"Oh, you had a bad time at WINZ?" [the New Zealand Department of Work and Income] said the smiley lady at the school BBQ tonight. "Don't worry about that, everyone does." She looked across at the Head. "You know I am part Maori?" Oops, I had thought she was just very suntanned. (Hey, maybe I HAVE been meeting lots of Maori in professional positions and I have just assumed that they had been on holiday recently) "I went in to apply for Family Credit and gave my name, and they said to me 'So you've always claimed the dole?' And I said, 'No, I work, and I've never claimed in my life.' So the woman said 'Yes, but you've been on the dole mostly, eh?' And I said, 'No, I have never been on the dole.' And the woman looked me up and down and said 'Yeah, we'll just check that on the computer.'" She and the Head looked at each other in sympathy, as if it was a familiar problem. "So much for diversity training, eh?" They nodded together. They suddenly looked very much like Brits. You know, hacked off, disgusted and depressed. That "it's all dire and nothing will ever change" look.
Now I've heard THAT story, my own experience at WINZ seems quite benign in comparison. No one, after all, racially insulted me. But it was, nonetheless, disconcerting. "You should complain," said the lovely head, who I increasingly think is an angel in human form. "I can't," I said, "we need the benefit." "Wait until you get it, THEN complain," she said. Woah, this is a angel with attitude. Must not get in the way of THOSE wings.
She may be right. When we got out of the car - after a nightmare twenty minutes trying to find a park, (no not the green kind, a parking space, that is what they call it here, I keep wondering if I will ask for directions to the Botanical Gardens and end up in a multistory instead) - we went inside and asked to speak to someone. "Have you got an appointment?" No. I tried all day yesterday and couldn't get through on your somewhat inaccurately-named "Help"-line. "Wait here, I'll see if I can get someone." And then a young woman came forward to say hello. The conversation went someone like this.
"We would like to apply for Disability Allowance for our sons."
"Oh. What are their problems?"
This was, you understand, standing in a crowded hallway in front of the receptionist. I lowered my voice. "Well, two of them have ASD and one Global Developmental Delay. They also have" - I start to elaborate but she cuts me off.
"Well, are they in Special School?"
I looked at her in puzzlement. Everyone - the doctor, whose job it was to sign the forms - the Autism New Zealand worker who'd been to see us - the therapist who'd been to our house - the Trust who is assessing us for respite - had suggested we apply, implied that we were almost certainly eligible. No one had said anything about Special School.
"Well, no," I said, thinking of New Zealand's much-vaunted right for all children to attend mainstream (not that it is worth much, if the Ministry won't provide adequate resources). I started to explain that we were in the process of applying for additional support.
"Are they mild, moderate or severe?"
"Severe," I said firmly. I had no idea what the categories were, but our doctor had said they were severe enough to qualify, and written on the forms to say so. I pointed to the relevant documentation. She was having none of it.
"Because we get people coming in, with mild or moderate disabilities, and that is no good, it has to be severe. And you know, this on its own, it's probably not enough, I mean don't they have epilepsy or something as well?"
Er, well, no. SORRY, I mean to say, silly us for not ensuring that our boys didn't have epilepsy on top of everything else. Maybe I should mention the asthma. No, don't be silly. They don't have severe asthma. I struggle to keep my temper.
"We need medical reports."
"Sure," I say.
"Because if you are applying our doctors will need to take a really GOOD look at those." She explains that she will need to go through and scan them and send them off.
I assure her that we can supply medical documentation tomorrow, return to the car and fume. I also ponder what was so quintessentially New Zealand about this encounter. I am aware it is subtly different from the kind of rudeness you would encounter in England, but it takes me a while to work out why. After a few minutes, I realise. The woman smiled, all the way through our conversation. She was incredibly rude, patronising and dismissive, but she did it with a broad smile, the kind of Kiwi friendly welcome that was doubtless meant to mean "Hey, I am your best friend, I know totally how rubbish this application this is, really, I am working in your best interests by interrogating you like this, now why don't you stop wasting your own valuable time and head down to the beach?" The whole effect, on reflection, was slightly sinister. I never thought I would think wistfully of English customer surliness.
Today, I returned. With paperwork. I am rather good, if I say so myself, at providing paperwork. We have tons. Usually I would have sorted through the vast pile of stuff to ascertain what was most useful. But somehow, I found myself reluctant to spare this bureaucrat the pain of sorting and scanning several inches' worth of doctors' notes.
"Here you are," I beamed at the receptionist. She looked in consternation at the pile. "Oh, you saw X yesterday, didn't you?"
"Yes, she wanted to see some papers," I beamed, as if this was the least I could do for her.
"Well, er, I mean does she need to read all of them?"
This was my masterstroke. I pushed the papers towards her, reading side up. On the top letter was a list of recent life-threatening acts of accidental violence committed by one child with more inventiveness than common sense. I could see her reading it whilst pretending not to. Her eyes widened.
"Well the thing is," I said sweetly, "the boys are all in the car outside. If you want me to sort through these, I will have to bring them all in, and that's not going to be much fun for anyone."
"Oh - yes," the receptionist said faintly. She looked at the letter. "No, don't do that."
Pause, whilst she thought. "I think the best thing is to give these to X, ask her to go through them and see what's relevant, then we can courier them back to you on Monday."
"Great," I said, and left.
It was three-thirty on Friday afternoon. I really, really hope X had been planning a nice lazy time doing nothing except insulting customers before she got to go home early for the weekend.