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Exactly how tough is he?

In his State of the Nation speech yesterday, the nation’s chief executive, Christopher Luxon, talked about tackling tough times with tough choices and, most icky of all, tough love.

In fact, he used the word ‘tough’ 10 times. In the interests of balance, it is worth stating he used ‘backwards’ twice, ‘challenge’ and ‘won’t’ four times apiece, and ‘choices’ on a more substantial seven occasions.

It was a speech delivered in ‘Dad Mode’. And he wasn’t angry, New Zeelund. He was disappointed.

“Look at the state of the place,” he said, exasperated.

“You’ve spent all your pocket money on God knows what. You’ve wagged school and crashed the family car. When are you going to grow up and get a bloody job!”

Don’t worry. You aren’t the only one Dad is a little bit cross with. The 70,000 extra people on a Jobseeker unemployment benefit today [compared to the number in 2017] are really getting on his wick.

“We’ll do everything we can to help people into work,” he sighed, “but if they don’t play ball, the free ride is over.”

A uniquely political “sorry, not sorry” if ever there was one.

Because looking at the surging benefits bill in a more global context, I’m not sure the tools in Luxon’s paternal toolbox are going to be anywhere near fit for purpose.

In his 22-point list of things he and his government have achieved in the past 81 days, there was only one I could see that directly addressed his concerns about blooming beneficiaries: “We’ve abolished Fair Pay Agreements and brought back 90-day trials – giving businesses the confidence to hire someone who needs a fresh start instead of letting so many Kiwis spend their life on a benefit.”

Apart from being a Mary Poppins-sized carpet bag of incongruity and contradiction, Luxon’s ‘solution’ sits uncomfortably alongside the fact that the country is still chasing down high inflation and that increasing the rate of unemployment is a key way to achieve this.

A few days before the prime minister’s State of the Nation speech, the Salvation Army published its own State of the Nation report, which examined the almost intractable wicked nature of the problems endured by this country’s lowest-income families.

Those hard hit by high inflation will be hardest hit by trying to tackle high inflation. And, sadly for those subsisting at the margins of society, economics is not physics. What goes up rarely seems to come down, particularly the cost of ‘must haves’ such as rental homes [which the Salvation Army reports as increasing up to 15 per cent a year in some places] and food.

As overused as the word was in his speech, I think Mr Luxon may have missed a ‘tough’ or two on Sunday. In addition to these being “tough times” requiring “tough choices”, there are also many tough questions demanding tough debate and tough evidence if we are to lift people out of poverty in any meaningful, long-term way.

Here’s a starter for 10: Why do we tolerate a system that makes the poorest pay to bring down inflation?

I’m pretty sure that for this particular question, “tough love” should not be the answer.

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