PAT PILCHER likes calling a spade a spade, and he isn’t impressed at National Party head Chris Luxon’s attack on our unemployed youth.
Watching the National Party at work is a truly bizarre thing. The poor darlings are still struggling to find a capable leader to replace John Key, whose fascination with ponytails failed to land him in hot water. Over the last six-plus years, the party has had to tolerate a succession of unlikely leaders, one of whom insisted on wearing a Maga hat, another who couldn’t help referring to his colleague as “Paula Benefit” and yet another who simply had no box office appeal.
Then they got Luxon. I’m unsure how best to categorise him, but geographically challenged and politically naïve seems to be the best fit right now.
Anyone hoping Luxon would deliver fresh direction at the party’s annual conference to lead the party out of the swamp they’ve long been bogged down in must wonder if history is repeating itself, as his keynote presentation simply resorted to old-fashioned National Party beneficiary bashing without coming up with anything new.
Instead of thought leadership and a bold new direction, conference attendees got treated to the same tired political dog-whistling and outrage peddling aimed at unemployed youth. Sadly, it did little apart from demonstrating how poorly informed and utterly out of touch National has become.
While the media in attendance were dazzled by the light show and slick event production, few bothered to look critically at Luxon’s targeting of unemployed youth. He didn’t mince words on this topic either, saying, “To young people who don’t want to work: You might have a free ride under Labour, but under National, it ends.”
This might sound impressive, even powerful to the crowd of ageing National party supporters in attendance, but it’s hardly original or fresh and worse still, it’s factually correct.
Luxon said that National would channel funding away from the Ministry of Social Development to “community providers” who would offer dedicated job coaches to unemployed youth beneficiaries. To anyone who lived through the ’90s and watched governments outsource and sell off New Zealand’s silverware, Luxon’s proposed policy reeks of a stale and poorly thought-out brain-fart than anything useful.
Pulling funding away from MSD to private sector coaches might seem compelling to undecided right-leaning voters, but as always, the devil is in the detail.
First things first: aren’t there bigger fish to fry? Luxon takes aim at youth, despite the fact that the youth unemployment rate is declining. According to the latest data, youth unemployment decreased to 9.10 percent in the second quarter of 2022 from 9.59 percent in the first quarter of 2022. Then there is the overall fiscal impact to New Zealand. Youth unemployment may cost NZ millions, but there are far bigger fish to fry (albeit ones that are far less likely to resonate with the media and National party supporters), such as the whopping half a billion dollars hoovered out of New Zealand’s economy annually by multinationals exploiting tax loopholes.
If Luxon is serious about doing the right thing by NZ, he perhaps needs to re-evaluate his priorities.
What Luxon proposes is bizarrely a duplication of costs and resources with MSD. It also appears to conflict with the National Party’s deeply held ideologies of fiscal responsibility. Surely National would be aiming for a leaner and more efficient public sector? In short, Luxon’s proposal makes little sense. Fiscal responsibility aside, detail about how the proposed policy would work are scarce. Who is to manage these private sector coaches to ensure they deliver results? You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see that the whole concept could cost far more than any money saved, and its outcome appears to be at best questionable.
Worse still, Luxon appears to be addressing the politically palatable symptoms of the issue to keep the party faithful engaged rather than addressing the issue that sits at the heart of this problem.
Luxon ignored the not-so-minor fact that New Zealand has unemployed youth and a skills shortage. The situation makes no sense and should be setting off alarm bells on both sides of the house. Anyone doubting that we have a skills shortage need only check Immigration New Zealand’s long and comprehensive skill shortage list. Businesses are crying out for construction workers, engineers, health workers, social workers, ICT people, yet Luxon conveniently chose not to mention this as peddling outrage is more politically advantageous.
The real issue here isn’t unemployed youth scoring a free ride, but a growing mismatch between the education sector’s output and the needs of industry in New Zealand. There’s also the not-so-small matter of businesses being reluctant to offer on-the-job training. Surely addressing the skills gap and having the education system work more closely with industry makes far more sense than slathering another layer of complexity and cost over the top of existing MSD bureaucracy?
Luxon implies the Labour government has failed in its engagement with unemployed youth. While his narrative might appeal to the National party faithful, the reality is very different.
Under Labour’s Mana Mahi programme, which had a high representation of youth (64 percent of the 5,000 unemployed who took part in Mana Mahi were under 24 years of age), 75 percent of these youths have since not reapplied for a benefit after the programme as they gained employment. Call me crazy, but this doesn’t sound like a failure. It certainly doesn’t sound like a free ride for youth either. But then again, few of Luxon’s supporters are probably aware of this and probably don’t care.
The right and wrongs of Luxon’s keynote aside, the political dimensions of Luxon’s speech also deserve mention. Cheap shots aimed at unemployed youth may galvanise the National party’s support base. However, National still risks alienating young voters as many of its aged supporters begin to die off. Assuming youth are freeloaders is an ugly attitude that won’t play well with young voters.
Luxon also assumes that youth are happy to be on a benefit. Guess what? No one wants to subsist on a benefit, especially young people who are starting out. Instead of putting the boot into this vulnerable demographic by characterising them as seeking a free ride, wouldn’t it have been far smarter to offer them hope and maybe bring them over to National’s side? The prospect of home ownership or a career-type job is unobtainable for most youth and labelling them as freeloaders won’t endear them to the National party. Maybe Luxon should have stuck to holidaying in Te Puke?