Just like in 1991, New Zealand's governing National Party is attacking both the waged and unwaged wings of the working class at the same time. The Aotearoa Workers Solidarity Movement interviewed Paul Blair of the Rotorua Welfare Action Group about their response to National’s assault on beneficiaries (for example, by cutting emergency benefits and forcing many sickness and domestic purposes beneficiaries to work). They held an incendiary protest on July 12 in Rotorua.
What is your personal and political background?
Working class Catholic grew up in Canterbury/Bankstown area of Sydney Australia. My father was a member of the Australian communist party in the early fifties when it was banned by the State. Came to NZ in 1969 basically to dodge the draft into the Vietnam war and then ended up staying. Worked as a truck driver, labourer, and in low paid jobs. Learnt lessons of unionism as a unionised driver with the Coca Cola company in Sydney in the sixties.
Benefited from free University education in Auckland in the seventies, turned on by Marxist thought, and worked as a teacher and later graduated in law from Waikato Uni and admitted to the bar in 2009. Went on first political march in 1976 against attacks on DPB’s. Politicised by the 1981 Springbok tour and lost all respect for “Law” and “State”. I describe myself as a left socialist-anarchist-atheist.
Can you give some specifics about the recent beneficiaries demonstration in Rotorua?
The rally/demonstration theme was chosen so that if only a handful turned out the demonstration could still go ahead without losing credibility. On the other hand if a good crowd turns up we could march on the road. As it turned out we had about a hundred people (see photos) turn out so we marched around to the National Party Offices with our demands. A good turn out for Rotorua in the middle of winter.
The core aims included to get the issue of attacks on beneficiaries and their children out into the public media to lift the level of debate and to expose the lies and deceit of the National Government and their plans for the future of the Welfare State in NZ.
To continue to build a genuine legitimate and authentic political fight back from the class of people outside the paid workforce and now under attack from Minister Bennett and John Key’s right wing National government.
To create a media and community platform from which to call for solidarity between the “working poor” and the “not-working” poor or so called social security claimants. To bring out the interconnections and shared experience between low paid workers and beneficiaries.
We burnt minister Bennett in effigy to get media attention to our plight and to put our own militant stamp of “direct action” on the demo. Also Bennett is lying to the media and to the public about the intended welfare reforms and the must vulnerable people in NZ are being attacked by her.
As the march took off from WINZ on the way to National Party HQ in Rotorua some construction workers across the road started yelling out “get a job” etc. Mostly the public just came out of the shops and looked at us in amazement. Good pictures of the burning in Rotorua Daily Post and NZ Herald, Te Karere and some snippets on TV1.
Yes for the reasons given it was a success and the crowd of 100 grass roots people all on social security benefits were militant and powerful. The demo was organised by a loose coalition we called the Rotorua Welfare Action Group (RWAG). My Union the RPU (Rotorua Peoples Union) played a key supportive role in the organisation of the demo. The RWAG was a core group of about 6 - 8 activists/people. The RPU mails out to about 350 social security claimants.
How are conditions for beneficiaries and the employed in Rotorua and the surrounding region?
The Rotorua District has about 7,500 main benefits being paid that’s unemployed, DPB, sickness, invalids etc benefits but some would be married and some single and some would have children associated with them. So approximately 9,000 adults and maybe 4 or 5 thousand children completely dependant on social security payments and directly affected by Bennett’s Future Focus Bill live in the Rotorua District. There would not be anywhere near 900 “jobs” available at any given time in Rotorua let alone 9,000 “jobs”. (These figures do not include those on National Super).
What do you see as the future direction of the country? What do you think can/should be done to remedy future problems?
The direction the National Government is taking the country as a whole is in the direction of right wing neo-liberalism that perpetuates the lie that there are “jobs” for everyone and refuses to admit that unemployment is a permanent structural feature of current capitalism. The attacks are mounting against the employed working class and those on so called “benefits”.
The only way out that I see is for people to organise a fight back for “Life not Jobs”. The welfare state has never been needed more than it is today however this government aims to destroy it and replace it with North American Private Charity models and impose poverty and misery on 12.5% of NZ’s population.
What are the best tactics beneficiaries and supporters can use to improve their conditions?
Organise massive demonstrations and radical and militant alternative creative actions to build significant opposition. Multi-faceted actions that utilise both legal and political/public actions to resist the violence about to be visited on our Welfare Rights.
Anything else you’d like to comment on?
There is an urgent need to continue to build also, a counter - hegemony against the hegemony of language and ideas that both Labour and National have perpetrated and developed for generations against “beneficiaries”. Whether or not NZ claimants and workers will (or can) stand up with sufficient strength against the attacks to make a difference is not at all clear in my view.
The “man” has done an amazing job on the population’s psyche and as a result many workers and claimants of social security are “self-oppressed” as they have absorbed and assimilated the “man’s” ideology as if it were their own. The right wing hegemony has been successful, very successful because like every successful hegemonic project it has managed to mask its own mechanisms.