It was always a possibility in the back of my mind that Metiria Turei’s admission of benefit fraud – and the absolute flood of hatred, hypocrisy, bullying and mucky insinuations unleashed upon her by people who’ve never faced a truly hard choice in their lives – would cost her her political career. I had hope we would be better than that, especially after she had so much support from the members of her party, her co-leader, and the public.
And now she’s gone. And I’m heartbroken.
But let us be absolutely crystal FUCKING clear about this. Metiria did not resign because her admission was political suicide. She did not resign because it ~wasn’t a good look~ or whatever nonsense my commentariat comrades want to spin.
She resigned because her family, any family, could not withstand the appalling, personal, vicious abuse being hurled at them.
And I just hope all the people with loud public platforms, who absolutely dedicated themselves to destroying this wahine toa over the past weeks, are feeling proud. You’ve done great work. You dragged a young woman’s parentage into the dirt for a political hit. You positively salivated at completely minor youthful transgressions and told the nation, unequivocally, that they were the blackest sins. You gleefully reinforced every terrible stereotype about solo mums being lying sluts on the make.
You refused to let the issue die and then turned to the camera to narrate dispassionately: “this issue just won’t die.”
You’re the real winners tonight.
There was an issue people wanted to die, though: the brokenness and heartlessness of our social welfare system. The reality, which has now been exposed and brought into the light, that we as a nation are not looking after the poorest and most vulnerable. We are not making sure every child born in Godzone gets three square meals a day and shoes to run the school cross country in.
We are failing children and their parents, and it is by design, and has been for thirty years. And boy, is it clear after the firestorm of the past few weeks that y’all do not want to talk about it.
Well, too bad.
I’m not letting this issue be put back in its box, to await the magical day when a progressive, socially conscious government, which somehow defies the odds to gain power without ever letting on that it’s a progressive, socially conscious government, pulls the rabbit out of the hat and says “ta-da, we’re going to fix the welfare system.”
The question of social welfare is literally the entire point of government. How does the government ensure people live a good life? Does the government do this at all, or merely ensure the poorest and most vulnerable get just enough gruel to make them useful cogs in the economic machine? Do we give a damn about babies? Yes, even the babies whose parents made a few mistakes in their lives?
Those are the questions we must answer. This is the policy which must be changed, and changed right down to its core, not tinkered at the edges for fear of frightening the middle-class horses.
This is the conversation which we are going to have, New Zealand, because there is solidarity here. #IAmMetiria does not go away just because you’ve bullied the woman who sparked it off the scene.
Thank you Metiria. I am so, so sorry that we are not the caring, compassionate country we like to pretend to be.
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.
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.
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.
The closure of the Bowerman School is a real puzzle. It helped many people not just find any jobs, but good jobs – relevant jobs, fulfilling jobs, jobs which could lead to a career they enjoyed.
Bowerman said her students had ranged from people who had never worked, to architects and two doctors who came through the course last year.
The difference between her course and others in the region was that Bowerman would do “whatever they actually needed”, in terms of jobseeking support.
“Whether that was getting them first aid certificates, or haircuts or clothing. Just whatever was required.”
Bowerman said most of their students were also in the older age bracket.
“First, it’s so bloody hard, especially if you’re over 50 these days, to get a job. But they’re unable to go into hospo, they’re not going to go into call centres, and aged care facilities actually want trained nurses now.”
It also makes no sense in light of the rave reviews it was getting from the agency which funded it:
@NZStuffPolitics I mentioned that.The school was thriving.Winz staffer was ravin about them bein great..weird
So what’s going on? Why the narrow focus on “hospitality, aged care and call centres”? It makes no sense!
Actually, it makes all kinds of sense. Because this government has shown, time and time again, that it doesn’t care about good jobs or careers or skills, only forcing people off benefits so the current Minister of Social Development can crow success.
So of course you can’t have a jobs centre which supports people to flourish as talented innovative creators. That would ruin everything.
This can sound as conspiratorial as you like, but the logic is pretty simple: an uneducated, desperate minimum-wage workforce is easier to exploit. People who don’t have a lot of qualifications have more difficulty changing jobs. People who are paid at near-minimum wage after 20 years on the job don’t have the luxury of sitting back and pondering the big questions of democratic governance. And people whose only other option is being bullied and micro-managed for a pittance by WINZ aren’t going to complain too much when their breaks get taken off them or their holiday pay is short.
And it’s far easier for the kinds of people who give the National Party lots of money to leech short-term profits off a service-based economy. Why build anything real when you can just put 19-year-olds through a meatgrinder of youth rates and rolling 90-day trials?
The thing is, everyone does better when wages are good, when broad-based education is available to everyone, and when skilled jobs and a solid manufacturing base are what generates the economy – not a bunch of wealthy people flipping each other properties while the rest of us make their coffee and drive their Ubers.
But building the foundations for that kind of economy takes time, and resources, and a view more long-term than next quarter’s balance sheet.
It requires the ability to understand why the state exists in the first place, and knowing that the most important thing in the world is people, not profit.
When you don’t believe that, well. Shutting down a successful jobs centre is just the logical thing to do.
To give full credit to Kathmandu, they responded quickly on social media saying they would look into the practice and disavowing that it was company policy. But someone, somewhere along the line decided this was an OK thing to do. And as the story spread, people talked about other incidents – shoe stores slashing apart unwanted items, supermarkets discarding perfectly edible food and pouring bleach on it to stop desperate, hungry people from raiding their rubbish bins.
Right now, New Zealand is a country where families are living in cars and kids are going to school hungry. To have retailers destroying perfectly good, but “unsaleable” stock, especially food or clothing, is just unconscionable.
On the other side of things we have organisations like Kaibosh and Te Puea marae providing amazing, inspiring care and support for people in need – but it shouldn’t be necessary in the first place. And it didn’t used to be.
A long time ago in New Zealand we all, through public services run by the government, ensured every family had enough money to feed their kids and a safe house to live in. We used to make people’s jobs secure and support people who weren’t able to work.
We knew some things were too important to leave in the hands of private companies whose first priority was profit. We knew together, as people who are part of a community, we could help each other. And the government, or the state, was the best instrument of that – because it wasn’t driven by making a quick buck, because it was accountable to the people.
We lost that. But we didn’t lose it by accident. It was by design.
Blame whoever you want, the point is that we were told, and began to believe, that the private sector was more efficient that the government. That the motivation of monety – the very reason we had taken these essential services off the market in the first place – would deliver “efficiencies” and “better targeted services” and “more responsive organisations.”
We have case after case showing how untrue this is. Serco. Compass. Telecom. Tranz Rail. Bank of New Zealand. New Zealanders end up paying more and more, either directly or through goverment bonuses, for less and less.
Yet it’s still the received wisdom, ingrained further and further as the National Party undermine the public services we have left, deliberately underfunding and straining them to breaking point so they can triumphantly declare, “See? The government can’t provide these services! Best sell them off.”
The end result? Someone overseas is making a lot of money, and children here in Aotearoa are living in cars, going to school not with empty lunchboxes – with no lunchboxes at all.
And because New Zealanders are caring, compassionate people, we step up. We open our doors and put our hands in our pockets
Imagine if we could pool all those resources across the country and had a single organisation with the knowledge and leverage to ensure every kid gets breakfast and every family has a home. An organisation motivated by providing good lives for people, not payouts for shareholders.
We could call the organisation, “government”. We could call those resources we all chip in, “tax”. We used to know what those things meant, before we got to where we are now. Together, we can decide to go somewhere else.
[Content note: dehumanizing language about homeless/poor people, classism]
As we stand there are four candidates confirmed running for the mayoralty of Wellington – and one of them is Nicola Young, whose claims to fame thus far have included being the only 2013 mayoral candidate not to support the living wage and trying to gull people into joining her mailing list by pretending the Kate Sheppard lights were under threat.
Well, just in case you were still wondering whether she’s really a Dickensian villain, wonder no longer. From her Facebook page:
As Mayor I will introduce a bylaw banning begging in the CBD and near cash machines – the most lucrative spots in our city – as part of a larger strategy involving the Police, WINZ, the DHB and charities. This will help guide vulnerable people to a more secure existence. It will require extra resources from the Council – but I’m confident these can be found when we dump some of the profligate municipal expenditure for which Wellington has become famous in recent years.
The kneejerk reaction is “wow, banning people who beg? Dickensian villain much?” but Young has responded to many critics asking that they understand it’s a broad policy and that exiling people to the outskirts of Panem is just “part” of the solution. Read the whole post, she says.
Sorry, Ms Young, but the whole post is a shocker. The first sentence summed up: “There are lots of beggars in Wellington.” The second begins “It’s a terrible look.” You aren’t going to get very far convincing me that you’re really just concerned about the people and making sure they have support when literally the first problem you identify is “they look gross when we have cruise ships in town.”
The second paragraph is the classic Tory smear: “They made bad choices so we have to boot them out.” The third paragraph is an excuse to bag Celia Wade-Brown, another tune Young has been singing since 2013. In the fourth, Young talks about working with agencies to help vulnerable people, and the first two she lists are the Police and WINZ. As one commenter puts it:
Ah yes, you’ll work with the police and WINZ. Two organizations famous for their compassion and commitment to helping to poor people.
Then there’s this Orwellian fever-dream of a sentence:
This will help guide vulnerable people to a more secure existence.
At the point where you’re actually typing a sentence like that, surely you have to ask yourself:
The core of Nicola Young’s campaign is convincing people she’s not a nasty Tory, which is why she says things like “the council already helps people with genuine homelessness issues”. She’s trying to draw a line around certain “undesirable” people – people whom surely no one would stand up for – in the same way the right always talk about “the working poor” (not those lazy bludgers) or “genuine hardship” (not those families who live in a car because it builds character).
She’ll deny this till she’s appropriately blue in the face, but the proof of the hate-pudding is in the eating, and the supportive comments Young’s Facebook post reveal the tune of her dogwhistle.
It seems a little early to pull out the Trump comparisons, but what can you do? You’ve got a conservative using marginalized people to stir up hate in her fanbase. Nicola Young’s going to build a wall around the Wellington CBD, and you can be sure she’ll try to pretend Celia Wade-Brown paid for it.