New MP James Meagher touches raw nerves and hearts

Peter Dunne

Peter Dunne

Wellington, December 8, 2023

Peter Dunne
Wellington, December 8, 2023

New National MP James Meagher broke the long-standing convention that Maiden Speeches should be non-controversial. 

His speech not only raised a few eyebrows but also would have struck some raw nerves.

Meagher described himself as a “walking contradiction” – “a part-Māori boy raised in a state house by a single parent on the benefit. Now a proud National Party MP in a deeply rural farming electorate in the middle of the South Island.”

He went on to chide Parties of the left that they “do not own Maori,” “the poor,” or “the workers,” and that “no party and no ideology has a right to claim ownership over anything or anyone.”

The Sir John Key example

Meagher has put his finger on what appears to be an ingrained issue within Parties of the left.

While they genuinely seek to uplift the poor and disadvantaged out of poverty and hardship and have a proud record of doing so, they have never been able to accept that many then go on to be successful in life, without the continued assistance of the state.

For example, much of Labour’s antagonism towards Sir John Key was because he was also raised in a state house by a single parent, and then went on to be an extremely successful money trader, well beyond what should have been his aspirations.

It is the same with Māori. Again, Labour has a proud record of supporting and looking after Māori, but it has never been as strong in supporting Māori aspiration or participation.

I recall asking Ta Pita Sharples after the Māori Party signed its Confidence and Supply Agreement with National in 2005, why they had done so, given their years of support for Labour going back to the days of Tahupōtiki Wiremu Rātana in the 1930s.

“It was simple,” Sharples said, “National asked us.” He said that Labour had always been happy to have Māori “in the room” but “never at the table.”

The left seems to believe that while people should be supported to live good and rewarding lives, they should not seek to go beyond that or get aspirations above their station. In their view, those who receive State support at difficult times in their lives should not only be forever grateful but should also not use that support to become independently successful later. People like Meagher and Key are uncomfortable reminders to the left of how people can triumph over difficult circumstances to flourish.

I have always believed that the basic responsibility of any government is to ensure that every citizen has an equal opportunity to succeed, regardless of their circumstances. But too often, governments have become too focused on preventing failure, ahead of promoting opportunity. And that simply leads to greater dependency. The challenge that Meagher is setting out is for the new government to trust people more to make their own decisions but with a decent safety net in place for those who cannot or fail in the process.

The Social Investment Approach

Parties of the left are often overly protective in this regard, to the extent of stifling opportunity for many by promoting excessive conformity. Their efforts to guard against social failure, frequently lead to resentment of those who succeed. At the same time, those on the right of the spectrum often go too far towards the other extreme and appear insufficiently sensitive to those in real need.

However, the new National-led coalition government has pledged to restore the social investment approach, advanced originally by Sir Bill English, to develop a much more sophisticated way of identifying those who are disadvantaged or at risk. At its heart, social investment is about applying rigorous and evidence-based social services policies to improve people’s lives, rather than continuing the broad-brush, one size fits all, approach of the last few years. Labour had abandoned social investment concepts because of their preference for universal, untargeted approaches to social assistance.

Social investment draws on the findings of long-term studies, like the Dunedin Health and Multidisciplinary Study that has been ongoing since the 1970s, as the basis for policy development. Its aim is to ensure that, to the greatest extent possible, the government’s investment in social services is always directed to where the need is most identified, and where such intervention has its highest chance of success.

A proper social investment-based approach to social services may well weaken the political left’s long-held, self-claimed mortgage on compassion for the disadvantaged that Meagher has highlighted. But far more importantly, it will shift attention to a more direct approach to disadvantage and inequality in all its aspects because of its reliance on empirical data over emotion and prejudice.

For a government that says that need will be the overwhelming determinant of access to government services and support, social investment will be a vital tool. It is therefore significant that Finance Minister Nicola Willis is also Minister for Social Investment. All eyes will now be on her and Budget 2024 to see how the policy is to be implemented so that those like Meagher are no longer seen as “walking contradictions.”

Peter Dunne is a former Minister of the Crown (1999-2017). He lives in Wellington and writes a Weekly Column.

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