Why did the Key government fund Auckland Action Against Poverty?
In July 2019, a dispute arose between activist group Auckland Action Against Poverty and the Labour party’s Minister for Social Development, Carmel Sepuloni. At the heart of the matter was the cause for long lines of beneficiaries outside the Manurewa offices of Work and Income New Zealand, which had formed a few days earlier during the early hours of the morning in order to receive support from AAAP in processing their forms. According to AAAP, the lines were the fault of WINZ policy, which was initially repeated largely as fact by news website Stuff:
AAAP coordinator Ricardo Menendez March said they had been operating from the Manurewa Work and Income office on Thursdays for about two years. The queues are getting worse but are nothing new…The arrangement with Work and Income was that AAAP advocates were allowed to help 65 people in the queue on Thursday mornings. There were usually about seven advocates at the office, and they interviewed those 65 people.
He understood the number was set at 65, partly because that was the number Work and Income thought the office could handle.
A day later however, as the government responded, the language was noticeably more neutral:
AAAP and the Ministry of Social Development have butted heads over the issue, with the ministry saying Work and Income had tried to work with AAAP to manage the queues, while AAAP said that wasn’t the case and the queues would be there regardless. Sepuloni said she was advised the long queues were the result of benefit recipients being encouraged by their advocates to all congregate at the same time on Thursdays.
“The queues can be avoided if AAAP works with MSD to deal with these cases in an orderly way across the week, rather than creating a bottleneck that forces everyone to be there at once in the rain,” Sepuloni said. Work and Income regional commissioner Mark Goldsmith told RNZ numerous attempts had been made to work more closely with AAAP, “but they have refused”
Dating back to the “impact days” held by AAAP during the previous National government of John Key, the result of the group’s work assisting beneficiaries became a topic of some controversy on the eve of a MSD-organised event on child poverty. Back in 2016, these had been held with relatively little conflict between the activists and the state, with the two even openly collaborating in one case:
A political action group which aims to expose a culture of “harassment and intimidation” by Work and Income is getting help to do it from the Ministry of Social Development.
Auckland Action Against Poverty (AAAP), founded by anti-poverty campaigner Sue Bradford, is holding an “impact” in the South Auckland suburb of Mangere…At the training day for volunteer advocates on Monday, AAAP organiser Alastair Russell told advocates: “We don’t do benefits advocacy because we are nice people. We are doing it for a political purpose…We have negotiated a three-day occupation. For three days the culture of harassment and intimidation will change.”
Despite the political motivation behind the event, the Ministry of Social Development (MSD) has worked with AAAP to make the impact run smoothly.
Instead, AAAP would be far more known for protesting various National Party events around this time, providing the government with an easy contrast between supporters and opponents of their drastic reforms to the welfare system.
Having already been hacked back in the previous decades, the state provision of social services would see a wave of privatisation in this period, with the Key government funding a wide range of niche organisations instead. One of these groups was the Christian NGO Lifewise, which had received a grant from the Ministry of Health to create an “Individualised Funding” model for disability services. As it happens, Lifewise is closely associated with AAAP, employing Alastair Russell in his day job as a social worker.
Along with funding Lifewise, the state was also boosting the coffers of AAAP under Prime Minister Key. According to their filings with the Companies Office, AAAP received $25,000 from NZ Lotteries, which is administered by the Department of Internal Affairs, along with $4,000 through the Community Organisation Grant Scheme in the period between July 2015 and June 2016. Although Previous filings do not offer a similar breakdown, the money significantly boosted the group’s finances, making them a major player in the country’s left-wing scene.
Naturally, neither the Key government or AAAP were particularly keen to explain their relationship to the public. As a result, the obvious question that arises is whether it was a deliberate attempt to co-opt the left while National pushed through a programme of austerity, or if it was due to the wider nature of the post-modern bourgeois state. What is clear however is that AAAP emerged out of a strikingly similar world where supposedly radical groups depended on the state for their existence, providing a safe alternative to the mass movements of the early 20th century. From the Christian Socialism and bureaucratic Stalinism of the interwar period to the New Left of the 1960s, these had created a network of figureheads increasingly detached from the working-class, who were consequently isolated from power by time of the economic reforms of the 1980s and 1990s.