Speaker by Various Artists


A true commitment

by Diane White

In recent weeks, the Government has come out in support of a push for strangulation to become its own offence. One of a number of recommendations by an independent committee into family violence deaths, the Family Violence Death Review Committee (FVDRC), it would see what’s called “non-fatal strangulation” become a separate offence under the Crimes Act 1961.

In the context of domestic violence, non-fatal strangulation is currently dealt with under s 194 of the Crimes Act, what’s commonly known as “male assaults female”. Essentially, the FVDRC argues that the current way in which we deal with non-fatal strangulation fails to recognise the both physical and psychological damage caused, and its seriousness as an offence. Further, as Catriona McLennan wrote this week, non-fatal strangulation serves as a “red flag for future serious abuse and possible death of the victim”. The futility of the move, however, was raised by Warren Brookbanks, who rightly questions the deterrent effect of such a change.

The issue of violence against women has become, for this government, a major black mark against its name. On one side, Collins and the National government are pushing the line that crime has reduced under National (although how much of that is attributable to National’s leadership as distinct from increased use of warnings by the Police, dodgy stats, and global trends is highly questionable).

On the other hand, the New Zealand public has become increasingly aware of the damning stats around sexual and domestic violence. Off the back of the shameful Malaysian diplomat saga, National is under pressure to look like it’s serious about tackling violence against women.

So it’s no surprise to see Collins come out in support of the FVDRC recommendation. For the average voter unfamiliar with how the courts operate, Collins will get points for “making strangling a woman a crime”. National will be in no hurry to correct voters that strangling a woman is, of course, already an offence, and a judge has the ability to take into account the serious nature of the offence in weighing up the factors at play in the offending. Collins will bandy this around as an example of how this government is serious about tackling violence against women; an instance of National getting tough on crime.

On the other side of the coin, we have the Minister of Justice mocking another politician’s attempt to address New Zealand’s culture of violence against women – from a boxing match, no less. We have the Prime Minister refusing to apologise for the way his Minister handled an alleged rape claim against a diplomat. We have Collins’ self-described close personal friend and the man she claims to be this country’s best media source, Whale Oil, questioning whether Billingsley “made it all up” because she once went to a Rape Crisis fundraiser. It’s against this backdrop that we must assess the Government’s commitment to truly address violence against women.

So far, that commitment can, at best, be described as superficial tinkering. Support for policies such as the non-fatal strangulation offence relies on the flawed and widely disproved assumption of general deterrence: the idea that every man about to offend against a women is making a rational choice, weighing up his actions against the possible consequences. In almost all offending, this is all but a myth, but even more so where the offender does not even view his actions as criminal, worthy of sanction, or unlikely to be reported. A man does not stop and contemplate strangling his partner because the crime is separately listed under the Crimes Act 1961 and subject to a harsh penalty; he stops because he has been socialised to value and care for his partner.

If we are to address violence against women, we have to accept that surface level, minor change is not where the solutions lie. Gendered violence runs through our country’s veins. It is pervasive, and the issue is vast.

When dealing with an issue of deeply-rooted culture, seemingly small and insignificant actions are where the change starts. Key standing up and saying “I am sorry for the actions of my government and I apologise to Tania Billingsley” would go further to addressing the issue of gendered violence than a change in the Crimes Act. Collins tweeting “Cunliffe may have been clumsy in his wording but he’s right: this is an issue all men need to take ownership of – whether or not they are violent against women” would have sent a loud, resounding message to New Zealanders that this government is committed to tackling violence against women.  Collins, as Minister of Justice, coming out against Whale Oil and saying “I do not support Cameron Slater’s comments on Tania Billingsley and we need to believe women” would’ve shown a true commitment to challenging rape culture and violence against women.

The fact the issue is so pervasive and requires such deep social change does not, of course, preclude a government from taking more immediate, legislative actions. But we should not be fooled into thinking that National’s willingness to tinker is backed up by the deeper, more genuine commitment to addressing the systemic issues that truly underpin violence against women. What we have seen in recent weeks is the complete opposite.

We need to stop talking about violence against women as if it can be “solved” by tweaking an Act or giving the maximum penalty to an offender. The way men offend against women is inextricably tied to the way society perceives women, and when we simply increase the penalty for an offence, we’re not targeting the root of the problem. When the major issue in domestic violence cases is reporting, it may even have the opposite effect, making women more unlikely to report the offending for fear of the impact that could have on their partner and family.

The solution here does not lie in legislative change alone. It lies in the way each individual conducts themselves. And that’s exactly where this government needs to start. 


Not even a statistic

by "Katrina"

A report published in February in The Lancet says Australia and New Zealand have more than double the global average of sexual assaults on females aged 15 and over by someone other than their partner.  It suggests that data from these two countries is good and that, maybe, the high rate is due to a higher rate of reporting violence to police in Australia and New Zealand, with under-reporting happening elsewhere. They may be right, I don’t know. However, reporting to police and having a police report that can be counted in violence statistics are two very different things.

I went to the police on the afternoon of my first rape. I was a schoolgirl and had been raped that afternoon on the floor of the living room of my family home by my math tutor. My sister had been reading upstairs and had heard my screams. My parents were away from home for the afternoon, leaving us safely in the hands of a trusted private tutor. Following the rape, I bundled my torn skirt and stained cottontail panties into a plastic bag and rode my bike to the police station.

I was not taken into a private area. I stood in the public reception area of the police station, recounting events and having to, publicly, answer questions. Yes, I had been a virgin, no, I didn’t encourage him. Yes, I said no.

The police officer didn’t take notes. He told me that rape cases like mine could never be proven so laying a charge was a waste of time. He said if I did insist on charges being laid that it would cause huge embarrassment for my family that would affect their public standing in the community. He said that girls my age were ready to experiment with sex and that sometimes things got out of hand, that this wasn’t the man’s fault because men couldn’t stop once a girl initiated sex play. He said that the tutor, a man twice my age, couldn’t be expected to know I was under-age because I looked mature. He said that a lot of women liked rough sex and that my torn clothing and undies didn’t indicate anything out of the ordinary.

Then he said I shouldn’t tell my parents because it would embarrass and upset them to know that their daughter had behaved like a little slut. He told me to go home. I did. There is no police record of this rape. Years later, I saw the perpetrator’s name in a newspaper. He was convicted of raping a young woman.

The police attended on the occasion of my second rape. I was beaten, brutalised, and raped in front of a stranger (to me) by my then-husband when I was six months along with our first child. The police took me to hospital instead of waiting for an ambulance and on my discharge, five days later, took me home-back to the man that had used steel-capped boots and his fists on me.

I was 23-years-old, in a country far away from family, emotionally and physically messed up from the loss of my pregnancy, and very, very vulnerable. I’ve never forgotten the first question the senior police officer asked me: “What did you do to provoke him?”

The police interviewed me at home yet, despite obvious visual clues to my beating, despite a hospital report detailing external and internal injuries, despite a witness, they decided there was not enough evidence with which to lay charges.

The officer recording my statement tore off the paper and threw it into the fireplace. He told me it was better for couples to sort their own issues out because “domestics” were a waste of police time. When quitting that marriage, my lawyer tried to locate records but there is no record of this attack. If the police held a record of their attendance they never disclosed it.

The third, and oh please! the last, also occurred in my own home. I was newly widowed and deep in grief with a steady stream of caring and concerned people calling around to offer condolences.

Some of these visits became threatening as various “friends” of my late husband, most of them married men, offered to “help” me through my loneliness. By the second month following the tragedy I had started hiding any time an unaccompanied man came to my door. I let down my guard with one old friend though. He had been solicitous and had offered nothing but sympathy and kindness so I felt safe letting him in one evening.

Over coffee, he asked how I was doing. The first inkling I had that something was wrong was when he repeated what so many other men had said over the weeks, “You must miss it. You must be hanging out for it by now”. I didn’t, I wasn’t, and wasn’t interested in anything to do with any man apart from the husband I had loved so much and lost. He grabbed me by the hair, threw me around, hit me and choked me until I passed out.

At the hospital later, following tests for STD’s and treatment for my injuries, I was-for the first time ever-offered support services. I couldn’t talk to them. I couldn’t talk to anyone. That’s the thing about strangulation that movies and TV don’t show. Both victim support and the police told me that when I was ready (and able) to talk I should contact them. I did neither.

With this last attack, I felt deeply ashamed. How could I have been so stupid as to let a man into my house? What had I done to make men think that I was desperate for sex and would welcome it no matter who and how it was offered? Did my appearance invite uncontrollable lust? Did I ask for it? The anger I had felt previously with police refusal to act had transformed into a fear of exposure to more blame and ridicule.

I stayed, locked away for weeks, in my house while the bruising and swelling went down. Neither the police nor victim support called to follow-up which, in my state of mind, confirmed that what had happened wasn’t a big deal. I didn’t matter. I never filed a complaint. My rapist got away with it.

I look at the furore occurring now in New Zealand over the allegations that a foreign diplomat sexually assaulted a NZ woman. I read online comments and a blog entry by a man having a whale of a time victim-blaming. What I see reassures me that letting a rapist escape charges was the best thing for me.

I was raped, repeatedly raped, by a partner, a “friend”, and a virtual stranger. The police couldn’t be bothered. Nobody helped me. Am I just one, or one of hundreds, thousands even? I don’t know. I know that the statistics, damning enough as they are, are bullshit. My rapes aren’t amongst them. I’m not counted as a victim. 

But, at least, I wasn’t pilloried in the media and online. I wasn’t victimised again by public opinion. Women that do bring charges are incredibly brave and have quite possibly persisted through horrible questioning and despite belittling attitudes. They may well have had to fight just to get the police to make a record. They are the statistics. I’m the piece of paper the police couldn’t be bothered writing on.

Note: "Katrina" is a Public Address reader who has asked not to be named. I will leave comments open on this post until I have to go out about 12.30pm. Unless I can ensure Emma is available to moderate, I will temporarily close the discussion while I'm out -- Russell.


Why a renter died from turning on a light, and what we could do

by Elinor Chisholm

After four days living in her new rental home in Ruakaka, Lesley Wehi-Jack returned home from work. She smelt gas, unlocked the door, and switched on a light. The house burst into flames: a gas cooker installed by the landlord had been leaking. Lesley died  the next day from burns sustained in the fire. Her death was tragic, and its effect on her whanau and community is immense.

Energy Safe, which is part of WorkSafe NZ, laid charges against Lesley’s landlord, Peter John McLeod.  The court found him guilty of failing to take all practicable steps to ensure the cooker was installed safely. He was sentenced to six months home detention, and ordered to pay $5,000 to Lesley’s family. In response, Energy Safe encouraged landlords to become aware of the law around gas safety; guidelines which, if followed, would have prevented Lesley’s death.

Landlords should obey the law, I agree. But we should also try to understand why landlords might not know about, or ignore, the law. (Not all landlords, of course: for example, about 5 per cent apparently belong to property investors associations, through which they receive a lot of information about landlording).

I think one of the reasons some landlords don’t know about their legal responsibilities is that landlording can be quite a casual business. Some people are “accidental landlords”: they’ve inherited property, or, like Lesley’s landlord, they’ve relocated for work and want to earn money from their own home while they’re away. Some people have bought houses to rent out for investment purposes: the skills and knowledge required to manage a property are secondary.

It’s a strange thing. If you want to earn money through providing accommodation for people, as a landlord or a property manager, you simply advertise the house. You don’t have to register, as a company must, and you don’t have to pass a test to prove you know the rules, as a driver must. As a result there’s no way of knowing which people are landlords. So there’s no direct way of contacting landlords, some of whom might not have any idea of any of the law that now apply to them, to tell them things like “don’t install a gas cooker yourself”. (There’s also no easy way of telling them to pay their tax, or to lodge their tenants’ bonds).

I think it’s not enough to prosecute a landlord for disobeying the law. We need to do everything we can to make landlords aware of the law that protects them and their tenants. A recent reminder of the law around gas safety, and how it exists to protect lives, might not have stopped Lesley’s landlord doing a DIY job - but it might have.

There’s a couple of ways this could happen.

We could have a registry of landlords, with a dose of good marketing to ensure everyone who wants to be a landlord knows they have to register, or face some consequence. That way Energy Safe, as well as the IRD, and the bond authority, can inform landlords of their responsibilities. And one day, hopefully soon, registering could happen as part of getting a rental warrant of fitness.

Or, for now – and here’s something that seems pretty cheap and easy to do - the government could work with websites heaps of landlords use: trademe.co.nz and realestate.co.nz. Anyone who puts up a house to rent could receive an email about their responsibilities, with a whole lot of links – the information’s all on the internet already. I want the new landlords out there to know that becoming a landlord means taking on responsibilities.  

 Nobody should ever pay for a landlord’s negligence with their life.

Elinor Chisholm (@ElinorChisholm) blogs about housing issues at onetwothreehome.org.nz

Thanks to Lucy Telfar Barnard for our discussions about this issue.


Peter Jefferies: Time and the singular man

by Campbell Walker

Peter Jefferies released his last album in 2001. Tellingly titled Closed Circuit, and released on the Texas label Emperor Jones, it didn't make a huge impact at the time – the modest international boom for the highly distinctive underground New Zealand movements connected with the Xpressway label since the late 1980s was at something of a low ebb.

It was a pretty strong album, though. While lacking the acute, documentary sense of time and place found on his most famous solo album Last Great Challenge in a Dull World (1989), or the dense, depressive coherency of its follow-up Electricity(1994), it does channel Jefferies' familiar melancholic classicism. As always, strong correlations of meaning and emotion within the songwriting line up behind the weary but gorgeous grain of his voice (always the best access point for a neophyte), and the solitary space evoked by the artist's interaction with his recording equipment.

On Closed Circuit, the album charts a course away from Jefferies' increasingly disenchanted working life, as the musician caught between two equally depressing spheres, that of the international music business and success within New Zealand's mainstream popular culture, heading towards the end point, the gorgeous 'Ghost Writer', where Peter quietly gets off the train and goes home (accompanied on this track by the appropriately sonically train-obsessed, much-neglected Australian guitarist Chris Smith).

Shortly before that the album's climactic point was one of the best songs he ever wrote. Riding a murky and melancholic combination of rolling piano, lush synthesizer (in a pre-80s vein) and gently persistent rhythms, 'State of the Nation' is a key example of Jefferies' most characteristic mode, the introspective self-interrogation.

This is an idiom at which Peter has always been a master (and why meeting him in person can sometimes be quite alarming: it's unexpected to find such a genial and motormouthed enthusiast, when you're used to the austere soundworld). This is high-precision compaction: small flakes of embedded trauma and anxiety obsessively reworked and polished into something much more measured and elegant, but never quite removing the rawness of the original impetus. In this case, it's a song where the artist directly addresses his approaching middle-age, questioning the value and meaning of a lifetime's obsessive relationship with sound and music, and deciding to leave the question open.

I'd decided it was the last Peter Jefferies song.

Soon after, he gave away all or threw away all his gear – the electric piano and amp went to a friend, but the drumkit went into a skip. He got a job. It sounds like a decent sort of job for him: teaching high school kids music, especially writing lyrics, working at a couple of different schools around the Taranaki where he grew up, where he could be close to his mother as she got older.

It seemed he had actually managed to stop.

Peter was a significant role model for artists of my generation, who showed how to present distinctive work in an international context without having to compromise either quality or singularity, how to be driven by a solitary motivation but work to string collaborations across different roles, and how to be so deeply embedded in the materiality of your work that it effects everyone around you. Aside from his earlier work with his brother Graeme as This Kind of Punishment and before that Nocturnal Projections - all of which is of great importance in the history of underground NZ music - he remains most associated with the Port Chalmers/ Dunedin label Xpressway , which Bruce Russell founded in the late 1980s.

Bruce was the organisational and marketing guy, Peter was the engineer. The label was originally formed to pick up artists that Flying Nun had decided were not commercial enough: Jefferies himself, Russell's band the Dead C, Alastair Galbraith, Peter and Alastair's band Plagal Grind, Christchurch band the Terminals, and others.

As a list, they were all superlative live performers - some still are - and have lasted the distance much better than the more contemporary indie pop strands that F.Nun chose to follow. Key to Xpressway's legacy was the label's pioneering of home recording, and understanding of the materiality of sound, and of recording equipment as an expressive but manipulable medium, rather than a tool towards reaching an externally imposed quality standard.

When some of these ideas went relatively overground in the mid to late 90s, it was tagged as “lo-fi” and even as a celebration of “bad recording”, as a kind of trash or bad taste aesthetic. In the case of Xpressway, there were a few variants on the approach. Russell's band the Dead C , with Robbie Yeats and Michael Morley, certainly took pleasure in a gleeful trashing of what rock music was “supposed” to be, keeping for themselves space to sound like a thousand parallel potential sources of the momentum-based impulses of the form, always centralised around the impossibility and necessity of repetition – they have become an essential part of international underground music history as a result.

Alastair Galbraith, along with another Dunedin native, Nigel Bunn, developed a much more psychedelicised, controlled, eclectic expressivity in relationship to equipment less concerned with the universal primality the Dead C were channelling, in favour of finding new kinds of sounds to fill with old kinds of song and sound forms, a mixture of tradition and experimentation again channelled through noise and other distortions, as appropriate.

The key work of the label in this sense was probably Peter's 1989 album Last Great Challenge in a Dull World. In it, Peter presented a new paradigm for the scope and detail possible in an album recorded on 4-track at home. It combines extremely precise field recordings, improvisational collaboration and a sonic mix from classicism to abstraction to make up what is both a song cycle about - and a sonic document of - being a Dunedin artist in 1988.

It has always been an album with a mythology built into it, and one that draws its listeners deep inside. An obsessive approach to its assembly has been reflected in a coterie of obsessive listeners – certainly I've been one of them for twenty years. The early response was generally drawn from the international underground, but since the album has come successfully back into circulation last year, courtesy of US label De Stijl , it has somehow become more respectable – it's now being heard and appreciated for it's maturity and depth, rather than as part of the weird underground cult of South Island naysayers. For instance, a 2013 review by Graham Reid gets the album in ways that would have seemed very unlikely for the same reviewer in 1990. Is this how classics are formed? Certainly it didn't help Peter's ability to sustain a practice in New Zealand at the time.

The integrity and specificity of his approach has been borne out by history. De Stijl's tagline for the re-release is a rare one: that the album has undergone no remastering whatsoever, an inside joke about the degree to which this album remains fully in focus as a recording project, despite being home-recorded on 4-track.

Jefferies and his brother Graeme had begun their engagement with home recording after disappointment with their last EP as the Nocturnal Projections, Understanding Another Year in Darkness (1983), a fairly synthetic studio recording, that completely failed to reflect their idea of the band's sound. Their next project was the considerably more hermetic This Kind of Punishment, which stripped the recording process back to basics embedded in their own resources, to slowly rebuild from scratch at home a new methodology based around listening and patience, laterality and minimalism, that reached a remarkable early maturity in the 1984 album A Beard of Bees.   

The public reception of Last Great Challenge... often missed some of the most interesting details of this process. Jefferies' collaboration with the Dead C on 'Guided Tour of a Well Known Street'  is well noted, but misunderstood: the Dead C here are the equivalent of a field recording of the ambient sound of Port Chalmers, sourced from an improvised rehearsal, channelled into song-form about living in the real world, via assidious editing after the fact.

Similarly 'Domesticia', a song Jefferies wrote walking up up the hill from the dairy after getting a pie for lunch, features some equally carefully edited recordings of washing machines, one full and one half empty.

Part of Russell's original plan for the label – and key to its ongoing status - has been the careful exploitation of international musical networks towards licencing records internationally. After its original release on tape, Last Great Challenge... caught the ear of Chicago-based indie label Ajax who re-released it along with the earlier Xpressway 7” 'Fate of the Human Carbine' / 'Catapult'. 

Around the world, other labels picked up various other Xpressway artists, and by the time the label closed in 1993, all its records were licencing deals, rather than domestic releases.

The way Xpressway is written about now, with a kind of vaguely disengaged canonisation, doesn't really say much about how that world and these characters have shifted. Similarly, the idea of that period as a kind of belle epoque ignores the way that most of the key figures from this world are still active and vital, if in different contexts.

Take Bruce Russell, once the great catalyser and believer in this music, now gone overground as arbiter of taste on a surprisingly diverse set of corners of NZ music and audio art, ranging from archivist-in-chief at Flying Nun to editor of the “misfits and malcontents” themed sound art book recently published by the Audio Foundation, Erewhon Calling. He operates as a highly skilled and aggressive networker who has placed himself successfully into the system.

Then, at the other end of the scale there's Alastair Galbraith who lives outside Dunedin with his family, concentrating on drift-based solitary exploration in relative poverty, occasionally making his way into town to play shows anywhere but bars – some of the best recent ones have been churches, including an absolute jaw-dropper to about 8 people in a Port Chalmers church a year or two back – extending his recording process into instrument building, and living defiantly outside and in opposition to such systems, as one of our most interesting artists.

Jefferies followed a different route again, leaving Dunedin at the end of Xpressway to have a serious go at becoming an international working musician. The arrangement with Ajax had proved the launching pad Russell had intended. As Peter says, after the re-release of the 'Catapult' / 'Carbine' single, the shit started to roll downhill for him. Another Dunedin album, Electricity (1994) followed before he left for wider pastures, touring internationally a lot, reissuing the This Kind of Punishment back catalogue, being based for a while in Vancouver, and releasing 3 more solo albums, ending with Closed Circuit. During that time, he developed a new performance instrument, the piano-drum, where he played bass lines on the electric piano with his left hand, snare drum with his right, kick drum with his left foot and piano pedal with his right, and sang as well.

During this period I was living in Wellington, and he toured New Zealand a lot. I filmed all of the 1996-97 NZ tour with my partner of the time, for a project that was never completed, and Peter and I became friends. He'd sometimes stay with me in Wellington, and I took the title of my first film from one of his songs. I think the last time I saw him was when he played the final gig at the original Bar Bodega in Wellington. After that he just fell off the map.

I kept listening to the records of course – they sink in pretty deeply. An appreciation of and affinity for the work of the Jefferies brothers was a big part of how I got together with my current partner, as well as fairly fundamental to my idea of existing independently as an artist. The model of reworking the tools of artistic practice to suit a smaller, less industrial and more personal way of working, through patient attention and listening has been especially important, and a lesson I think goes beyond music. I developed a respect for his decision to stop, and to be active instead in building a new world to live in, away from the underground music one – as he once sang, “What would you like yourself to be?”..

So, I have to admit to a certain mixture of bemusement and shock when I heard he'd come out of retirement to play his first gig with Amanda Palmer. I wouldn't say I'd been a fan, or even paid much attention – as a young friend said, she'd had her share of 13 year old glass-throwing incidents when she was listening to Palmer, and that fitted my limited understanding. She seemed an artist more concerned with extroverted social activism than with the kind of introspective self-interrogation I associated with Peter, but apparently she was a big fan, and the influence is apparent in her staccato approach to the piano.

She reflects at length on the process in her Livejournal post about tracking Peter down – a process in which the editor of this publication had a critical role – and about his importance to her.  As Peter told me, she's the main reason he's playing again now, after she talked him into supporting her in Auckland last year.

Although this is his first headlining show in over a decade, it won't be his last. He's planning to play again in the U.S. over the school holidays later in the year to coincide with the re-release of Electricity on San Francisco label Superior Viaduct, and maybe even the rest of New Zealand over the coming summer.

For this Saturday's show at the King's Arms, he'll be playing in three of the four line-ups, starting with a solo acoustic guitar set, followed by the New Plymouth band Little Moon, who will also play as his backing band Substatic. A great enthusiast for new discoveries, Jefferies is characteristically ebullient about this fairly newly formed duo, admitting he's partly wanting to play solo first to make sure everyone turns up in time to see them. There'll also be a trio with old friend Shayne Carter and Peter on drums, plus one other potential illustrious third, a kind of reunion of the very early version of Carter's band Dimmer, and even the very rare opportunity of a live version of their classic 1986 single 'Randolph's Going Home'.  That'll be followed by a band set of Peter playing piano with the guys from Little Moon as Substatic. It promises to be quite the evening. 

Peter Jefferies, Shayne Carter and Little Moon play the King's Arms in Auckland on Saturday night. Tickets here.


How is Government evaluating its welfare reforms, and why aren’t we allowed to know?

by Michael Fletcher

Welfare reform is one of the Government’s flagship policies. By any standards it’s a major public policy initiative – arguably the biggest change to our welfare system since the introduction of the Domestic Purpose Benefit 40 years ago.

Government estimates the changes will save more than $1 billion over four years and reduce the number of people on benefit by up to 46,000. More importantly, the goal of the reforms is to help people at risk of long-term benefit receipt into employment to attain better social and economic outcomes, higher standards of living, less risk of poverty and extra resources for their children.

The impacts of the reforms are therefore a matter of major public interest. They affect not just the 300,000 or so people and their families who are on benefit but all of us, both as taxpayers and as people who may at some point need social security support ourselves.

It’s disturbing therefore that the Ministry of Social Development is refusing to make public its welfare reform evaluation plan, the document which sets out how they intend to assess the reforms’ effects.

To date, the main information about the impacts of the reforms has been the annual estimates of "future welfare liability". These million-dollar reports from Australian consultants Taylor Fry use a black box which, in simplified terms, tallies up the change in the number of people on benefit giving extra points for reductions in the number of people such as sole parents and the disabled who might typically need a benefit for longer. The Minister lauded the most recent report (see Minister’s press release here) which estimated a $4.4 billion reduction in lifetime welfare costs due to factors that MSD is judged to have some capacity to influence. (NB: Since this post was submitted the ministry has published its "first internal actuarial report produced in relation to the forward liabilities of the welfare system.")

That’s fair enough. A reduction in welfare numbers is potentially a good sign. What it doesn’t do is tell you anything about the lives or circumstances of those who’ve left the benefit, or those who never got through the Work and Income processes to get the benefit they need. Have these people’s lives improved? Are they in secure jobs that give them and their kids a higher standard of living? In other words, are the reforms achieving the objectives claimed for them?

These are questions you’d expect the evaluation plan to address. But the Ministry of Social Development – in consultation with the Minister’s Office - has decided it is not in the public interest that the public should know how the reforms will be evaluated.

Last December Dr Simon Chapple from Otago University wrote to the Ministry asking for a copy of the evaluation plan and related material. He was told six relevant documents existed, including the Welfare Reform Evaluation Plan – July 2013, but that all were being withheld under provisions of the Official Information Act.

Two reasons were given. The first was to protect the conduct of public affairs through the free and frank expression of opinion. The second was that because the information is under active consideration the wider public interest of effective government would not be best served by release. Sure, some of the other documents cited were evaluations and they may not yet be complete and ready for release, but the evaluation plan itself?  Eighteen months after the Cabinet decisions and with some evaluations already underway how can that be?

So, on 1 April I also wrote to MSD and simply requested a copy of the plan. First I was told "we don’t usually release these". Really? Since when have policy evaluation plans not been publicly available?

Then I was told I would need to start over and make a formal OIA request. I pointed out that any request of this sort is automatically governed by the OIA so my request of 1 April comes under the Act – and must be dealt with ‘as soon as practicable and in any case no later that 20 working days after it was received’.

Then on 24 April I received a letter saying MSD "needs to extend the time available to answer my request". I complained to the Ombudsman and finally, on 8 May, I received a reply, declining my request. The Ministry explained (the law requires an explanation) that:

… [the] evaluations are expected to continue for a long period with further analysis as more developments occur. As these evaluations continue, the evaluation plan is also constantly evolving to ensure that it can best meet the demands of this large, complex and long-term piece of work. Therefore I must withhold the Welfare Reform evaluation plan under section 9(2)f(iv) of the Official Information Act as it is still under active consideration.

This, frankly, is nonsense. It is common in long evaluation projects for policies to change part way through and, yes, sometimes that does mean amending the evaluation process. That is no justification for keeping the original plan secret. An agreed evaluation plan must be available to the evaluators so they can begin their work. It should be publicly available as well. If the Ministry’s logic is to be accepted, the public could never know how a government proposed to measure the effects of any policy until after the event as future "developments" would always be a possibility.

I have asked the Ombudsman to investigate the Ministry’s decision. But as the Minister and the Ministry both know, the Ombudsman’s Office is overloaded and decisions take many months, by which time the work will have been done, the evaluation money spent. Besides, as the Ministry told me, they hope to be able to release some material in “late 2014”. That is to say, after the election is safely over.

Twenty months after the first of the welfare reforms took effect and with an election just a few months away, we not only don’t know whether the reforms are improving New Zealanders’ wellbeing; we don’t even know how Government and the Ministry intends to measure whether or not they are. The reforms are in large part based on a strategy that one previous head of Work and Income was said to have described as ‘shaking the tree’ – imposing conditions and obligations on beneficiaries that make it harder to stay on (or get onto) a benefit.

It’s an easy strategy for reducing welfare numbers and the ‘fiscal liability’. And, yes, it will identify some who could be working. But it also risks shaking off some of the most vulnerable, those without the strength and determination to cling on to the tree however much they may need it. Most don’t have the tenacity and articulateness of Sarah Wilsonwho has documented her dealings with Work and Income.

Neither do we know if the reforms are succeeding in their basic aim of helping people into employment. One thing we do know is that in its recent Delivering social services every day report the Government states that “every week, around 1,500 people leave benefit into employment”. That is actually 11 percent fewer than the 1,690 1999-2005 weekly average reported by the Welfare Working Group in its Issues report. It’s likely the flow of people into jobs will increase as the labour market picks up, but on the face of it, it doesn’t appear that the new policies and operational processes have resulted in any sort of step-change in placements into employment.

Welfare reform is about so much more that saving on benefit costs. As the Government and the Welfare Working Group both argued, its objectives are to improve the lives of ordinary New Zealanders. Publicly available monitoring and evaluation information on these outcomes – on what is happening in the real world outside Taylor Fry’s black box – is the only way we can judge the success or otherwise of the reforms. So why is the Ministry of Social Development hiding behind the Official Information Act to avoid telling us how they plan to do that? Are they only interested in cutting the fiscal liability?

Michael Fletcher is a social sciences lecturer at AUT University in Auckland.