Friday, May 7, 2010

Saunders vs Saunders - either way, Bennett has badly messed up

The incredible saga of Saunders vs Saunders would be hilarious if it didn't throw Paula Bennett's competence to be in charge of a major portfolio profoundly affecting thousands of lives into such severe doubt.

Gordon Campbell was the first commentator to blow the whistle publicly on exactly who Bennett had appointed to advise on welfare reform. Peter Saunders was until recently based at the far right Australian think-tank, the Centre for Independent Studies (it can be described as a kind of synthesis of the Business Roundtable and the Maxim Institute). His publications over the last ten years, almost all published by the CIS, include The Government Giveth, and the Government Taketh Away (2007), Taxploitation: The case for income tax reform (2006), and Australia's Welfare Habit - and how to kick it (2004). He is also the author of apocalyptic science fiction, and has supported the notion that class is strongly correlated with intelligence.

However, responding to questions in the House about this surprising appointment, Bennett defended it by saying, “Peter Saunders is one of many advisers. He has something to offer the group as far as international knowledge is concerned. Members can read his book, Welfare to Work in Practice, which he wrote in Australia. I do not agree with everything he said; I do not agree with everything that a number of the advisers to the group said. But we are open to listening to those views from the Welfare Working Group.”

But as a comment by "Lesley" on Campbell's piece first noted, there are two men involved in welfare research called Peter Saunders: "I saw them both presenting at the same conference about ten years [ago] – consequently the last time welfare beneficaries were in the firing line of national ministers of the crown. One presented a well argued paper based on empirical research; the other simply raved – a startling nonsensical performance made even more compelling by the spectacle of what appeared to be a foaming mouth! One Peter Saunders was a well respected Sydney policy academic; the other working for a so-called ´think tank’…"

The raving, foaming one is the one Bennett appointed. As Green MP Catherine Delahunty told the House, the book Bennett mentioned was written by the other one. This other Peter Saunders is a professor at the University of New South Wales with a track record in welfare and poverty research which would have fitted him superbly for the role allocated to his namesake. As well as Welfare to Work in Practice, his publications over the last ten years include The Ends and Means of Welfare, Coping with Economic and Social Change in Australia (Cambridge University Press, 2002); The Poverty Wars, Reconnecting Research with Reality; and (with James Walter) Ideas and Influence, Social Science and Public Policy in Australia (both published by UNSW Press in 2005). Currently an Australian Professorial Fellow working on the concepts and measurement of poverty and inequality, and on deprivation and social exclusion in Australia, he was elected President of the Foundation for International Studies on Social Security (FISS) in June 2009.

The press release put out by the government to set matters straight has to be seen to be believed. It reads:

We got the right man

Welfare Working Group member Professor Peter Saunders was chosen as an expert in his field to participate in the Group’s examination of the welfare system says Social Development Minister Paula Bennett. However, he is not the only Peter Saunders in existence. Question time in the House today saw the matter arise, with a question mark over whether the right Peter Saunders was appointed to the Group. “I can assure you, we got the right man,” says Ms Bennett.

To set the record straight about any confusion there may be over which Peter Saunders has been appointed, it may help to clarify the following. There are two men called Professor Peter Saunders. Both studied in England, both were based in Sydney Australia at the same time and both have continued to lecture on social policy and welfare and both have written a number of books on the subject.

“This clearly creates potential for mistaken identity,” says Ms Bennett.

Indeed. The mind, as they say, boggles.

There seem to be only three possible explanations for Bennett's confusion in the House.

(1) She did indeed appoint the wrong Peter Saunders as an adviser: she meant to appoint the respected academic, who was perhaps recommended by her Ministry, and would have been a completely appropriate choice, as his full list of recent publications shows. Possibly she was shown his book, and thought he had some interesting ideas. But by mistake - her own or her staff's - the invitation went to the CIS one. And no one noticed until it was too late. If this is the case, the Minister is not fit to hold her portfolio.

(2) By some difficult to imagine process, discussion of who to appoint led to an invitation being deliberately sent to the CIS Peter Saunders. (Did Rodney Hide have a hand in this decision? How else might the minister have been led to conclude that this person was an appropriate choice?) But if she did indeed intend to appoint this man, as the press release claims, she then somehow came across the book by the other one, the university professor, and made the mistake of thinking that it was written by her choice, the CIS man. (Was she perhaps deliberately given the book by the same people who recommended the CIS Saunders, and told it was by him?) If so, she is not fit to hold her portfolio.

(3) She was simply completely confused all along and never knew, until caught out, that there were two Peter Saunderses. She read one, but appointed the other, thinking they were the same person. As another blog comment said, in the House she was "passing off sane and respected research as the product of a biased ex-academic who now works [actually, did work - he's now freelancing in Britain] for a conservative think tank and writes vaguely racist fiction in his spare time." If so, she is not fit to hold her portfolio.
(See Lyndon Hood's satire for Scoop on Saunders vs Saunders at )


  1. ***He is also the author of apocalyptic science fiction, and has supported the notion that class is strongly correlated with intelligence.***

    Which is unsurprising. Smarter people are likely to get better paid in general. And intelligence is significantly influenced by your genes.

    Harvard Professor, Steven Pinker wrote last year in the New York Times (‘My Genome, My Self’ 11 Jan 2009):

    “To study something scientifically, you first have to measure it, and psychologists have developed tests for many mental traits. And contrary to popular opinion, the tests work pretty well: they give a similar measurement of a person every time they are administered, and they statistically predict life outcomes like school and job performance, psychiatric diagnoses and marital stability. Tests for intelligence might ask people to recite a string of digits backward, define a word like “predicament,” identify what an egg and a seed have in common or assemble four triangles into a square. Personality tests ask people to agree or disagree with statements like “Often I cross the street in order not to meet someone I know,” “I often was in trouble in school,” “Before I do something I try to consider how my friends will react to it” and “People say insulting and vulgar things about me.” People’s answers to a large set of these questions tend to vary in five major ways: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness (as opposed to antagonism) and neuroticism. The scores can then be compared with those of relatives who vary in relatedness and family backgrounds.

    The most prominent finding of behavioral genetics has been summarized by the psychologist Eric Turkheimer: “The nature-nurture debate is over. . . . All human behavioral traits are heritable.” By this he meant that a substantial fraction of the variation among individuals within a culture can be linked to variation in their genes. Whether you measure intelligence or personality, religiosity or political orientation, television watching or cigarette smoking, the outcome is the same. Identical twins (who share all their genes) are more similar than fraternal twins (who share half their genes that vary among people). Biological siblings (who share half those genes too) are more similar than adopted siblings (who share no more genes than do strangers). And identical twins separated at birth and raised in different adoptive homes (who share their genes but not their environments) are uncannily similar.”

  2. The heritability of intelligence is not the issue. The issue is the extent to which the winners in what Galbraith called the "culture of contentment" can sit back secure in the assumption that all those poorly paid people doing the jobs that keep everything going are conveniently fitted for their menial roles by having been born with a lower IQ than their middle and upper class compatriots.