupidest things, BRING IT ON. Unfortunately no one is ever going to take me up on this because despite the trappings of jealousy and resentment everyone knows on some level that being a beneficiary sucks.

Apparently some people think this is a good thing.
Edit: There’s a response article up on the Herald today that includes this quote:

“It proves nearly 10 per cent who have been job tested can afford to go overseas. I think a lot of the time someone else has paid, but it’s still what many New Zealanders would consider a luxury.” (emphasis mine)

Again, remember that the JSA includes sickness beneficiaries.

Such overwhelm

Usually it helps me to write. At the moment it’s hard, because to write about situations and choices I have to think about them on some level and I don’t really want to. This is about the third day I’ve been lying in bed knowing time is slipping away from me. Even if I change nothing, I have to stay on top of my schoolwork, and with three assignments due in the next two and a half weeks I fall behind every day. I’ve done some on the easiest – just today I wrote three definitions of social research terminology! I don’t think that’s exactly the level of commitment they have in mind for the course.

If I drop classes to lighten the load it takes that much longer to finish. The semesters stretch out ahead of me for years. Plus, I’d have to arrange limited full-time status to keep the student allowance that is the pittance paying my bills.

If there was a single position, a person, who could do all the contacting and negotiating and advocating, who could deal with mental health teams and WINZ and HNZ and Massey, instead of having so many different agencies either funding themselves or contracted to the government to cover niche areas in a jigsaw pattern with thousands of pieces, I would still find it nearly impossible to connect with them. That’s how people fall through the cracks. I have to be well enough to get help in the first place. Well, I tried that. All I got was a complete lack of fucks. Now I just wish there was a way to regroup and rest without having to rely on support as fickle as the government’s, because they can never be trusted not to withdraw it when you’re at your most vulnerable. If that sounds bitter I guess it is. No one wants to live like this. But there is no market solution to supporting people who can’t work. Even $250/wk adds up fast and there’s no way for a third party to get a return on that investment, unless perhaps you bring back indentured servitude and see if the temporarily ill outweigh the permanently disabled. Surely we can rely on the goodwill of the corporates to make sure they don’t cut off the low hanging fruit.

Waitangi Day and Te Wai Pounamu

On six separate days through May and June 1840 Treaty signings were held in the South Island, largely down the east coast. However, Hobson had already declared British sovereignty over Te Wai Pounamu on May 21 on the basis that it was terra nullius, the same justification for the annexing of Australia. Apparently it wasn’t logically inconsistent to claim that and also to seek a Treaty with the inhabitants, or at least, everyone was willing to pretend it wasn’t. (It was much easier to pretend in the south – the land wasn’t as good, which meant a lower population and more movement around territories that the Crown could later claim were wastelands as they didn’t have a permanent settlement.)

Land sales in the south occurred between 1844 and 1860 (except Stewart Island, which was bought in 1863) with the Crown buying up huge tracts of land at once. The Canterbury block, for example, was eight million hectares for which they paid just two thousand pounds – one third the cost of Stewart Island. Rather than negotiating fairly, agents such as Commissioner Kemp used threats to buy the land from rivals or to use force while promising that one tenth of the land purchased would be set aside as native reserves. This “one-tenth” was reduced to four hectares for each person, generally of poor quality land. When it came to buying Banks Peninsula, the local chiefs refused to sign. The reserves would not be enough even for subsistence. So instead, the Crown simply passed the Canterbury Settlement Act which basically went “Yeah, all this? That’s ours now.” (Again, they still tried to get Kai Tahu to agree to the annexation for another seven years.) Hamilton was the only agent to really express any hesitation over what they were doing, on the basis that two years ago a 12,000ha piece of land in the area had been sold for fifteen thousand pounds, which he was being instructed to pay just two hundred pounds for. Eventually he sold himself the justification that the rest of the land was valueless to Māori, whereas Pākehā settlement would bring benefits of civilisation and trade.

Not that the Māori could do much trade. Kai Tahu and the other Te Wai Pounamu iwi were left basically landless in an area where the big money was in sheep farming, something that doesn’t need as good pasture as the cropping and dairy farming in the north but which needs a lot of it. What reserve lands they did have left were controlled by the land commissioners, who could lease it out for dick all or sell it off at their discretion.

Ultimately the Crown paid just under fifteen thousand pounds for the entirety of the South and Stewart Islands through the use of threats, bullying and outright theft, leaving Māori dispossessed and impoverished while Pākehā settlers got rich on the proceeds of what Mantell had called “an uselessly extensive domain”. European cognitive dissonance had won the day.

The long road to success

Something happened yesterday that shifted my world just a couple of degrees off-centre. I was coming home from the doctor, cleared the mailbox and walked up the steps to the door, digging my keys out. There was a parcel on the doorstep – course materials, for 279.301. Third year social policy. Government Policy, Planning & Administration.

It’s pretty common knowledge that this isn’t my first go at higher education. In fact it’s my third – the two previous attempts I didn’t even last a year. Picking up the course materials for a third year paper on policy process – not Classical Studies or English, but policy – was this moment of utter surrealness that basically just slammed into me. Unwrapping it and starting to look through the administration guide did not lessen the feeling. A while ago, my progress was classed as “ugh, not graduating until 2015.” Then it became “nearly two whole years left!” Now it’s “just over a year to go.” And there are a million posts out there about imposter syndrome, but the weird thing is that along with that, and at the same time as that, I’m also doing shit like looking at this three page list of relevant journal articles and books and going, “Ooh, that sounds interesting!” Part of me wonders what the hell I’m doing with this stuff and an entirely different part feels… sort of competent.

In completely different events from yesterday, of course, was the discussion about Anne Tolley’s criticisms of Metiria Turei['s clothes], which is only relevant because I was talking about it with Metiria. It occurred to me that this phenomenon, where New Zealand is small enough and laid back enough that we can have casual chats on Twitter with some pretty notable MPs (and political commentators, and current affairs show hosts, etc) makes politics here pretty different from physically bigger countries like USA, Canada, Australia, or more populated countries like the UK. Not for everyone, of course, but then you combine that with the relatively high number of MPs who come from pretty modest backgrounds in comparison to the US or UK and suddenly a lot of things start seeming a lot more plausible. I think Twitter has actually been quietly instrumental in being able to get this far through a degree, in switching social policy from my minor to my major, as well as in taking what I’m learning in policy and Māori studies and anthropology and history and being able to apply it in real life – and in taking real life and applying it to my school work. The conversations I have, and who I have them with, make all the theoretical stuff we cover in class practical and relevant. I don’t know that I’d get that anywhere else – maybe for anthropological and indigenous-focused papers, because damn I learn a lot about racial issues and colonialism on Twitter from both local and international people, but not for policy.

(And of course, if I’m really lucky, I’ll be able to make contacts on Twitter that will be useful when I have to actually (gerk) find a job.)

Kismet

It’s nice when things come together, even if it’s just in a small way. Life carries on while I’m working things out (I’ve had an email from MSD confirming they got my letter) and I’ve been spending this morning preparing for one of my final essays, for my medical anthropology paper. The topic is on medical ethics, and the first half of the question goes something like:

Joralemon believes the anthropologist has a special vantage point on bioethical issues that justifies the move from analysis to advocacy. An anthropologist may have an understanding of different cultural attitudes to the integrity of the body, ritual practices that attend birth and death, or the acceptability of the application of techniques that may cause harm or pain to the patient. However, it is important to remember that “moral decision making is contextual…” (Jessica Muller in Joralemon 2010 p.107).

Can there be an ethical code that includes the cultural values and norms that guide healing-related behaviour in any given society? Under what conditions should an anthropologist intervene in a medical context?

For a while I didn’t entirely know exactly what the question actually meant, let alone how to answer it, but when I turned my computer off to let it cool down and lay down with my Kobo and a pad of paper in case of ideas and just read for a while, it solidified. The book I was finishing is called Sniper by Jon Wells, and it’s about an anti-choice terrorist who shot several doctors in Canada and the USA, the last one of which died. The legal case hinged on whether he was intending to injure or to kill but in defence speeches there was a lot of moralising over whether force (deadly or not) was justified to prevent harm in the form of terminations. So I was reading the final few chapters of this book and coming across passages where it’s quite clear that no one can ever agree because the pro-choice and anti-choice positions start at inherently different philosophical positions. It also reminded me of an image someone posted on twitter that I’d glanced at about subsidies for the movie industry, where pro-subsidy people say “If we don’t give perpetually increasing subsidies the jobs will go elsewhere!” and anti-subsidy people say “We’ll have to give perpetually increasing subsidies or the jobs will go elsewhere!” It’s hard to find a universally acceptable answer there because both positions completely agree on the fact, but disagree on which value is the most important.

So, when I put down my Kobo and glanced at my pad of paper, everything just sort of crystallised. There cannot be a universal rule of ethics in medicine because different cultures view things so differently. Under one system you might view the individual patient as central and focus on their physical symptoms to find an evidence-based solution to prevent them from occuring, while under another you might have a holistic collective view where it’s just as or even more important to deal with the entire family, to tend to any tension or social discord that is causing or exacerbating symptoms. Or have different ideas on who should be responsible for decision making – like, what if what the patient wants goes against the interests of the family or contradict medical best practice? What’s the difference morally between a DNR order and euthanasia? What level of mental disability is enough to override the wishes of the patient and cause them to be considered incapable? How is the conception of a person linked to their physical body, and when does that start and end? How do you weigh post-mortem organ donation against beliefs surrounding the treatment of the deceased?

It will be interesting to write because the second half is to be about a current medical ethical debate in New Zealand. I’m doing the treatment (especially with regards to income support) of people with disabilities, particularly mental illness, which will touch on those things like who gets to make decisions and what best care entails. The guy who is like the head advisor to MSD about medical issues has this position where he believes that putting someone on a disability benefit and letting them not work is, like, literally as unhealthy for them as smoking some ridiculous number of cigarettes a day, and WINZ has switched to this position of focusing on what people CAN do rather than what they CAN’T, but they use unqualified people to make these decisions. So all that sort of thing is basically what I’m going to cover, the questions about what is the best outcome for the government or society or the patient and which outcome should be the highest priority and our cultural assumptions about self-reliance, the history of the welfare system, whose interests are supposed to be protected. It’s not as great a topic as I did for my last anthropology final essay, but now that I’ve figured out what I’m going to say it is definitely going to be something that I’ll enjoy writing, not some tedious shit like my first NZ Land Wars essay.

Ill

You might have noticed on Twitter this morning that I’m not in my normal frame of mind – after holding off for several sleepless nights I took some lorazepam last night. It normally leaves me slightly groggy the next day, but today I feel as though I’m still asleep, I actually start dreaming a little if I close my eyes and switch between topics in writing that may or may not even be real. (An example, on trying to explain that I dreamed I was watching myself move the mouse so my computer wouldn’t go to sleep, then forcing my eyes open “and realised he was in danger”, which was referring to another waking dream I’d recently had about a kid who I’d suddenly realised was running into a road. Actually I’d meant to say that my mouse was nowhere near my hand, even though I’d seen myself holding it.)

Anyway, basically it all means that I’m not feeling the most able person today. It doesn’t help that I’ve woken up with a stiff elbow for the last few nights, the outside of my left ankle has been sore since Monday, and my some of the muscles in my back have tightened right up.

Then somebody on Twitter linked to this. (Warning! Contains Michael Laws.) Michael Laws is a Whanganui DHB board member. And here we have a conversation , prompted by his public statements, in which he abuses a member of the public whose son has Downs Syndrome, calling her a nutter and monstrous for inflicting in the child on everyone else. Notice also the time stamps on those messages. It can be hard to match them up but it seems this conversation took place over two days. After telling her to bugger off the night before, he returned the next afternoon to tell her he’d abort a foetus who tested positive for DS, then he tells her to fuck off and not contact him again.

This is such a perfect illustration of the things I’ve talked about on this blog. Downs Syndrome is one of those disabilities where a lot of people (not of course all, sadly) who have it CAN achieve quite a lot – and at the same time, happiness and amiability are defining characteristics. We are not out of the eugenics woods. As it is, I do support all testing for potential problems in utero, but I think parents should get plenty of information on ALL their options, including talking to other parents who kept their Downs Syndrome children and can tell them what to expect, and if possible/available talking to people with Downs Syndrome as well. I don’t advocate abortion based on disability, I just want parents to know what they’re getting in for because I feel that that will help to mitigate some of the cases of neglect and mistreatment the disabled population can face at the hands of their carers.

I’m trying not to cry right now because this is how it is. Our bodies are up for public debate and people like Michael Laws feel like they have the right to say whether or not we should be allowed to live. Helen Clark introduced many new measures to improve the lives of the disabled, and now they’re being eroded away through the mediocre sums offered us to live on and debates over building accessibility in the building codes. We got our first disabled MP in 2011 and it doesn’t seem to have done anything. (No shade on Mojo, who is doing a great job in a hostile environment.)

A grand idea

Another excellent symptom of the rot in Christchurch that caused me to leave:

At Labour’s national conference, they’ve announced new housing policy to focus on Christchurch. They’re going to build houses in the central city and New Brighton, as well as using undamaged houses from the red zone and putting them on suitable land. Oh, and they’re going to get feedback from the community.

“Yeah, so, those areas that don’t have houses anymore because they haven’t been rebuilt yet? We’re going to rebuild them. It’s pretty radical, I know, it’s only been three years, but by the time we get into power to implement it it will have been four years, and four years isn’t TOO soon. Is it? Guys, too soon? You think?”

I’m not really directing my scorn at Labour for announcing this. I’m mostly scornful that National hasn’t, and that things in Christchurch are so shitty that Labour feels they have to make a big deal out of it. Rebuilding houses. Just… this should be obvious, and it should be done by now.

How exciting! A letter from the Minister

I’ve just had an email from Steven Joyce (the pdf has his signature and everything, and believe me it is annoying as hell for them to insist on corresponding by attached pdf whether they’re writing a sentence or a page) regarding my original email of 29 August in which I proposed policy to enable students with disabilities to have a better shot at getting qualifications that would help them find jobs and contribute to the economy instead of drawing welfare forever. Basically, the idea was that students with disabilities who can’t hold down a part time job as well as full time study and are thus limited to the $246 of Student Allowance could be allowed to also borrow Student Loan Living Costs. Since living costs are on the student loan, they’re repayable, not free money, which should go down well with right wingers who think those damn disabled people should take their 246 whole dollars and be grateful, dammit.

Steven Joyce didn’t like this idea much. See, it wouldn’t be fair. We’d be giving special treatment to students with disabilities, and then all the other students will want it too. (You know, the other students with higher income potential and lower costs of living, on average.) Instead, disabled students can apply for the $60/week disability allowance – if their costs are directly related to their disability and can be proven as such, and “rent” doesn’t count – or apply for scholarships. Yo, I’ve looked at scholarships. One of the very early posts on this blog was a breakdown of what scholarships were available. Most scholarships give you $500 or $1000. If you’re lucky they might be $1500 or even $2000. A lot of those scholarships go directly to the university to cover fees, which actually doesn’t help you at all in the present – all it does is reduce your future student loan burden. Which, believe me, I’m not dismissing as irrelevant or not worth it, but it doesn’t help you with your current financial stress that is making it hard for your to complete your education because $246 is absolute bullshit to live on whether you’re disabled or not – it’s hard enough to find somewhere to live that’s less than $246. So, there are scholarships left that give you the paltry sum of money directly, but most of those available for disabilities are for specific disabilities – blindness, deafness, MS, etc. Of the rest I’d be surprised if it amounted to more than $10,000 or so, among all the students in New Zealand who have other or non-specific disabilities and are struggling with money. To apply you need to know they exist, be able to navigate the process, and often have references, which is all stuff you have to take time and effort to manage when you’re already probably spending time and effort dealing with WINZ and the medical system and your own body, not to mention studying.

So, yeah, thank you Steven Joyce, for taking two months to tell me that the meaning of equality is making sure no one thinks people with disabilities are getting extra help. I’ll be sure to vote for you next time.