Gordon Campbell on the nation’s moral tizzy over Metiria Turei

Ever since George Washington confessed to chopping down the cherry tree, his example has been taken to heart by every politician following in his wake. Thankfully we live in a country where politicians do not lie, or try to deceive the public, and are routinely drummed from office – and from around the Cabinet table – if they are found to have done so while in Parliament, or before they entered politics. Just as with George, the axe and the cherry tree… politicians here do not, and have not ever, told a lie.

Because that’s the standard we expect and enforce, right? Even if, in the case of Metiria Turei, the lies in question were told 25 years ago, while she was a solo mother in the wake of the benefit cuts imposed by the Mother of All Budgets. Do we know about Turei’s actions because of the resolute work of the investigative media? No, she told us. She outed herself – in order to point out the inadequacy of the welfare safety net, and the moral dilemmas that routinely confront people in need. (Clearly, no one denouncing Turei has ever seen the Ken Loach film I, Daniel Blake.)

Contrast what has happened to Turei with say, a politician we’ll call Bill. In the late 2000s, Bill was the country’s Finance Minister, in which role he promoted policies of austerity. It was then revealed – not by him, but by the media – that at the same time, Bill had been living and raising a family in an urban part of the country, while claiming that a rural part of the country was his actual residence, thus enabling him to pocket – for years ! – a substantial housing allowance for his urban residence.

Was Bill shamed into resigning and/or drummed out of his senior Cabinet post in disgrace? Hardly. Bill English is now the Prime Minister of New Zealand.

True, 25 years ago, Turei also misrepresented what electorate she was living in, so that she could vote for a friend. (Terrible. No-one in their 20s should ever bend the rules to help a mate.) And what say you then, of politician John – who lived in Parnell while claiming residency in Helensville?

Mr Key and his wife, Bronagh, are listed in electoral rolls for 2002, 2003, and 2004 as “residing” at a Waimauku address in the Helensville electorate, but have never lived there.

Somehow, this didn’t stop John Key from being elected Prime Minister of New Zealand.

Meaning: Turei is being condemned for trivialities committed before she became a politician that she herself brought to public notice; while others who did much the same (or worse) for personal gain and convenience have proceeded to hold higher office, without much in the way of a mea culpa, and without inspiring anything like the same level of moral condemnation.

Sure, two (or three) wrongs do not make a right. But Turei’s actions 25 years ago were trivial misdemeanours in themselves. Not only is the point she is now making about the welfare safety net being deliberately ignored ; the principle of ‘rules are rules’ for those on benefits is being upheld by many who find it very easy, on a full belly, to support the ‘principle’ in question. One day hopefully, the Great Metiria Outrage will take its place alongside other blots on the nation’s history like the time when Helen Clark signed and raffled a painting that she hadn’t painted, and gave the proceeds to charity. A nation’s innocence chose to feel violated on that occasion, too.

Two members of the Green caucus have now felt so morally compromised by Turei’s actions that they are demanding her resignation as co-leader. The more likely outcome is that Kennedy Graham and David Clendon will be removed from the party list, so there will be a couple of silver linings to this affair – or so it would seem:

Green Party general manager and campaign director Sarah Helm revealed this evening that both MPs were asked by the party to stand down at the general election but refused to.

As a result, they were demoted in the list rankings, she said, and had been disgruntled ever since. “I think they were looking for a reason to resign or withdraw.” Helm also revealed that the two MPs had been “underperforming” in the election campaign so far. Clendon had made just one phone call, and Graham had done three to four hours’ campaigning work, she said.

Graham and Clendon have denied these accusations. Obviously, they’re free agents, with no compelling reason on the cusp of an election to put anything else ahead of their own scruples on a question where the likes of Greens co-founder Jeannette Fitzsimons – not known for being a scoundrel – hold a somewhat different view. Sportingly, on RNZ this morning, Greens co-leader James Shaw praised Graham as being a world class expert on climate change and a leader on cross party co-operation on the subject. Hmmm. Lets just say that this high assessment is a minority view around Parliament that’s quite possibly held only by Shaw, and by Graham himself.

Finally though, the Turei affair is the risk the Greens have always run. A party of values that claims to be better than everyone else will always be in jeopardy if it then proceeds to cut moral corners. Yet to repeat: Turei’s actions in recent weeks have arguably been entirely consistent with Green principles. She chose to put her reputation at risk in order to draw attention to how poverty is being weaponised, and used against those on benefits. That aim was admirable. If anyone felt worried about the Greens blanding out and converging on the political centre, Turei has just given them a pretty good reason for voting for them this year.

Mitski, revisited

Last year’s Puberty 2 album by the young Japanese-American artist Mitski Miyawaki was my pick for album of the year. In recent weeks, I’ve been listening to her 2012 album Lush, released when she was just 22 years old – and this track “Liquid Smooth” is an early example of her prickly, preternatural talent:

Talking of great singer/interpreters from another generation and style altogether…. “Dusty Skies” was not only one of the best songs that Cindy Walker ever wrote, which is saying something. This version by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys also does it full justice, thanks largely to the sensitive, Dust Bowl weary vocal by Tommy Duncan. That’s not why I’m featuring it though. In an imaginative leap, the people who put up this video have married “ Dusty Skies” to imagery that could hardly be further removed from it – yet somehow it works, in a Lynchian kind of way…