The letter of the law versus the spirit of the law by Susan Grimsdell

The NZ Herald reports a South Island mayor urging farmers who have claimed the government wage subsidy  during the shutdown, to repay the money.  Prices have held, there has been no actual loss.  One farmer with a conscience has given back $177,000 he said he had claimed “just in case”.

The letter of the law

The policy states that money is available if the claimant experienced an actual or “predicted” loss of revenue of one third in any month over the 6-month period January to June compared with last year. This is so loose that it opened the doors to almost everyone.

We’ve heard of top law firms, the ones who charge you and me many hundreds of dollars an hour for their precious time, making claims.  I guess their revenue went from, say, a million a week to only $700,000 a week – so fair enough, they meet the criterion.  In fact, they were first off the mark with their hands out.

Coca Cola claimed (and got) $7.1 million, even though they traded as normal, and a New World supermarket claimed $622,000.  Haven’t we been hearing that supermarkets have been the real winners while everything else is shut?  St Cuthbert’s, one of our country’s wealthiest schools, patronised by the rich-listers of this world, claimed $1.9 million:  to their shame and disgrace, in the words of a former student.  They are not among those who will be giving it back either.

More than 900 outfits have been forced to reimburse the money.  Does that count as theft – claiming money when you’re not entitled?  Can they be prosecuted and put in jail where they belong I wonder? All this is going on while thousands of businesses have gone down the drain, many never to recover, and while tens of thousands of jobs have disappeared and the country faces economic disaster.

The spirit of the law

We can assign blame to the poorly conceived government policy, but as with all rules and laws, successful compliance depends very much on people’s sense of decency and integrity.  Our society would collapse if we failed to obey the spirit of the law as well as the letter.   We all know what’s right, and most of us care about that.

All the people quoted above also know what’s right – they know they don’t need government handouts, they know there are people in truly dire circumstances due to lockdown, who desperately do need government money.   But the key thing is – they don’t care.  The money’s there, they can get it, so they put their hands out and take it.  My belief is that even when they are told to give it back, they feel no shame.  They just shrug and think “didn’t get away with that”.   No problem.

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