Metiria Turei’s admission of misleading Work and Income when she was a solo mum may not change the result of the election, but must be a pivotal moment in the 2017 general election and NZ political conversation. The condemnations (almost exclusively from older male commentators) were swift, either trying to drive a wedge between beneficiaries and “the rest of us”, or clutching pearls at the idea a politician, speaking at a political policy launch, was making a political statement in an election year god forbid. The surge of support, from a huge range of New Zealanders (and in the media, particularly younger/female commentators) was amazing. (The latest Colmar Brunton which came out after this post was 99% drafted also seem to show it was a political winner.)
Just over the weekend, three op eds on Stuff illustrated how important this debate is – try as the detractors may to turn it into a black-and-white, “she broke the law she’s a bad person pay no attention to the bad person” situation. Grant Shimmin writing in the Timaru Herald smashed the idea that “working people” will reject Metiria’s statements:
I’m not Metiria Turei because I’ve not experienced the deprivations she has. But when she feels moved to promise a Government she is part of will not be one “that uses poverty as a weapon against its own people”, #IAmMetiria. That should cover all Governments, period.
Michele A’Court, in a piece co-written with Jeremy Elwood, made the realities crystal clear:
In 2017, when we hear the stories about kids going to school without lunch after they’ve left the house without breakfast, we mutter: “A good mother would do anything to make sure her children were fed.” And ignore the fact that no-one – no-one at all – survives on a benefit without some combination of help from foodbanks, charities, the kindness of family, friends and strangers, and lying to WINZ.
We ask where the fathers are. Sometimes the fathers are one or more of these things: violent, dangerous, hiding, unknown, unwell, dead, addicted, not interested.
When we hear about NZ’s high rate of child abuse, we say, “A good mother would do anything to protect her children.” And overlook the fact that often the most dangerous thing a woman can do is attempt escape. And even while we’re asking that question, we stop funding safe houses.
Alison Mau describes it as the Springbok Tour for this generation.
I think it goes even further. Because it doesn’t completely make sense, the way Turei’s critics have banged away at their “the law is the law!” drums.
As a nation we got over the current Prime Minister rorting us for $32,000 of housing allowances he wasn’t entitled to. The ACT Party survives despite seemingly every MP they’ve fielded showing up with a criminal record or some light-hearted rorting of parliamentary allowances. Todd Barclay’s back, for God’s sake.
So what did Metiria Turei really do wrong?
Young Māori solo mums are not meant to survive, much less thrive, much less become political leaders a few hundred party votes from being Deputy PM. The system isn’t designed that way, not thirty years post-Ruthanasia. It’s meant to do the bare bones, look good – a hand up, not a hand out! – but still entrench inequality and ensure there are always people desperate enough to compete for insecure jobs and keep wages down, profits up.
Women like Metiria Turei are meant to be cogs in the machine, not staunch, outspoken leaders threatening to upturn the whole system by exposing the truth of it. Not threats to the powers that be.
Then #IamMetiria showed just how many of us there are out there – kids raised on the benefit, whose mums and dads struggled, scraped, lied or jumped through loopholes to raise us – who, when we succeeded, when we got our degrees or built careers or started businesses, did not forget where we came from.
This week it’s become more and more apparent how uncomfortable some are with even acknowledging the status quo – the established fact (hell, the intended consequence) that benefits are not enough to live on, and the current policy direction and operation of Work and Income makes it difficult for people to access the help they need.
The “analysis” and reasons why Turei’s comments are political poison range from “ew, beneficiaries, we Normal People can’t sympathize with them yuck” or “actually, talking about how difficult life is for poor people only appeals to liberal Twitter echo chamber craft beer glitter beards”. In short: nothing to see here. No one cares.
It is vitally necessary to convince us that the issue is not that the system is broken and what people have to do to survive and to provide for their families. Because that is an argument they will absolutely lose.
Peel away the bad Inspector Javert impressions* and the pseudointellectual chin-stroking about whether a politician being political is bad politics, and the worldview being presented by Metiria Turei’s critics is really, really not good.
This is about whether a mother should feed her child. Even if it means breaking the rules. Even if breaking the rules means she can go on to be successful, and independent, and by far a better contributor to her community and our country than anyone who’s hissing at her now.
The decision is whether following the rules is more important than a child’s life.
And we all know where the vast majority of people are going to fall on that question.
That’s why the detractors will scream “NO, IT’S ABOUT INTEGRITY!!!” or “SHE’S PLAYING POLITICS!!!” because they really, really do not want a proper debate about whether robotically obeying unjust laws is the ethical thing to do when children are going hungry.
This doesn’t just apply to benefit systems and parenting decisions. Look at the reaction in Australia when Sally McManus (queen) stated that she wouldn’t damn workers who downed tools when someone had been killed on the job at a construction site. Different issue, same theme: oh god, what happens when the peasants realise that all the rules we’ve invented to constrain their lives and cement our power are actually just bullshit?
We all know that some things are more important that following the rules. Doing *good* trumps doing what’s *approved*, every time. Our history and culture are full of righteous lawbreakers, starting with Jesus, moving through Nelson Mandela and conscientious objectors and suffragettes to classic children’s literature:
During the 1951 waterfront lockout it was illegal to provide food to the workers’ families. How does that feel to us in 2017? How many of us would do what Metiria’s critics assert is the right thing to do – let kids go hungry because their parents are in an industrial dispute, no matter which side of that dispute you were on?
How did almost the entire nation respond to Helen Kelly and so many other Kiwis who came out over the past few years to talk bout their decisions to take medicinal cannabis, despite the law, because it was the only thing relieving their pain?
The backlash against Turei hasn’t been insignificant. Even some allies have felt the need to tut-tut about “condoning lawbreaking” even though of course they understand why she did what she did.
But this is a self-defeating response. There is an opportunity, right now, to redefine how politics works: how we talk about social welfare and community good and the role of the state in ensuring everyone lives a decent life in this amazing country of ours.
All it takes is framing the debate differently. Not engaging with the arguments about political point-scoring or the importance of The Rule Of Law (a concept the powers that be find indispensable when their position is threatened but rather optional if they can make a buck).
Our values are humanitarian values. Equality. Universalism. Social justice. People’s lives being more important than the rules made by the powerful to keep themselves in power. The argument is so easy to make, and so easy to win. But we have to fight for it.
Metiria Turei is, and there are so many people – people who were not feeling inspired this election, people who desperately want a change of government but didn’t know who to vote for – standing with her. Together we can change the conversation. We can make politics about people, not money. We can assert, as hasn’t been asserted for decades, that government’s job is taking care of people, and politicians are servants of the community, and it is good and fair and just that we all pay taxes so the state can take care of the basics that ensure everyone lives a good life.
It is the right thing to do. And it’s the only way we’re going to win.
*But let’s also be serious, Valjean is a sexual-abuse-enabling dickhead and Javert gets all the cool songs.