Some have rallied behind her. Some want to 'lock her up'. But Metiria Turei's confession of potential welfare fraud raises more complex questions for her and her party
The response to Greens co-leader Metiria Turei's admission that she lied to Work & Income (WINZ) while she was a solo mum in the 1990s seems to have split, rather predictably, along ideological lines. Saint or sinner, criminal or victim. But it's just not that simple.
At the Greens' AGM and launch of the party's families package on Sunday, Turei revealed that when her daughter "was little", they lived in five flats and in three of them "I had extra flatmates, who paid rent, but I didn't tell WINZ". She knew they could cut her rent and even as it stood, she was struggling to pay the bills.
"I knew that my baby and I could not get by on what was left," had her benefit been cut. Being on a benefit "made me poor and it made me lie". She has said in interviews since that our welfare system needs to be reformed so that others are not forced to cheat to survive and she is now happy to pay back the money owed.
Supporters or those sympathetic to her plight and cause, have argued that she was a victim of the Bolger government's 1991 'mother of all budgets'. You can certainly it's a minor crime, if in fact it could be proved as a crime. We don't know exactly how much would have been cut had she fessed up (and such a disclosure may influence some views), but it's more akin to doing cashies to get by (thereby defrauding IRD) than to, say, secretly recording your secretary without being in the room. Or, for that matter, misusing public monies as a member of parliament, being caught drunk driving or various other misdemeanours MPs have been punished for in recent governments.
Turei was, importanly, not a member of parliament when she did this. There was a child involved. And as Sting once sang, how do you get by if "you're too proud to beg and too dumb to steal"?
In truth, many New Zealanders will have been less than honest with a government agency at one time or another. Is this really different from lying to that cop to avoid the speeding ticket or those cash jobs? Arguably, given it was to put food on the table for a young child, it's a more noble lie.
And yet. And yet... Those on the other side of the aisle can reasonably say she knowingly broke the law. And she knowingly kept it to herself through nine years as Green Party co-leader and 15 as an MP.
As an ethicist who wants to expect better of those in public life and who was said and written recently that I have problems with lawmakers also being lawbreakers, it's not something to merely brush away. Yes, this is a great conversation starter. And if it helps people to understand the impossible choices facing those in and around poverty, then it's a good conversation to have. Really, but for the grace of God go I. Who wouldn't commit the sin of omission to help their child?
But Turei and the Greens have built their party on the moral high ground. They call for an inquiry into every misstep by other parties. They are the squeaky cleans. The do-gooders. Maybe a little mud on their face will make them more real to some New Zealanders. But others will reasonably argue that they have struggled through tough periods of their lives without taking more than the law allowed.
They should be careful with the sanctimony; Turei has done everything society would have hoped for a solo mum who couldn't make ends meet. And more. She has become a success and likely paid back what she owed and more in taxes.
And yet. Consider this: ""we all agree that people should be equal before the law; we all agree the government should be blind to the size of our wallets... But do we all argee? I'm starting to think that not everyone does think we are all equal before the law. I'm starting to think that something is rotten in the state of New Zealand politics".
That was then-Greens co-leader Russel Norman giving the same AGM speech as Turei, just four years ago. He said, "we need clean politics to help achieve a fairer society".
And all the time his co-leader had a secret that she hadn't been quite fair. Through many calls for higher standards in politics, Turei stayed silent. When in 2014 she was being touted as a minister in a Labour-led government, it was often said she would likely take a "social policy" portfolio. But she stayed silent.
As is often said in politics, it's not the crime it's the cover-up. Was it OK for her to head into that election, openly saying she wanted to be in cabinet, without telling voters she had perhaps committed a fraud? What if this had come up when she was a minister?
Now we're faced with the possibility of a police inquiry. The left have demanded them on numerous occasions to clean up politics. Sure, there's a scale of offending and this is not at the high end. But consistency demands, as Norman said, we treat people the same. WINZ should be left to decide on how to proceed - and should treat Turei as they would any other beneficiary from that preiod. MPs should be investigated and judged the same as others.
If you damn John Key for not keeping to his 2008 promise of "higher standards" for his ministers, then why excuse Turei? What would the call be for some theoretically wealthier National MP who had not declared all his or her rental income to the state prior to becoming an MP? Is it the same rule for all?
This is where it gets tricky for the Greens. They have long held politic's moral high ground and even their critics have (usually) admired that. The Greens might be do-goody, but that's because they do want to do good. So how will this admission damage that reputation? Brand Green is not quite so shiny now.
Maybe Turei would welcome a police inquiry to allow her to continue to make her point that no beneficiary should be put in a position of choosing honesty or food. And fair play to her, it's a powerful point. But considering the principle of honest MPs, what do we now make of this Green MP's 2013 speech in the House when John Banks resigned:
"...how could he have done all of those things credibly—and this is the important issue—knowing that his career and his credibility depended on his honesty? He has signed off on documents that have now led him to be in court on a charge of criminal fraud. There is an issue here of honesty, an issue of credibility, and that has had a very significant and very negative effect on this Government."
That MP was Metiria Turei. And when she said those words she was keeping a secret that could have been confessed (and even paid off) years earlier. How can she and the Greens demand full disclosure of dodgy dealings now without this being flung back at her? Consider the story today about parents not paying their fair share in child support - almost $1 billion is owed by people who aren't being straight with the state. How does Turei, as he party's spokeswoman for inequality and justice, speak to that?
No, I'm not saying this is a resigning offence. And her story raises a vital point worthy of much more discussion. Because since those cuts in the 1991 budget, beneficiaries have fallen ever farther behind those in work. If it was hard then, it's almost certainly harder now.
But if what's good for the goose is good for the gander, then those on both sides of the political debate who by default kick in behind their parties, need to stop and think what standards they expect from MPs and what they can set aside - and then judge all MPs equally.