Alan Duff's remedies for the broken hearted

Dr Bryce Wilkinson
The National Business Review
9 August, 2019

Alan Duff’s latest book – A Conversation with My Country: Where we have come from. Where we can go. – takes a characteristically thoughtful and constructive look at the pockets of pathological behaviours our welfare state has nurtured for decades.

Duff’s long-standing concern has been with the sub-world of entrenched, dysfunctional welfare dependency. His powerful 1990 novel Once Were Warriors alerted the public to the violence and dysfunction in some welfare-dependent Maori households. The 1994 movie of the book heightened its impact.

The power of that book established Duff’s skills as a writer and communicator. The 1996 sequel, What Becomes of the Broken Hearted? became a film of the same name in 1999. In all, Duff has written 16 published books.

In his novels, Duff uses fictional characters and powerful dialogue to portray the predicaments he has witnessed first-hand. What the author thinks and why is only implied.

His latest book is part biography and part memoir. It is about what he thinks about the dysfunctional situations his novels portray so vividly. In doing so, he reveals much about his (awful) early life experiences. He concedes to flaws with considerable humility.

Destroyed motivation

In assessing the core social problem, Duff writes that for three decades now it has been seemingly acceptable to be both welfare-dependent and entitled to be so “for as long as you choose.” Unnecessary long-term welfare dependency destroys motivation and spirituality. It breeds negative feelings of grievance and entitlement. It induces self-destructive lifestyle choices associated with obesity and excessive recourse to drugs and alcohol. Poverty of the spirit easily leads to poverty of the pocket.

A Conversation with My Country does not trace the origins of welfare entitlement without any offsetting obligation. One notable historical development was the establishment of the Domestic Purposes Benefit in 1973. A Maxim Institute report in 2010 documents that one of the Norman Kirk-led government’s aims in 1973 was to remove the “moral stigma” attached to single parents over the age of 16. That government thus sought to detach entitlement from reciprocal obligation and contemporary morality.

This measure was a welfare watershed in that people could alter their circumstances to make themselves eligible. That was not so easy for the pre-existing age, unemployment, sickness and disability benefits.

One legacy is parents who have little or no knowledge of civil behaviour, non-violent means of responding to issues, good parenting or the value of education. Those brought up by such parents are more likely to be victims of abuse or neglect as children and have a greater chance of becoming perpetrators as adults for obvious reasons.

The entrenched intergenerational pipeline of misery that exists today should concern everyone with an interest in New Zealanders’ wellbeing.

Duff’s “good news” message is that the problem is fixable. His book stresses the positives. He applauds the outstanding achievements of Māori in politics, sports, arts and culture in recent decades. Māori can cut it with anyone, and they do.

He sees the problems being experienced by the hard-core cases as more to do with class and culture than ethnicity. As he points out, the hard-core groups transcend ethnic boundaries, as prison demographics attest. Britain has a bigger hard-core problem than New Zealand.

Hard-core welfare

It follows that Duff does not see white racism, colonisation and material poverty as being at the heart of today’s hard-core welfare problem. He emphasises and re-emphasises that the hard-core dysfunctional elements are unrepresentative of Māori in general.

The book devotes a chapter to each of the areas in which he considers progress can and should be made.

Parenting comes first. The big need is to engender more positive mindsets and culture. All of us can do our bit, in small or larger ways.

Closely related are the next two chapters promoting reading in the home and education more generally. Duff is not a bystander preaching from on high; he has led by example.

Chapters on welfare and prison follow. Duff is not a fan of paying gang members welfare benefits, housing supplements or emergency grants. He sees it as mad to release prisoners without helping them find a place to stay, a job and enough cash to cover a bond, rent and living expenses until established. Prisoners are often both victims and perpetrators. Duff is not against welfare per se.

These chapters are rich with ideas, suggestions and illustrative anecdotes. Duff identifies and applauds many useful initiatives by diverse individuals and groups. He does not preach easy solutions or silver bullets.

A Conversation with My Country has the worthy aim of widening the scope for constructive conversation between those with disparate views. His diagnosis naturally provokes those preaching white guilt, entitlement and/or ever-greater welfare handouts.

Duff is honest about his sensitivity to criticism that attacks the man rather than the issue. His mild reply is that New Zealanders need to be able to converse, despite disagreements. Amen to that.

Dr Bryce Wilkinson is a senior fellow at The New Zealand Initiative.

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