A minor infraction
Metiria Turei, what an exceptional 23 year old she must have been, deciding to go to law school without having finished high school, a solo mum on a benefit, Māori in a decidedly Eurocentric academic career path, surrounded by indistinguishable smoothly moneyed Pākehā plonkers in polo shirts. For her to have been there at all is damned amazing.
So, being a smart go-getter type, she figured out a way to get something she wasn’t strictly entitled to – a tiny bit more accommodation supplement, enough to make ends meet. It’s a bit like the many law students who take advantage of loopholes to get a student allowance because their parents’ income is lower on paper than it is in practice, thanks to some crafty accounting and the peculiarities of our trust law.
Who gives a shit about the extra accommodation supplement. Getting more accommodation supplement than you’re meant to because you don’t declare your flatmates and you’re trying to feed a child while studying to get a career that will allow you to be financially independent, it’s about the tamest lie of omission imaginable. An extra $20 a week that meant her kid could have a full puku, how could anyone be bothered by that?
But open a newspaper or a news website (don’t turn on the tv, it’s too much), and instead of everyone agreeing that we need to fix the social safety net, instead I see:
Fraud! Liar! Cheat! SEND IN THE HOUNDS!!! Don’t have kids if you can’t afford them!!
Like, wow, guys (it’s mostly guys), how’d you get so fucking mean? What happened to you, to make you feel so threatened by someone who is trying to make the world a kinder gentler place for our tamariki?
And then, an extra pebble of a problem, it was uncovered by the media that in 1993 Metiria was enrolled to vote at an address different to where she lived. Which by itself is also a nothing. It was 23 years ago. At the time, we had a FPP system – and there was a big push to change it because it was so undemocratic. We also only had only four Māori electorates (they were not yet indexed to population) so unlike the current system, they acted as a way to reduce the influence of Māori voters and keep Māori politicians on the periphery. I’m not sure that enrolling in the wrong electorate on purpose counts as morally blameworthy when the electoral system itself was very unrepresentative. Silly, yes, sure, if you knew you were going to be judged on it in 25 years time. But not a big deal. Not a major stain on someone’s character.
Watching the press conference yesterday, Metiria’s mana in fronting up to the political consequences was extraordinary. She has accepted an enormous personal cost as the price for starting a conversation that centres the experience of people living on benefits, that stakes a claim for their dignity and right to a decent life in the face of a political culture that often seems to forget these are real people.
Exploring some reasons for the vitriol
There’s a double standard and it’s obvious. No other politician in the past twenty years has gotten this level of flak and outright media vitriol. Not MPs who did majorly wrong things wrong while in office, and definitely not MPs who did something wrong twenty years ago. Bill English and the housing allowance is the most obvious comparitor – and he is now the Prime Minister!
There are other factors at play in this issue and they are ugly.
In every step of challenging the patriarchy, many men have pushed back and sought to keep women financially dependent. We’ve come a long way, but mothers of small children remain the most financially vulnerable group of adults in our society and the least likely to have an independent source of income. The financially dependent wife and mother is in a subordinate position in a relationship, and this is how a lot of influential men prefer things to be. Government financial support for single mothers would be a huge threat to their personal lives, though they’d never admit it.
While some men value the unpaid contribution to household and children, and role differentiation can be a mutually supportive situation, too often that’s not the case. The power differential might manifest in small ways: she’s expected to clean up after her husband’s mess, and not complain that he goes on skiing holidays with his friends while she’s at home with the kids, and sympathise when he grumbles about his long day at the office while he never wants to hear about her equally long day. Or, the power differential might mean she is generally expected to keep quiet and tow the line – she ignores his repeated affairs, she moves overseas for his work despite this ripping her away from her support networks. At the worst end of this continuum is relationship abuse (including emotional abuse), which spans all income levels, and which is compounded by difficulties becoming financially independent after leaving a relationship. The scale of this problem in our society is shocking. Police investigated over a 100,000 incidents of family violence last year.
Who benefits from the narrative that says earning money is more important for kids than day-to-day caregiving? The answer is easy: people who support their kids financially but don’t provide hands-on parenting! These people are mostly men. If the state can step in to provide the money, their role is suddenly shrunken down. So single parents are expected to be in paid work and outsource the childcare, despite this being extraordinarily difficult for women on low incomes (have you SEEN THE COST OF CHILDCARE?!), and despite this being exactly the opposite of what children need.
Metiria Turei is Māori. It was a brown baby going hungry, and that’s just not as important to our society. The racism is full frontal obvious, and with it a Pākehā narrative that sees Māori as a nuisance in the way of a shiny society of self-made individuals springing afresh from a newly discovered land. But – this is not our land! All Pākehā benefited from a masssive transfer of wealth from the indigenous population to the colonisers, and it’s not just historical, it’s ongoing. (Who is more likely to be paying rent and who is more likely to own rental properties? Why is capital gains on rental property not taxed while GST is charged on everything we buy?)
Metiria Turei was the first in her family to go to university. Is there an interest served by keeping some people out of the halls of the secure professions? Of course there is! Someone needs to clean the law firms late at night. The worse it is to live on a benefit, the more willing people are to accept crap employment conditions.
Discrimination against children
You can’t justify unlivable benefits unless you’re willing to sacrifice children’s wellbeing at the alter of parental responsibility. Which is extremely fucked up. If you see children as the responsibility of the parents, not as society in general, what does that say about the status of children as people in their own right? Imagine the reverse – imagine if your wellbeing in your retirement depended on your children being able to financially support you. Seem absurd? Well it’s even more absurd that we do it for kids, who have no ability to plan for the vulnerable phase of being children and no ability to help their parents to obtain financial security so that they can have a comfortable infancy.
Metiria is really damn awesome. Really.
Auckland Law School is not a welcoming environment for people outside the mould. When I was there, I was following in the footsteps of my mum, who graduated from her BA/LLB with a big pregnant belly full of me. And even as a second generation law student, even from a life of solidly middle class privilege, I felt a bit on the outer: my parents were left-wing, I was not an alumnus of Dio or St Cuths.
Many of the lecturers had a strong social conscience, and in tutorials we discussed cases of social interest – like the one where an abusive relationship was considered to be a relationship in the nature of marriage and the beneficiary who failed to declare the relationship was found guilty of fraud. There was a solid group of us who saw the law as a potential tool of oppression, or at least an interesting part of our social framework, and some papers gave scope to explore this angle; but it’s safe to say that the overall vibe was “get a job in a big firm, and make money by helping people with money make more money”.
Metiria Turei got through law school, and got a job in one of the top firms, and she did it all by herself while raising a kid. The scale of that achievement is extraordinary. And she’s gone on to raise that child and has achieved a stellar political career, growing the Greens into an integral part of our political scene and leading their social policy development. And yet, having made it to leader of her party, as secure as she has ever been in her political career, an honest discussion of the difficult times when she was young and just starting out has generated an attack machinery we’ve not seen before in any political scandal in my lifetime. The New Zealand Herald is calling for her resignation. They’re holding her to the pinnacle of a standard that many other politicians have fallen short of in worse ways. There’s no benefit of the doubt being given for something that happened two decades ago, no acknowledgement of what has happened since. No compassion for human imperfection and trying to get ahead in a harsh world.
It fucks me off.
Yesterday a colleague who I respect a lot said “yeah, but would you have committed fraud when you were 23?”, and I was a bit flummoxed and didn’t think of a response quickly enough. It’s not a fair comparison; I was 23 seven years ago not twenty years ago; I was already a practising lawyer at 23; I’d had 23 years of being primed for a professional career and being told what the expectations were of society’s leaders; I was not financially independent at 23 – my parents were shortly about to pay for my wedding; I didn’t have a child yet at 23; and most important, nothing really hard had happened in my life yet at 23.
But when I was 22, in my final year of law school, I was living away from home and my parents were paying my rent and I decided to borrow living costs from Studylink so I didn’t have to do as much paid work and could focus on getting good grades. That’s completely legal. And I got an interest-free loan for that money. Pretty easy to see who the system is designed for.
The policy issue and the enormous social deficit of focusing on paid work
After Metiria’s initial speech in which the new welfare policy was released, Paula Bennett said “If you can work you should be, and if you are on a benefit and you can be looking for work then I think most New Zealanders expect there to be a mutual obligation that you’re doing that.”
We’ve never ever ever had a society where everybody is expected to do paid work for 30+ hours a week.
That society could not function.
We’ve always had lots of people who contribute through unpaid work – caring for children, keeping our community infrastructure running smoothly through volunteer work. This work is hard, and creative and innovative and essential.
We’ve always had lots of people who cannot do regular paid work day in, day out, especially with a survival of the fittest attitude towards employability that’s so beloved of capitalism these days; but who can do a lot of productive stuff at their own pace, and who would be worthy of dignity and social support and a good standard of living even if they couldn’t.
It’s always been complex to match the work that needs to be done with the skills of the people available to do it and the physical materials available to support them. Jobs don’t just materialise because people are available to work. The unemployed used to be considered unlucky, not blamed for their own predicament.
My great-grandmother was widowed, left with eight children, during a fucking war, in a city that was being bombed all the time. I mean holy hell, right! That’s INTENSE. She was in paid work when her youngest children were small, she had to be, because with a sick husband who else was going to support the family? Working class women have always been expected to work. And after my great-grandfather died, she had the widow’s benefit, but it wasn’t enough to live on, not even close.
My grandmother entered the middle class in the post-war boom, and part of that was an expectation that women would not do paid work. When she and my grandfather divorced, she was left with no employable skills to support herself and my aunt.
My mother went through university absolutely determined that she would get a job that provided a reliable income, so she would never be in that position herself. In one of fate’s twists, when my brother was a tiny baby, my dad got very sick, and mum had to go back to paid work sooner than she planned. It was a really tough time for them – they could have used more financial support from the state, because they weren’t able to draw on any from their families, and it was a pinch keeping things together.
I don’t remember that period. My memories of my childhood are of my parents having more spare money than spare time, because they were both in paid work. My grandmother filled an important childcare role. She was on a sickness benefit by then, so she was around during the day. She didn’t have to work. But she did have a constant anxiety about continued eligibility that only eased when she became old enough for superannuation. She was always very concerned that WINZ would chase her up if mum bought her some groceries or gave her a bit of cash for looking after us. She picked us up after school fairly often, came on school trips with us, and was always available at short notice when we were sick. It’s only as a parent myself that I realise how important this really was. How valuable this contribution was. Not just to my parents, but to me. My taxes could be raised to Scandinavian levels and they still wouldn’t come close to repaying what I received as the recipient of my grandmother’s tax-payer funded caregiving availability.
Within the tangle of vitriol against Metiria, I’m interested in the undercurrent of resentment of having to be in paid work, this idea that beneficiaries shouldn’t be able to make a “lifestyle choice” to stay out of paid work indefinitely. If you hate work so much and want to be able to chill out and do other stuff, shouldn’t that be channelled at trying to get better working conditions, more annual leave, that sort of thing? Core values of the left.
At the same time, there’s the idea that work is the only valid contribution to society. Imagine if we took Paula Bennett’s words and replaced the word “work” with something else, like caring for others. Those who can care for others should. Those who can pay more taxes to fund desperately needed increases in social spending should.
Those who can play with small children, enjoying them and bonding with them and creating lifelong connections, should.
My brother was out of work briefly two years ago, he’d returned from overseas and had a permanent job lined up but there was a gap of a few months. We had some lovely lovely afternoons, him and me and the little dude. I’d leave my office at 3pm and get the little dude from creche, and my brother would meet us at the beach. I was pregnant and slow-moving, so the little dude was delighted to have a bouncier adult to play with. In those months, my brother also volunteered teaching refugees to speak English. His time wasn’t as full as it might have been otherwise, but it wasn’t wasted. I don’t think the beneficiary-bashers would be too worried about my brother, they’d probably think, eh he’s young, let him have his fun, he’ll be shackled to a desk soon enough.
But they’re definitely worked up about Metiria. Surface level, you have some sort of moralising claptrap about playing by the rules and working hard. Next level down you have distaste towards people who are women, poor, mothers, Māori, left-wing, and outspoken.
Life throws curve balls. One strand of animosity towards beneficiaries might be people trying to distance themselves from that reality. If financial upsets could happen to any of us, we need to change the system. If we’re vulnerable, we should be worried that the system set up to catch us is not working. But if we make it clear that beneficiaries are in that position through some fault of their own, we’re safe. And we don’t have to do anything to fix it for others.
This backlash has been fierce, but it’s harder and harder to hold the view that beneficiaries deserve their fate the more we talk about these issues and listen to people like Metiria who bravely put themselves forward to share their stories. I’m inspired by the words of that press conference “change is coming”.
Kia kaha Metiria. Ko koe he rangatira toa. Ko koe te tino kaiwhakaohooho o tenei pāremete.