Metiria and Me

Anton Blank
July 2017

At the Green Party's launch of their policy to address poverty on Sunday, Greens co-leader Metiria Turei made an extraordinary confession that she had lied to the Department of Social Welfare, when she was collecting a Domestic Purposes Benefit back in the day. Turei lied to Social Welfare about having flatmates she said, because it was the only way she could survive financially. Turei put herself through law school, and she has now been in Parliament for 15 years.

The Greens co-leader went on to describe the current WINZ benefit regime where women are asked about who they are sleeping with. Some beneficiaries have had their trash cans searched for evidence of male cohabitation; WINZ workers look for men's underwear. In a repressive regime of surveillance, beneficiaries also undergo drug tests, which only 175 have failed. They can't use benefit payments to buy cigarettes and alcohol.

Later, in a press conference upstairs, a Pākehā journalist asked Turei whether beneficiaries should be allowed to take recreational drugs. This was a particularly silly question. The real issue is whether the surveillance is actually making any difference. Just maybe, the money could be better spent elsewhere? Without being explicit, this is what the Greens were signalling. The Greens have a plan to eradicate poverty which they have distilled down to three main actions:

  1. Increase benefits by 20%
  2. Raise the minimum wage to $17.75 per hour, and keep raising it until it equates to 66% of the average wage
  3. Introduce a children's payment for all low-income families with children, tied to inflation.

I like the ambition of the goal and the simplicity of the plan. The child poverty movement suffers from information overload. Projects cough out reports with almost a hundred recommendations. Who would read a report like that? 

Ummmm, I'm guessing almost no-one. Apart from the likes of Greens Chief of Staff and information junkie Deborah Morris-Travers. She has an insane capacity to retain and synthesise detail.

I felt the ra ra at the Greens event – yeah we can do it! The crowd clapped and cheered every time Turei finished a sentence. Later that evening commentators commended the Greens for a brave policy push. At the same time they cautioned that benefit reform, especially any policy that implies kindness to beneficiaries, has never been a vote-puller.

Heading into the last election however, child poverty was one of the three biggest issues for New Zealand voters. 30% of New Zealand children live below the poverty line (that's right one third!). Voters might be prone to hating on beneficiaries but New Zealanders also hate these statistics. We don't like seeing homeless people on the pavement. It goes against everything we were brought up to believe about New Zealand.

Predominantly, it is brown poverty too. Māori and Pasifika experience hardship at twice the rate of other groups.

It is appropriate then that a Māori woman, Metiria Turei, should lead the charge against poverty. Five years ago we worked together on a Māori Affairs Select Committee Inquiry into the wellbeing of Māori children. The committee produced yet another report full of well-intentioned but completely innocuous recommendations. Released just before Christmas 2013 (I believe this was a deliberate tactic from MASC Chair Tau Henare) the report sank like a stone. A year's worth of work stood for nothing.

It can be easy to become disillusioned by advocacy. Some ideas seem great at the time and don't work. Sometimes things go backward. Then there are moments of clarity, when solutions are clear and doable. Sunday was such a day. Turei's admission of benefit fraud will keep her in the news for a while. It was a smart move and I am sure she will take the opportunity to talk about the real issues and focus on simple solutions.

Turei has been driving an electric car as part of her election campaign, a BMW lent to her by a friend. At the end of the press conference a journalist questioned her about the appropriateness of the vehicle. Turei was quick to point out that her own car is a 1996 Toyota.  

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