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Would you buy your child’s future from this man?

In his Pre-Budget speech on 3 May 2017, the Prime Minister Bill English opens with: “We are known for our lifestyle, safe and friendly communities and a clean and green environment.” That impression of Kiwi reality relies on very expensive advertising campaigns to craft glossy postcards at odds with the reality of increasing inequality and poverty, family violence, homelessness, and polluted lakes and waterways.

English then confuses Parliament with a retail outlet when he says: “In 2012 the Government set ten challenging targets aimed at … delivering results for our customers.”

Customers?

The results he proposed to deliver were “reducing welfare dependency and crime, and increasing immunisation and achievement at school.”

He ends his speech using the same term: ‘customers’, for the people of this nation when he talks about the better public service targets: “The targets … demand a lot of the public service and community organisations. But … I know that we can do even better, by focusing on our customers and working together.”

There is a world of difference between a customer and a citizen. A customer buys goods and services; a citizen is a member of a country and has rights, entitlements, privileges and protections. A citizen also has fundamental and far-reaching powers to elect her/his local and national governing representatives, and hold them to account.

The Prime Minister uses the language of business to make us forget our rights as citizens and taxpayers. We pay his salary. We are not his or the state’s customers.

English says that health, education, justice and welfare are a $47 billion a year industry that he wants to “get operating more efficiently and focused on what matters to New Zealanders”. He needs to remember that health, education, justice and welfare are public goods, services for the citizens. Effectiveness (improved results) matters more than efficiency (lower cost).

The 2017 Budget revealed that the Government’s preferred ‘customers’ are those earning above $52,000 including superannuitants who are still working.  Those over 65 will benefit both from the tax cuts on their earned income as well as an increase in their net super because of the link to net average wages. Other welfare benefits do not increase with the tax cuts. In addition to this, superannuitants will also get the usual automatic increase on 1 April 2018 to reflect wage growth.

From 1 April 2018, those earning over $22,000 a year will get an extra $10.70 a week, while those earning over $52,000 will gain an extra $20.38 a week. However low-income earners who do not have Working for Families will have their tax cuts largely offset by the loss of the Independent Earner Tax Credit.

Around 35,000 of low-income superannuitants, along with many low-income families, will gain long overdue increases in the Accommodation Supplement which will increase by between $25 a week and $75 a week for a two-person household and between $40 and $80 a week for larger households.

The Budget also announced a long overdue increase in the Working for Families (WFF) package. But this is largely a catch up for past failure to index to prices. The Family Tax Credit (FTC) for the first child under 16 increases by $9.25 a week, and each subsequent child increases $17.75 to $26.81 a week. Large younger families on very low incomes are given a welcome boost but the clawback has increased from 22.5% to 25% from a low threshold of $35,000 a year.

But the increase in WFF and the tax cuts are not effective until 1 April 2018. There is no relief now, when it is desperately needed, as statistics for health, housing and education deteriorate.

There are about 40,000 admissions to hospital every year for babies and children aged 0-14 years for illnesses which are potentially preventable, and the number of such admissions has increased since 2000. Recent UK research found hospital admissions were strongly associated with income inequality.

The latest report from the Growing Up in New Zealand study shows more than half the children are in families living as tenants in predominantly private rental properties and experiencing multiple changes of address. Household crowding also remains common. What impact is this having on continuous health care and early childhood education? Yet by the time the children were four, two thirds of mothers were in paid employment, an increase from around half of mothers when the children were two. Although most families are working, they struggle to provide adequate and stable housing, health and education for their children.

In the report’s Foreword, Families Commissioner Len Cook writes: “The options children have are influenced by the aspirations of our society, by those who care for them and by the aspirations of children themselves.”

The National shopkeeper needs to consider how to be a better representative of all families in Aotearoa instead of a salesman to his preferred customers. He needs to remember the children are our future.