So the political career of Metiria Turei is, in effect, now over. It goes to show the double standard in politics is alive and well. Which one, you may ask – the one where a different standard of behaviour is applied to politicians on the centre-left as opposed to those on the centre-right? Check. The one where far less is expected of white male politicians than brown female ones? Check. The one where benefit fraud gets treated far, far more harshly than tax fraud? Check. All of the above.
Offhand, I can’t think of anyone who has been hounded out of Parliament for a more trivial reason. One can rail against the malice of David Seymour and gag at the sanctimony of Kennedy Graham, but the over-riding feeling is one of sadness. Turei was not a fraudster, exposed. She brought her past actions to light in order to move others to empathy and understanding about the moral dilemmas that the welfare safety net routinely imposes on people who are trying to feed and house their families. Some people in Manurewa at least, understood and supported what she did.
Instead of empathy, Turei mostly got finger pointing. Had she really been that poor, back then? Had she been over-stating how desperate her situation had been, back then? The media has condoned its quest for blood by saying that she started it – she had quote, opened the door, unquote on this issue. Yep, anything goes once you suggest your empathy is based on personal experience. Unless Turei could substantiate that her plight was the worst of the worst, she was fair game. (How poor and desperate exactly, did a solo mother have to be at the height of the benefit cuts of 1992, in order to qualify for a dispensation from today’s well-fed inquisitors?)
In fact, Turei had always acknowledged that she received support from her extended family, and that this had helped enable her, while a young solo mother, to earn a law degree. She cited the relative advantages that she’d been lucky enough to enjoy, in the infamous speech to the Green Party AGM that kicked off this whole affair:
I was a single mum, raising my beautiful girl Piupiu while doing my law degree, and I was on the benefit. I had a great case worker at what we now call WINZ, who treated me with respect. I had the training incentive allowance as a grant to help me pay my fees and childcare. I had great support from my family and my baby’s dad, and his family too.
None of that support made solo motherhood an easy task. Eventually, she pulled herself up by her own and the family bootstraps and the benefit – pretty much in line with the right’s urgings that the welfare safety net should work in tandem with a good level of private, family responsibility. That doesn’t invalidate her critique of the way that the current welfare system operates. Not by one iota. Nor had she been advocating that people today should cheat the system. What she was calling for was a less punitive, less alienating, less demeaning, less intrusive, less miserly welfare system that would reduce the need for vulnerable people to choose between some bad-to-worse moral options. Fat chance.
The hypocrisy of the criticism leveled at Turei has been matched only by its venom. Yesterday, I pointed to the ways that Bill English and John Key had escaped virtually scot free, from far more egregious bending of the rules. By imposing austerity on others, English had also “opened the door” to the hot pursuit of his own actions by the mainstream media. The media largely chose not to go through that open door, in line with its double standard for white male politicians vis a vis brown female ones. The question was never raised about how English’s family might have felt about being officially designated by him as being residents of rural Dipton, rather than the Karori in which they were raised and schooled. By contrast, Turei was facing a public battle with members of her own extended family over the extent of the support they had provided her, 25 years ago. Some in the media would have been licking their chops at that prospect. It was this scenario more than anything, that triggered her resignation.
Reportedly, Turei’s initial rule breaking had to do with the actual number of flatmates she had in her flat, 25 years ago. Spare me. In passing, one should note the obsessive interest that WINZ has in the living arrangements of beneficiaries. A beneficiary who is sleeping with someone for instance, is immediately adjudged to be financially dependent /responsible for them, to the point where they have legal liability for any fraud that their “partner” may commit. Apart from the creepy prurience behind such rules, one can hardly think of intrusions that are more likely to destabilise a fledgling relationship. That, of course, was one of the other points Turei was making – that the benefit rules tend to be self-defeating, if their aim is to enable people to escape from the poverty trap. Too bad her critics weren’t interested in listening.
In the light of Turei’s resignation, her critics need to examine their own actions. In the past 25 years, have they ever avoided tax by offering or accepting payment under the counter? Have they (and their accountants) ever re-jigged their finances in order to minimize their tax liabilities? Currently, MPs own a staggering 350 rental properties in all, 76 MPs own two properties or more, and three MPs own seven properties or more. Have any of these MPs-as-landlords, ever bent the rules to the detriment of their tenants? And if they did, would they be likely to bring this to the public’s attention, in an act of solidarity with tenants? Hardly.
Let those without sin, something something. I think the guy who said that got a rough time of it too, for his impertinence.
The leap in the polls enjoyed by Labour – almost entirely at the expense of the Greens and New Zealand First – is great news for Labour, especially since the same polls now put new leader Jacinda Ardern within a margin-of – error striking distance of Bill English as the nation’s preferred Prime Minister. Some of the Eeyores in the Labour ranks may be worrying that Ardern could have peaked too soon, but they can relax… the television debates are still to come. If Ardern can get to level pegging before the voting public has even seen her go head to head with English, National’s strategists should be feeling very, very worried.
True, Labour’s proposal for a water tax on bottling companies and those using irrigation schemes won’t help it make inroads into National’s rural vote. (The water tax proposal was originally aimed at NZF voters, given Winston Peters’ promise to re-distribute revenue to the regions.) We all know from experience, that anything that “hurts” farmers – whether it be a carbon tax to combat climate change, or a water tax to combat water pollution – is treated as being beyond the political pale by the likes of Federated Farmers. The rest of us though would be more inclined to think that a tax on farmers using irrigation schemes is a valid, user-pays method of recovering some of the millions of taxpayer dollars that the current government has poured into irrigation schemes, many of which offered dubious returns on the investment.
True to form, National is standing on the sidelines bemoaning the Labour initiative and its impact ‘on the regions’. Some of the smarter urban voters on the centre-right may be more appreciative. They, at least, can recognise that New Zealand cannot continue to (directly and indirectly) encourage intensive dairying, as if this of no consequence to regional New Zealand.
Belatedly, members of the Crockett extended family have contacted us with their disquiet about the way that the exploits of General David “Davy” Crockett have been reported in the media. Notably, in the verse of the popular song that goes :
Born on a mountaintop in Tennessee
Greenest state in the land of the free
Raised in the woods so he knew every tree
Kilt him a bear when he was only three.
Each of those statements, some extended family members have since told RNZ, are questionable. Over the past fortnight, a crack team of our reporters has been able to confirm that
(a) the birth ensued on what is at most a steep incline, not a mountaintop
(b) arguably the state of Kentucky has a greater degree of verdancy than Tennessee
(c) As a child, Crockett’s knowledge of the name and genus of every tree in the Tennessee woods was limited
(d) As a lad, Crockett began bear killing at the age of eight at the earliest, not three as claimed.
What an incredible two weeks it has been, though. Like you, we on the Checkpoint team have been deeply disturbed by these revelations but – given that it was the Crockett family that first opened the log cabin door on this issue, our response has had to be: tough shit Crockett lovers, suck it up. Moreover… a family member has since told us that as an adult, Crockett stood on the battlement of the Alamo when first appraised of the size of the oncoming Mexican army, and gave this incredibly moving, incredibly honest response: “Omigod, lets get our sorry asses out of here. Forget the Alamo.” Incredible stuff. We’ll keep you posted on this story as it develops.