The American economist Milton Friedman once said that it’s a great mistake to judge things by their intentions rather than by their results. Unfortunately it’s a mistake repeatedly made by agenda-driven reformers on a mission to create the perfect society. A Radio New Zealand Spectrum programme brought one such instance to public attention earlier this month.
Until 2007, intellectually disabled people in New Zealand were exempted from minimum wage laws. This meant they could be employed doing menial work in facilities known as sheltered workshops.
It was a system whereby thousands of New Zealanders who were incapable of holding down proper jobs were nonetheless able to occupy themselves each day doing simple, repetitive work.
They were paid only a token sum, but the money wasn’t important. What really mattered was the companionship they enjoyed in the workplace and the satisfaction they got from having a job to go to each day.
It was an arrangement long supported by the IHC (originally the Intellectually Handicapped Children’s Society) and by parents with working-age disabled children. The IHC was itself the country’s biggest operator of sheltered workshops.
Then ideology intervened. Disability became politicised.
Sheltered workshops may have admirably met the needs of those working in them, but reformers looked at them and saw only exploitation and discrimination.
Where others saw contented workplaces, left-wing activists saw a vulnerable minority being deprived of their rights. Sue Bradford, then a Green MP, called it “systemic oppression”.
Pumped up with reformist zeal, the Labour government in 2007 repealed the Disabled Persons Employment Promotion Act, which since 1960 had allowed disabled workers to be employed for less than the minimum wage.
A system was adopted whereby everyone working in sheltered workshops was individually assessed to see whether they were capable of mainstream employment at normal pay rates. Those who were judged incapable were given a continuing exemption from the minimum wage law.
The IHC applauded. It too had been ideologically captured. Over opposition from many of its bewildered members, the IHC seized the opportunity to shut down 76 workshops and “business units”.
In Blenheim, locals were so appalled by IHC’s plan to sell a nursery and plant centre which employed intellectually disabled workers that a community trust was set up to buy the business and keep it going.
Part of the problem was that the IHC itself had changed radically. Originally an organisation run largely by parents and volunteers, it had evolved into a government-funded Wellington bureaucracy led by disability-sector careerists.
The reforms had predictable consequences. True, a minority of the more “able” disabled found paying work. But the closure of those sheltered workshops deprived hundreds of intellectually disabled people of the satisfaction of going to work each and enjoying the camaraderie of others.
Despite extravagant promises, no satisfactory form of alternative activity was found for most of those tipped out of work.
Where previously they had delivered firewood, done ironing, mowed lawns, made letterboxes, worked in garden centres and sorted goods for recycling, they now watched TV, sat idly in “day bases” or went for walks. This was euphemistically called community participation.
In many cases, denied constructive work, their behaviour deteriorated. Some became difficult to manage.
Parents and caregivers were left bitter and disenchanted. Many felt betrayed by the IHC, the very organisation they looked to for support.
Of course none of this directly affected the well-paid ideologues, politicians and bureaucrats in Wellington, who were safely insulated from the consequences of their policies.
Now it seems the reformers aren’t satisfied with the damage already done in the name of bogus “inclusiveness”. As Spectrum reported, the exemption permits issued to more than 800 disabled workers nationwide are now under threat of cancellation.
This is presumably Phase II of the project commenced in 2007 – the final solution, if you like.
Let’s give the reformers the benefit of the doubt and assume they want to create an ideal world in which no one is disadvantaged.
The problem is, they’re willing to make people suffer for it to happen.
Spectrum focussed on Southland Disability Enterprises in Invercargill, one of a small number of independent sheltered workshop operators that continued to function after IHC abandoned the field.
The 80 disabled people working at SDE were all issued with exemption permits, but now the government wants to cancel those permits. If that happens, SDE will cease to be viable and the people who happily work there will be out of jobs. This is madness.
The Wellington bureaucrat driving the change explained that exempting disabled people from the minimum wage law was “out of step with modern thinking”.
She went on to pronounce that people with disabilities mustn’t be treated differently from others. Problem is, they are different. Or perhaps she hasn’t noticed.
And what’s being offered in return? Nothing at all, if you unpicked the bureaucrat’s vague and non-committal reference to possible subsidies, employment supports and training schemes.
I was reminded of the far-fetched promises made in 2007, when the reformers cruelly misled intellectually disabled people with phantasmic visions of the fulfilling new life that awaited them.
I wonder what National’s Invercargill MP Sarah Dowie (no, I hadn’t heard of her either) is doing to save the jobs of the SDE workers. This is her government, after all. Or do politicians find it too hard to resist agenda-driven public servants? If that’s the case, we’re in deep trouble.
I started this column with a quotation, so I’ll finish with another one – this time from the great Christian writer C S Lewis, who memorably said: “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive.”
Karl du Fresne blogs at karldufresne.blogspot.co.nz. First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail.