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A much-diminished Man

"Unethical, unjust and morally indefensible"
82-year old Malcolm Larsen was one of the three plaintiffs at the Spousal Provision hearing at the Human Rights Review Tribunal (HRRT) in Wellington in March 2018. He and his wife of 33 years, 80-year old Sigrid Stensrud, gave evidence and told the Tribunal in a compelling way about the huge impact the spousal deduction has had on their lives. 

Here you can read their edited statements of evidence, made on 5 March 2018.

By Malcolm Larsen

I am the adopted son of a Norwegian-born father who arrived in New Zealand in 1926 and a New Zealand mother. My father went to war for New Zealand as a naturalised New Zealander. I have lived all my life in New Zealand and worked for what is now Land Information New Zealand (LINZ) and the Department of Conservation (DOC). I have 42 years of public service in New Zealand.

I have been penpals with my now-wife Sigrid for a long time but only later in life we became a couple. We married in 1984 and have lived in Nelson ever since.

After restructuring of the public service in 1993, I began so called transitional retirement until age 60 in 1995 and became eligible for NZ Super in 1999 or 2000. Sigrid became a permanent resident in 1985 and eligible for NZ Super in 2002 when she turned 65. She started receiving NZ$ 437 per fortnight before tax and also a small Disability Allowance. I received the same amount of NZ Super, as we were both on the half married rate.

"Nowhere on the horizon was the thought that it could affect me"

Sigrid wasn’t eligible for a Norwegian pension until 2004, as the pension age there is 67. But almost from the day she started receiving NZ Super, the Ministry of Social Development (MSD) kept writing to her, giving her frequent reminders to tell them if she had received an overseas pension. They said it “may” or “could” affect her NZ Super. But nowhere on the horizon was the thought that it could affect me.

We told the Ministry in December 2004 about Sigrid’s Norwegian pension. At the time she received an amount equivalent to NZ$ 1,600. In February 2005 MSD suspended Sigrid’s NZ Super and Disability Allowance entirely, and started deducting some of the “excess” from my NZ Super. Instead of my full pension I would receive only 
NZ$ 157 per fortnight after tax.

The suspension of Sigrid’s NZ Super and the deduction against mine was a hell of a shock. We couldn’t believe it. I could see how the law worked and why it reduced our pensions but I couldn’t understand the humanity of it. It seemed unethical, unjust and morally indefensible.

We immediately applied for a review of the decision to stop Sigrid’s pension and reduce mine. But we were unsuccessful because the Ministry found they had followed the law correctly. The Benefit Review Committee came to the same conclusion.

"In 2009 I didn't receive a cent" - NZ$ 100,000 lost over the years

The amount of NZ Super I receive changes, depending on the exchange rate and Sigrid’s Norwegian pension. In September 2005, for example, I received NZ$ 194 per fortnight after tax. In March 2009 I didn’t receive a cent. In December 2009 it was NZ$ 110 a fortnight, and in June 2017 it was NZ$ 191.

We have always been upfront with MSD about Sigrid’s pension. But every time I let them know about a small increase, I know that I’m going to receive less NZ Super. That’s hard to deal with.

According to the Ministry, I have lost approximately NZ$ 100,000 through spousal deduction over the years. The Government clearly is the financial beneficiary in all of this.

Both Sigrid and I are qualified by age and residency to receive NZ Super in our own right. I have lived here all my live, and Sigrid has lived her for 33 years. We paid tax on our income, we pay GST on everything, we pay tax on the pensions we receive.

"We have been dealt a rough hand"

Sigrid blames herself for this mess. Every time a new letter comes from Norway with pension information, she says: “If I’d known about this, I would never have come out to New Zealand”, or: “I never would have married you.” This has nothing to do with love. It’s purely a question of circumstances. But by God, it’s hard to hear that from your wife. We’ve been dealt a rough hand and are looking to find a way out of it.

The lack of NZ Super has restricted our lifestyles. Some normal things have had to change. We don’t go out to our friends’ places for BBQs or other social gatherings as often as we used to. We find our lives are a bit more contained and less shared with friends. It has definitely affected our relationships. Our friendships just seem to be more distant because of it, and the situation doesn’t improve with time either.

Day to day we have enough money to live on but we are not wealthy. We rent our property in Nelson. We have medical bills to pay and we receive an Accommodation Supplement and the Disability Allowance.

I feel like a much-diminished man. You assume some things going into a marriage, like being able to contribute financially. But then people say things like: “Sigrid takes care of the big-ticket items, and Malcolm deals with the small change.” You sort of laugh it off but that's the reality, and it hurts.

"This has a huge effect on my dignity"

Sometimes people don’t think about the effect it has on you. For example, I had a support person named Peter van Bussel. He helped me with my complaint to the Human Rights Commission before he passed away, and he did a great job. But one day he made an off-hand comment without thinking about it. He said I was a “kept man”. His intention wasn’t to hurt. His intention was to highlight the reality of the finances in the relationship. But it trivialised the situation, and I could have done without it. It was one of those constant reminders that I couldn’t contribute to my marriage in the same way as other people.

This has a huge effect on my dignity. It’s hard to walk into a room with your head held high, as though you’re on top of your circumstances, when you know that you are not.

I get angry about it. It seems quite evil, really, that the Government uses Sigrid’s pension to gather revenue and save on my NZ Super. It is none of their business that Sigrid receives a pension from Norway. That should be entirely separate from my NZ Super. Our Norwegian friends don’t understand how they come to be effectively paying my pension. It seems like a pure confiscation as those funds have been accrued by another person in another time and in another country altogether.

"The Government can afford to support a yacht race but not their own people"

I know the Government makes an argument about “affordability” but that seems wrong to me. The Government can afford to support a yacht race or a flag referendum but not support their own people. It feels like the Government has ignored all the years of service I gave to this country, and ignored the understanding that NZ Super should be a universal entitlement.

There are plenty of anomalies in the system. For example, people can bring their parents over to New Zealand from other countries, and after a period of residence they can get full NZ Super at the appropriate age. Or a millionaire could claim full NZ Super – but they don’t need it. It is unjust that we are being singled out. It creates a world of absurdity, and I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. If the Government claims that we need to keep NZ Super “affordable”, why is it fair to give it to a millionaire?

NZ Super is and has always been portrayed as not being means-tested, and I do not accept that the “excess” of Sigrid’s overseas pension should be deducted from my NZ Super entitlement. If NZ Super is not means-tested, why does my status of being married to a foreigner allow this to happen?

People in my situation have been called “double-dippers”, including by a former Prime Minister at a Grey Power meeting I attended. That hurt rather badly. I don’t draw a Norwegian pension, and Sigrid doesn’t receive anything from NZ Super. But that’s the sort of ignorance you run into all the time. People don’t fully understand the situation, and they think the fault lies with us because we got married.

"The administrative burden just tops it all off"

That’s hurtful because we weren’t put on the planet to worry about superannuation. We just knew that we loved one another. Of course, people are right when they say that if we were unmarried, I could have got NZ Super. It doesn’t seem right.

The administrative burden just tops it all off. It’s difficult dealing with International Services [at MSD] sometimes. There are countless letters, emails and phone calls, just so I can understand what I should be receiving. Sometimes their letters are undated and unsigned or without a reference, which makes it impossible to refer to them later. I also never seem to be able to talk to the same person twice. They don’t provide me with sufficient information to check their calculations. The whole thing is Kafka-esque.

By the time of this hearing, it will have been a thirteen-year fight against spousal deduction. The law is unjust, and I would love to see it changed.

"I feel guilty because I am the cause of it"

Edited statement of evidence by Malcolm Larsen’s wife Sigrid Stensrud

By Sigrid Stensrud

I was born and bred in Norway. When we started learning English at school, I was looking for someone to write to, so I could use the language. That’s when I got Malcolm’s address from my family because they knew his father who had grown up in the same region.

I married in 1958 and had two children, a son and a daughter. I first met Malcolm at my daughter’s confirmation in 1974. I had invited him after he had told me he wanted to research his family roots. I also visited him in New Zealand, the first time in 1980. There was a lot of travel backwards and forwards before we decided we wanted to be together. I then emigrated to New Zealand and we married in 1984.

My children remained in Norway, and I am very proud of them. My son is Air Captain with Norwegian Air, and my daughter is head teacher at a high school and pedagogic advisor for the region. My son has two sons of his own, and my daughter has two stepchildren and a granddaughter. 

"I was working and contributing"

When I moved here, I became qualified in elderly care and worked in a rest home. I felt fulfilled because I was working and contributing, and the New Zealand taxpayer didn’t have to look after me. I really enjoyed my work.

I received my NZ Super in 2002 but didn’t get a Norwegian pension until two years later when I turned 67. In the meantime, the Government kept asking me: “Have you got your Norwegian pension yet?” I had to say no because I wasn’t old enough. Finally, when I did receive it, I told them straight away.

The Norwegian pension I receive isn’t the full pension because I didn’t live there long enough. It usually goes up a little bit every year in May, and I tell MSD as soon as I know what I am going to receive.

I should note that I pay tax on my Norwegian pension to the New Zealand government, too. That’s about NZ$ 3,000 a year. I have to complete a tax return every year. I pay three instalments of NZ$ 1,000 every time.

When I received my Norwegian pension, we discovered that I wouldn’t receive any NZ Super. I was very disappointed by that but I just got on with it. But it seemed very unfair to me that part of Malcolm’s pension would be reduced, too.

No money to visit the children and friends

I do like our life in New Zealand but I have to say that this issue has taken its toll on both of us. Day to day, we get by with what we have. But we are very careful with our money and we’re not at all luxurious people.

The last time I went to Norway was in 2011. My children have also come here for a visit. It’s always great to see them. But it is hard being apart from them. We don’t have the finances to visit them at all. We have very close family friends in London, too, but when one of them married in October 2017, we could not afford to travel to the wedding.

It would make a difference if Malcolm received his full pension. As the cost of living is going up, a bit more money would certainly help.

I feel guilty because I am the cause of it. I feel like it is all my fault. If I hadn’t come into his life, we would never have had all this hassle. I have seen the effect is has had on Malcolm over these many years, and I feel very sad for him.

Happy together but not about the New Zealand government's spousal deduction policy: Malcolm Larsen and Sigrid Stensrud at the Human Rights Review Tribunal in Wellington.