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On September 1st, 2014, gunman John Tully walked into the Ashburton branch of the Department of Work and Income (WINZ) and killed two staff members and wounded a third. It was a shocking act, the underlying causes of which were many years in the making.

Over time, Tully had been passed through a multitude of charities and social agencies. However a combination of his own obsession with wanting a specific place to live, a history of aggressive and violent behaviour and having very real needs that simply could not be met by the agencies that WINZ fobbed him onto, all conspired to create a man who simply snapped one morning.

After hearing about this shooting it reminded me of my time some years ago as a WINZ Case Manager, which was not exactly the highlight of my life in terms of job experiences. I was sometimes on the receiving end of aggressive people demanding I do something which I was unable to do. This was either because I had been refused by WINZ management from doing so or because the guidelines, policies or laws prevented me. The saying “There, but for the grace of God, go I” came to mind.

The shooting brought into sharp focus the way that WINZ treats its clients and has caused considerable debate, especially among beneficiaries. It also brought about a swift response from the Minister of Social Development who promised an inquiry into the shooting and how to prevent future incidents of this nature. She also announced the introduction of more security guards to WINZ offices, identification checks in some cases and the automatic trespass of abusive clients. The measures announced by Ms Bennett caused derision from beneficiaries and their advocates, who argue that treating all beneficiaries as if they are potential killers is a new low for a government agency that has a long history of degrading and humiliating the people they deal with.
This interesting piece appeared on the NZ Beneficiaries and Unemployed Workers Union Facebook page a few days after the killings and is worth quoting at length:
As a former WINZ case manager and an unemployed person I am not surprised by the killing of the two WINZ case managers in Ashburton. What I’m amazed by is only that it took so long before this happened.
The shooting points to a whole network of failures at all levels of WINZ including:
1. Managers often ignoring trespass orders and effectively preventing security guards from removing trespassers and abusive people from their offices.
2. A prevalent culture of bullying at all levels of WINZ including managers bullying staff members and staff members bullying clients.
3. The widespread practice of caving into tantrum throwing, sulking, abusive and other anti-social behaviours by clients to “keep the peace”.
4. WINZ putting far too much emphasis on blaming their clients for their financial situation when even most case managers know damned well that benefit levels are woefully inadequate. Getting a job rarely gets people out of financial strife because wages are often so low that many beneficiaries find that getting work either leaves them worse off or at the same level of impoverishment because of added costs, such as child care.
5. WINZ effectively dumping those most in need in the community onto (primarily church based) charities who are either unwilling or unable to provide the sort of assistance that such people need.
6. Despite the rhetoric of holistic case management the reality of most case management is centred around getting people off benefits at any cost, clicking boxes on a computer and meeting totally unrealistic targets set by people in the Ministry of Social Development’s National Office.
7. A prevailing attitude of arrogance and contempt displayed by senior WINZ and Ministry of Social Development staff and officials who routinely compare clients to drug addicts who need their “welfare addiction” and who can only be helped by removing them from it.
8. Charities, churches, social agencies and other contracted services which have simply become yet another layer of bureaucracy that WINZ clients have to deal with in order to get paid a benefit. In many cases these contracted services are more interested in ticking the right boxes so they get more funding rather than actually helping people.
9. There is no reliable monitoring of programmes set up either by WINZ or by any of their contracted services so there is no way to monitor how successful or effective their programmes actually are. Whenever WINZ are asked for specific details they hide behind “commercial sensitivity” and the Privacy Act.
10. Almost without exception WINZ initiatives have been copied from similar British programmes that have, almost without exception, been total failures in the medium to long term because the premise under which they were established was proven to be totally false.
11. Virtually no training is provided to WINZ staff to deal with aggressive or violent clients despite the fact they deal with such clients on a regular basis. They’re further hamstrung by groups that often excuse violent behaviour by the disabled and the mentally ill with the result that when case managers and clients are intimidated or threatened by such people they’re expected to “suck it up” and “grow a pair”.
12. WINZ rules that are pointless and serve no function other than to make clients jump through hoops in order to get assistance that is often woefully inadequate to address their needs.
Instead of putting more security guards in their offices, which is basically a PR stunt, addressing these issues would be more pertinent.

The site made it clear they did not condone the killing of WINZ staff and this was echoed by people commenting on the case. However, there was a strong view expressed that the killings should be put into the greater context of the way that case managers and WINZ management has behaved over the years, as outlined in the twelve points made by the Union.

Few actions occur in isolation.
We have to put the killing of the WINZ staff members into a greater context. Namely, a system that throws people out of work, that uses workers in ways that result in ill-health or disability and puts such pressures on families that they break up under the strain. It then treats them as criminals or recalcitrant children who need to be taught a lesson for their supposed “bad” behaviour by forcing them to beg in order to receive assistance that is often inadequate for their needs.

We have to put the killings in the very real context that WINZ case managers are able to play God with people’s lives. A few taps on a keyboard can strip a person of his or her only income, throw them into the streets and force them to rely on the goodwill of strangers to feed and clothe themselves.

And we have to put the killings in the context of the failures of WINZ management at all levels to provide a safe working environment for their staff and to have allowed the conditions that led to this incident.
If someone takes a shot at you with a gun there is nothing that can be done but there is plenty that can be done so the shooting never takes place to begin with.

Given what has happened, the first task of WINZ management must be to remove the culture of bullying within their organisation and to create a safe working environment for everyone. This will achieve more good than uniformed thugs in WINZ offices can ever do.

As anarchists we know that the abolition of the state and government departments that are part of it, is the only long term solution to the problems facing WINZ and everyone else for that matter. An anarchist society would ensure that everyone has access to free and comprehensive health care. Each workplace will be self-managed by workers rather than controlled by parasitical managers who only look out for themselves and so-called “stakeholders”. There would be far fewer workplace accidents. Unemployment will no longer exist once society and its economy is organised rationally.

Unfortunately we do not live in an anarchist society and it’s not likely to emerge any time soon. However, working to eradicate the many failures within WINZ doesn’t mean waiting until the revolution or the overthrow of the capitalist system. We can start now by mobilising support against the new over-the-top security procedures that have been introduced and by joining organisations that are campaigning to change the way WINZ operates.
It is the way that WINZ is run that contributed to the events in Ashburton and is something that needs to be tackled sooner rather than later.

It’s simply not acceptable to pat those who have been on the receiving end of WINZ on the head and say, “Never mind, when we overthrow the system you’ll be fine.” People on welfare don’t need or want such platitudes. They want us to stand beside them and fight for their right to be treated like real people right here, right now.
Are you prepared to stand and fight with the most vulnerable people when they need help the most?