Simon Bridges says National would punish solo parents who don't immunise their children, but not others, because it's a "clear cause-and-effect lever... within in our power."
The proposal to cut benefits for solo parents who fail to get their kids immunised is one of many hardline welfare National suggested this week. It quickly came under fire for targeting solo parents and letting other parents - those receiving Working for Families credits, for example - off the hook.
"I have no sympathy for anti-vaxxers. But this proposal doesn't target all parents who don't immunise, just solo parents (mostly women)," former Labour staffer Neale Jones wrote on Twitter. "National's approach isn't about good and fair policy outcomes, it's a morality play used to punish the powerless to win middle class votes."
"It's the 'sole' bit that's most weird," said prominent lawyer Graeme Edgeler. "Two parent families reliant on the unemployment benefit? No punishment for not immunising? But also, why not families reliant on Working for Families? Etc. Kinda shows it's not a public health measure."
Quizzed on Newshub Nation about the policy, Bridges said he'd received a lot of feedback about it.
"I think this is a conversation we could have... Ultimately Government has certain levers - in the case of someone on the benefit, we have a very clear cause-and-effect lever, and that's one within in our power, if you like, to deal with."
- Benefit sanctions actually linked to long-term welfare dependency
- Benefit sanctions leaves solo mum to make painful choices for baby
- Women's benefits cut for not identifying fathers
International research and the Ministry of Social Development's own investigations have found little evidence benefit sanctions help people get people off welfare, and it's not clear if they'd convince parents opposed to vaccination to change their minds. Welfare advocates say most poor parents aren't opposed to vaccinations anyway, and sanctions would only make it more difficult for them to get their kids immunised.
"We will be guided by evidence of what will protect children, not populist rhetoric," Associate Health Minister Julie Anne Genter said, in response to National's policy. "We're focused on removing the barriers for people to get vaccinated. We're making it easier for people to do the right thing, not punishing children for adults working multiple jobs, having poor transport options, and struggling to see a GP."
Bridges didn't seem keen on applying punishments to anti-vaxxer parents who aren't on welfare.
"The jury is in on immunisation - the evidence is incredibly clear. There are no good reasons not to do it. And look, if someone ultimately, a parent, says 'we're not going to do it', well okay - I fundamentally disagree with you. But don't do it on the taxpayers' dime."
He said National has "posed a question", and he'd like to hear from people with strong views before they make it party policy.