Neo-liberal reform and attitudes towards social citizenship: a review of New Zealand public opinion data 1987-2005.

AuthorHumpage, Louise


It is often assumed that neo-liberal reform has had a significant and negative impact on public support for social citizenship rights. This paper tests such ah assumption by reviewing New Zealand public attitudes associated with social rights of citizenship across two decades. While acknowledging the issues that make it difficult to draw comparisons with the past, the paper argues that there is no overwhelming evidence that neo-liberal reform has resulted in a paradigmatic shift away from supporting social citizenship. For instance, New Zealanders now favour tax cuts over redistribution and wage controls, but there is evidence that they are not willing to sacrifice social spending on health, education and, to a lesser degree, targeted social assistance. Given the notoriously problematic nature of public opinion data, however, the paper contends that qualitative research is needed to further unpack these ambiguities and ambivalences in public attitudes towards social citizenship.


There is little doubt that New Zealand's economic and social institutions were rapidly and significantly reformed during the late 1980s and early 1990s (Boston et al. 1999, Kelsey 1993). Indeed, evidence suggests that the reform of New Zealand's Keynesian-welfarist institutions was faster and more extreme than elsewhere, including other "liberal welfare states" like Australia or Britain (Ramia and Wailes 2006, Vis 2007). For instante, in 1975 New Zealand ranked 34 out of 54 countries on a range of indicators for "economic freedom" (many of which are associated with neo-liberal policies), but by 1995 it had jumped to 3rd out of 141, with the biggest increase occurring in the latter decade (Gwartney and Lawson 2007).

Although the deregulation, liberalisation and privatisation associated with neo-liberal economics was often in tension with the fourth Labour government's (1984-1990) social agenda, this was not the case under National governments in the 1990s, whose economic and social reforms were more consistently "neo-liberal" (Humpage and Craig 2008). Their discursive focus on individual culpability was perhaps not as persistent as seen in the United States or Australia, but it was used to justify early and significant benefit cuts and the abolition of the universal Family Benefit in 1991, when unemployment was at record levels. Despite rejecting the work-for-the-dole scheme, which National established in 1998, and offering a more personalised case management approach, Labour-led governments in the 2000s further extended work obligations for benefit recipients to a wider range of groups (including the sick and disabled) and explicitly situated work as the first arm of welfare in the Social Security Amendment Act 2007 (Humpage and Craig 2008).

The international theoretical literature predicts that such fundamental and rapid policy shifts will have had a negative impact on public attitudes to social citizenship, which in the postwar period guaranteed a basic level of economic and social welfare for all citizens through rights to decent work, education, health care and assistance for the needy (Marshall 1950). With the introduction of "user-pays" charges in health and education, greater targeting of social assistance and a neo-conservative focus on "welfare dependency" and "personal responsibility", neo-liberal reforms are said to have created a more market-based and coercive model of citizenship. This is thought to have altered the expectations citizens hold of one another and the state generally and, with fewer citizens perceiving themselves as having contact with the welfare state, made them less likely to support funding for this key mechanism for pursuing social rights (Brook 1998, Gilens 2000). In particular, the repositioning of obligations over rights in the neo-liberal era is said to have threatened the traditional notions of equality and solidarity, which have formed the basis of support for welfarist institutions (Brodie 2002, Shaver 2004).

This paper tests these theoretical assumptions by asking: Did New Zealand's arguably unique experiences of neo-liberal reform significantly affect public attitudes towards the social rights of citizenship? It is acknowledged that this is not an unproblematic task. First, such theoretical concerns about the effect of neo-liberalism on public attitudes tend to assume that political reforms alter public attitudes, not vice versa (Stimson 1999). However, the speed of reform, along with less governmental interest in invoking public approval to legitimise change, appears to have made New Zealanders less accepting of reform than citizens of other countries (Vowles and Aimer 1993, Schmidt 2002), and New Zealand's shift to Mixed Member Proportional Representation after overwhelming public support for change in a 1993 referendum suggests public attitudes can certainly influence the reform process (Karp and Bowler 2001).

International empirical evidence also indicates that concern about support for social rights diminishing may be overstated, with public opinion showing that citizens have adjusted to some of the newer neo-liberal arrangements while at the same time still considering social rights to be important (e.g. Svallfors and Taylor-Gooby 1999, Wilson et al. 2005). These contradictions are not necessarily the result of "illogical" thinking but rather demonstrate how "the public" draw on conflicting sets of traditions and moral repertoires when thinking about political issues (Dean and Melrose 1999, Dwyer 2002). Indeed, mixed repertoires may reflect the tensions between neo-liberal theory, which decries welfare dependency, and political reality, which has seen politicians loath to completely dismantle the welfare state due to its role in legitimising governments and capitalism more broadly (Hartman 2005).

Finally, there are methodological difficulties in attempting to review New Zealand attitudes to social citizenship. The paper uses existing public opinion data from the few regular data sources available to map changes in attitudes towards economic protectionism and the welfare state:

* the New Zealand Election Study (NZES)

* the New Zealand Values Study (NZVS)

* the International Social Survey Programme (ISSP)

* the 1987 New Zealand Attitudes and Values Survey (NZAVS), commissioned by the Royal Commission on Social Policy (RCSP 1988).

In addition to the widely documented limitations of public opinion polling (see Crothers 1988, Vowles and Aimer 1993), it is important to note three specific caveats regarding the data presented in this paper.

* They are not always completely comparable across (or even within) surveys due to slight differences in the questions asked, so variances are noted where relevant.

* A lack of data prior to the late 1980s hinders our ability to fully assess the impact of neo-liberal reform.

* Poor and inconsistent data on the age, education, ethnicity and gender of respondents mean that the paper considers only the attitudes of "New Zealanders" generally, possibly blurring a polarisation in views between those who may have lost or gained from the reform process.

It is acknowledged that these factors may contribute to any ambiguity found in New Zealand public opinion.

Nonetheless, the available data are sufficient to begin mapping how public attitudes have changed over time and how neo-liberal reform may have affected public understandings of social citizenship in New Zealand. The paper does this by briefly reviewing attitudes towards economic protectionism, and then considering three more traditional areas of the welfare state: tax and redistribution, health and education, and targeted social assistance. Given Vowles et al.'s (1995) argument that New Zealanders have always been rather ambivalent towards the welfare state, the evidence suggests that no paradigmatic shift in public attitudes is evident and highlights the need for more in-depth, qualitative research so that we might better understand this apparent challenge to theoretical predictions about the impact of neoliberalism.


Arbitrated minimum employment conditions and industry protections have always been important to the New Zealand "wage-earners' welfare state" (Castles 1996), so economic protectionism is a good place to start when considering social citizenship. Under the Keynesian welfare model adopted by New Zealand, work was considered a social right and government took responsibility for ensuring that decent work was available through subsidies, import controls and centralised award-setting from the 1930s until the 1970s. After 1984, rapid financial and trade deregulation saw New Zealand go from being one of the most protected to one of the least protected economies in the world. The labour market was also transformed by the 1991 Employment Contracts Act, which replaced compulsory arbitration and collectivism with voluntarism and individualism. This offered employers greater flexibility but reduced employee security at a time of high unemployment and benefit cuts (Boston et al. 1999, Ramia and Wailes 2006).

Perhaps more than one might expect, Table 1 shows that support for issues relating to economic protectionism remained significant in all areas except wage control in 2005. For instance, when offered a list of policies that "might help solve New Zealand's economic...

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