Paula Bennett attacks 'ridiculous comment' by Meka Whaitiri over 'fairness' for beneficiaries

Paula Bennett has described a comment by Meka Whaitiri as "ridiculous" after the Labour MP suggested beneficiaries be treated with "fairness" like "farmers and exporters".

Whaitiri, MP for Ikaroa Rāwhiti, made the suggestion in a Facebook post linking to an article about National's social services proposals released last month, promising a welfare crackdown.

National's social services discussion document included a mixture of party policies and suggestions, among them a time-limit on the dole for under 25-year-olds and sanctions on parents who don't immunise their kids. 

Whaitiri - who was removed as a minister in September last year following bullying accusations - suggested National's approach to beneficiaries is unfair, and that it's "no different to what farmers or exporters receive from the Government".

National's deputy leader Paula Bennett wrote in a Facebook post that Whaitiri's comments were "ridiculous" and that the Labour MP's "kind of thinking" is what "sees welfare dependency skyrocket".

Ministry of Social Development figures last month showed the number of people receiving the benefit at the end of September this year had risen by over 15,000 compared to the same time in 2018. 

Social Development Minister Carmel Sepuloni defended the figures at the time, pointing to New Zealand's low unemployment rate, and said the Government's trying to help people who aren't working to upskill.

Bennett said being on the dole "shouldn't be a long-term lifestyle choice".

Whaitiri hit back in a follow-up post, saying she agrees that "long-term unemployment doesn't work for anyone, which is why Mana in Mahi led by Willie Jackson is making a difference for rangatira around the country".

Mana in Mahi is a programme promising participants - who must be 18-24 - at least 30 hours of paid full-time work a week, training for an industry qualification, and things to help get started, such as new clothes. 

Employers receive a wage subsidy - at the annual Jobseeker Support rate - and support for work-readiness or pre-employment costs.  

Bennett also said Whaitiri's comments were "insulting to our hardworking farmers and exporters".

Whaitiri said in her post some people have "gone as far as saying I'm anti-farming or anti-export".

"I come from the Tairāwhiti [Gisborne] and the mighty HB [Hawke's Bay] - farming and exporting is in my DNA.

"My proposition, if it was lost on some is, do you believe those in our society that need support from the [Government] whether they are farmers, exporters or beneficiaries should be treated equally with respect and fairness?"

Whaitiri didn't specify what Government support for farmers and exporters she was referring to, and when asked to clarify she referred back to her Facebook posts.

Exporters are given assistance from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, by reducing, resolving or sometimes preventing rules that make it costly or difficult to export to a particular market, known as non-tariff barriers.

Farmers haven't been subsidised since 1984. Before then, governments had stepped in to help after the UK joined the European Economic Community which led to less demand for New Zealand produce.

The Labour government in 1984 stopped subsidising farmers as a budget crisis loomed as part of the "Rogernomics" reforms led by then-Finance Minister Sir Roger Douglas.

While National hasn't proposed subsidising farmers, the party has pushed back against the Government's proposal to make them pay for agricultural emissions, which they will have to do so from 2025.