Two election forums, 11 candidates and me.

An opinion piece by Stacey Ryan.

Ahh, Election Season in NZ. We all know what that means. Politicians going face to face to battle it out for the top spot. But, what so many people don’t seem to realise, is that these politicians are actually interviewing for a job. We, the everyday people, are their interviewers and future employers. The questions we ask, the answers they give, the votes that we make will determine the future of our country. We are the ones that decide who gets in and who doesn’t. The future of Aotearoa does not lay in the hands of the politicians, it rests on the shoulders of all of us.

This season, I’ve gotten a lot more involved in the political trail than I have ever before. Last year, I made a video with United Community Action Network (UCAN) about their Health Charter, and the basic requirements for a healthier NZ. Earlier this year, I became UCAN’s Youth Advisor. Through this work, I teamed up with Tick 4 Kids and their Raise Your Voices youth caucus. We had the opportunity to take part in 2 Election 2020 Forum events, focused on asking the Parties the big questions that youth have about the state of NZ.

The first event was hosted by St. Peter’s on Willis and MC’d by Radio New Zealand presenter Suzy Ferguson. The Enough For All forum focussed on income support, wealth inequality and housing. I had the chance to share my experience of the welfare system, and then question candidates from Labour, National, Greens, NZ First and TOP if their parties would promise to increase core benefit rates if elected and why.

Stacey is standing at the speakers podium, Suzy is behind her and the candidates are on her right watching her.
Stacey asking her question of candidates at the Enough for All forum.

First let me tell you why this issue is particularly important to me. For 8 years now, I’ve lived with a chronic health condition which leaves me in pain every day. Some days I can’t even get out of bed. I’ve had a few jobs over the years, like waitressing and cleaning, but I’ve had to give them all up because of the pain. I’ve never hidden my illness in interviews, and the majority of my bosses have been accommodating.

But there’s a problem. Most employers won’t take a chance on a chronically ill person. They need someone they can rely on to be there for all their scheduled shifts. I completely understand where they’re coming from.

I can’t work anymore. My health has gotten worse since I had to leave my job last year. Now, I have no choice but to rely on the government for an income. My parents and siblings shouldn’t have to fund my life, especially when they have their own families to care for.

Ministry of Social Development offices up and down the country have entire walls printed with:

“He aha te mea nui o te ao. He tāngata, he tāngata, he tāngata.
What is the most important thing in the world? It is people, it is people, it is people.”

So why do they not treat us like we are? Why am I made to provide a medical certificate, at my own expense, every 3 months, when I’ve been sick for 8 years? Apparently, because I’m one of those rare cases that don’t actually have an official diagnosis, I have to earn my exemption from being forced to apply for jobs that I can’t do. I get $7.90 a week extra from the government to cover my doctor visits and medications. One of my medications alone is $45 a month. It doesn’t balance out. It’s not fair and it doesn’t make sense. And there are a lot of people around the country who have it worse than me.

After hearing my story and question, TOP’s Geoff Simmons first said ‘ouch’ followed closely by a no. He went on to explain TOP agrees that restrictions on benefits need to be eased, and supports a Universal Basic Income of $250 a week. This is guaranteed to every person over 18, and will be topped up accordingly for people who cannot work for any reason.

Labour’s Andrew Little answered yes, and there’s more to be done. He reminded us that Labour has increased core benefit rates by $25, and doubled this year’s Winter Energy Payment. While COVID-19 had “derailed” the Welfare Expert Advisory Group’s recommendations from being actioned, he said Labour is keen to see them happen.

NZ First’s Taylor Arneil said yes, and that they supported the $25 increase as part of the current coalition government. However, he said NZ First’s priority was to get people off welfare by offering incentives to work. But he agreed that people who are unable to work because of an illness or disability should be properly supported by the welfare system.

National’s Nicola Willis answered no, they would not increase core benefit levels. She explained that National think the most important thing is to incentivise people on the benefit to work to help grow the economy, and that can only happen if benefits are lower than minimum wage.

Green Party’s Ricardo Menéndez-March answered yes, “because a person’s right to a life with dignity has nothing to do with their employment status.” He said that people on the benefit provide great value to their communities by caregiving, community work and volunteering. The Green Party is committed to providing a guaranteed minimum income that would remove all sanctions and obligations, increasing the minimum welfare bracket to $325 a week with additional supplements. They would also reform ACC to an agency of comprehensive care for all.

To be honest, I was a bit worried about some of the answers I got. So I elaborated on my condition and the pain I experience daily, and asked the politicians if their parties would like to force me, and people like me into work. Their responses? Awkward, stuttering and back-peddling from most.

You can watch the full Enough For All event here.

The second event was titled Child Health and Well-Being, held at St. Luke’s Conference Centre and MC’d by Wellington City Councillor Tamatha Paul. This event was specifically targeting our young people’s physical and mental health. COVID-19 is not the only pandemic gripping the country. Over the last decade, we have seen a drastic and devastating rise in the number of our youth who are taking their own lives. I didn’t tell my own story this time, instead I told the story of NZ.

Three young women sit on seats smiling and holding their notes in their hands.
Three young women sit on seats smiling and holding their notes in their hands.
Stacey Ryan, Sarah-Jane and Leilani Naufahu prepare to ask their questions at the Child Health and Well-Being forum.

According to UNICEF’s latest Innocenti Report Aotearoa ranks 35th out of 41 countries in the OECD and UN for youth suicide rates at 14.9 in every 100,000. Using their calculations, with 804,934 people under the age of 25 in Aotearoa in January of this year, more than 120 of our youth will lose their lives to suicide this year alone.

My question to the representatives from Labour, Greens, National, TOP, ACT and NZ First was whether their parties were committed to improving the access that our youth who are at breaking point, and how they planned to do that.

ACT’s Grae O’Sullivan started us off with an emphatic yes. He touched very briefly on how members of his own family have suffered from poor mental health, and that his wife is a mental health professional who specialises in this area.“ACT has a comprehensive mental health policy,” he told the room. ACT wants to “eliminate the DHB Lottery”, by taking the $2billion annually spread over all 20 DHBs and allocating it to one mental health service.

Green’s co-leader Marama Davidson joined via Zoom, giving another solid yes. She started with work by Te Oranga Hinengaro, the Māori Mental Wellbeing Report, stating “we need to fully and directly support more Kaupapa Māori and Pasifika organisations and community organisations in order to respond to the community need.” She went on to explain that young Māori men are disproportionately represented when it comes to suicide. When Māori people are more connected to the roots of their ancestors and culture, they are proven to have better mental health. She goes on to say that removing stresses about income and housing are key factors to improving the mental well being of our youth. The Green Party also supports the implementation of an independent, properly resourced and completely autonomous Māori Health Authority.

TOP’s Jessica Hammond exclaimed “yes, the answer is yes”. She told us that the form of this help had to be self referral because so many people are finding it hard to access the services they need. TOP wants there to be community services where “every door is the right door, because there is no wrong door”. She went on to say that TOP’s top priorities are addressing the social determinants of mental health, such as housing and a UBI. She elaborated on the UBI, saying that families would also get $40 per child.

NZ First’s Taylor Arneil, filling in for Tracey Martin, had a quick yes adding that as part of the current government, much had been done to these ends already. He said that the driving factor for this was the harm related to social media. Yes, he was using his phone, but he was filling in at the last moment and had it for notes. (If you have access to Netflix, I highly recommend watching The Social Dilemma.)

Labour’s Minister of Health Chris Hipkins told us “absolutely yes.” He went on to elaborate on what has been done in the last three years about health care and mental well being in schools. Labour had announced their mental health policy just the day before, which includes a nurse in every secondary school in the country. He also spoke about how in education, students are not taught the value of failure. So much pressure is put on them that they have to do well, they have to have high grades, they have to be the best. “Young people need to learn that failure makes eventual success so much sweeter.” His time ran out as he was also talking about the dangers of social media.

National’s Alfred Ngaro also said yes, and the picture is much bigger than we realise. 1 in 5 Kiwis struggle with mental health. That’s 20% of us. 1 in 9 adults in the workforce have low to no mental wellbeing. National supports the implementation of a dedicated Minister of Mental Health. They also want to establish $10million to fund mental health in small and medium businesses, so that people can be supported in their workplace. They want to increase services in rural areas, and also require schools to deliver skills based mental health services. They say there must be a whānau based approach to mental health services.

Truthfully? I like most of these ideas. Self-referral is already a thing though, and if you call crisis response for someone you’re worried about, they will often ask for that person to call them back. If that person calls them, and pretends to not be at a point where they need help, then crisis teams won’t respond and intervene. This is part of the problem, you can’t get help for your mates, they have to do it themselves. And a lot of our young men won’t.

I couldn’t help but imagine how great it would be if they could all agree the situation is so bad for youth mental health we need urgent action on these things, and stop fighting over whose policy is better? Again truthfully, some policies could use some work. I never thought that I would sit in a room full of such diverse politicians and agree with the majority of what was being said.

You can watch the full Child Wellbeing video here.

Remember NZ, we are the ones that will determine the future of our country. Politicians work for us.

Stacey Ryan is United Community Action Network’s Youth Advisor. She has a chronic health condition which means she’s needed government support for eight years. She feels failed by the system. Stacey is also partnering with Tick For Kids as part of the youth caucus “Raise Your Voices” for the 2020 election.