Why politicians like the beneficiary debate

“Beneficiary bashing” has raised its meta-issue head again, so political parties can cement their identities.

National’s ‘new’ rules for beneficiaries have re-ignited the old debate over treatment of those on welfare. The political classes define themselves by whether they say the rules are about employment and responsibilities, or whether they say the rules are mean and unfair.

In recession politics, benefit arguments are not about facts or details. They’re about symbolism, acted out via polemic about attitudes to welfare.

For example, Labour knows there’s always rules about taking money from the State, and National knows there’s no jobs for people to be forced into.

National is not making the changes to save money, as none of these new rules are likely to be broken.

National is not really making the changes to stop poor behaviour, because of the 300,000 people covered, only a miniscule number of people are affected – probably only in the hundreds.

So why is National doing it, and why are Labour and the Greens complaining?

Because the beneficiary issue is actually about political identity.

Political symbolism requires statements of what you are against, and what you are for.

National is against “bludging” off the State. Labour is for helping people in need.

But we already knew that. So where is the political gain?

The gain is called ‘framing’: getting voters to side with one of the two competing ways being offered to view the situation – and thus to side with a political party.

For National, it’s important to hold their core, and a little of the middle ground. These voters dislike dislike non-triers, and bludgers, respectively.

Labour and the Greens also want to hold their core, especially given some recent instability within Labour. Rallying around ‘respect’ for beneficiaries is an easy touchstone.

National will hope that middle New Zealand sees the ‘new’ measures as fair tinkering that just insists on what ordinary people would do themselves if they were unemployed.

Labour will be hoping that although it might not gain votes from middle New Zealand, those voters will hear, and like, a message that Labour wouldn’t punish or hurt people in tough circumstances. 

All Parties will succeed in labeling themselves. Job done, yet again.

Now, to move on, if any Party is brave and inventive enough, to win votes from the undecided middle ground.

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