I have many fears for the next three years of government. It will come as no surprise that, selfishly, one of the biggest concerns for me is welfare reform.
The latest reforms, which were responsible for eliminating the sickness benefit as we knew it and merging it with the unemployment benefit as ‘Jobseeker Support’ have already had a significant impact on myself and many others. I am lucky enough to have a medical deferral against my file. To keep that, I have to provide a new medical certificate every three months to prove my arthritis hasn’t magically disappeared.
I honestly have no idea what the next reforms will look like, only that they’re inevitable. As I said in this post, it’s always been a major National goal to get as many people off the benefit as possible. They claim to be doing that at a rate of 16000 people per week – a number which has since been debunked. (See the comments on that last link). They’re also heavily focused on what they call ‘long term beneficiaries’ – ie, anyone who has been accepting a benefit for longer than a year. The goal is to get benefit numbers back to what they were 16 years ago in 1998. That seems highly unrealistic and only achievable through brutality.
I had my first meeting at WINZ yesterday since what happened in Ashburton. It’s always been an intimidating place for me, and now it’s exponentially worse. I am well aware of the need to protect both staff and clients. But holy heck. There was a guard outside the door, who I understand is a police officer. Then two in the main entrance. They both greeted me in a friendly way. There was one more before I reached the desk, then others roaming around. The walls are papered with big signs about how all threats will be taken seriously.
As an anxious person, I just about had a panic attack on the spot. Luckily, one of the staff saw that I was struggling with my cane and offered me a seat so I didn’t have to stand in the queue.
The meeting went fine. My new case manager is kind and she makes sure I’m doing ok. I handed over my new medical certificate, which says that, realistically, I probably won’t be able to work for the next two years. I plan to prove that wrong.
Earlier this year, I did an Official Information Act request for my personal file from WINZ. I asked for all correspondence between WINZ staff, following my revelations about my experiences in the media, and for any other information relating to me. The folio I got back was massive and some of the things I discovered in it were horrifying.
I haven’t published all of that because I am afraid to. But in the light of recent discussions about government surveillance, I do want to share one thing. During that time I was in the media, WINZ staff monitored this site and all of my public social media. They also examined CCTV footage of me in the office. This isn’t against the law as far as I can tell but it sure scared the hell out of me.
So at my meeting yesterday, I asked my case manager if I was, in fact, still being monitored in this way. She went to find out and called me later with this answer.
“Work and Income do monitor print and web media in regards to Work and Income so from time to time this would include your website.”
I understand that I choose to publish here. The social contract of putting information on the internet is that others will read it. I guess the issue with this particular situation is the power balance.
I’m not breaking the law. I’m not about to write a blog about how I’m committing benefit fraud, and I doubt that’s why they’re watching. But this is a government agency that controls my ability to live. And, as I said, I’m an anxious person. What if I say something that is considered the wrong thing?
I’m sure it’s this sort of thinking that leads to a lot of people being silent when they have important stories to tell.
As I said yesterday, I’m still dealing with the results of this election and all the possible huge fallouts. I’m encouraged to see so many people already banding together and looking at new ways to move forward, new ways to help each other, new ways to make sure that, though the government has a lot of power, we, the people, have more.
We can still influence the future. We can still keep our leaders accountable. And we can still give voices to those who need them most.