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.

Comments (25)

by Alan Johnstone on July 18, 2017
Alan Johnstone

What does she think of people that were in similar situations to her and told the truth? 

I'm not going to slaughter her for what she did, but I do have a problem with her attitude now.  There's no "mea clupa", in fact there is an encouragement to others to do the same.

I don't see how she can be a credibile minster if she picks and chooses which laws to follow

by Andrew Geddis on July 18, 2017
Andrew Geddis

Isn't the issue that our system of benefits post-1991 has become so punative that it forces many individuals into making quite invidious choices? So, Turei put moral necessity - "I need to provide for the needs of my child" - over compliance with the letter of the law. Is the important wrong then the failure to do what the law says, or is it that the law (literally) was taking food from the mouth of a child? 

As Russell Brown writes here:

I don’t have any sweeping moral proclaimation to make about fiddling the system. In principle, I don’t like it. But I do know, and have always tried to recall, how hard keeping a family fed and housed on a benefit was after the 1991 cuts. And I know that faced with the same choices, I’d probably do the same thing again.

Also, the Greens have form for tolerating "good" lawbreakers in their ranks. Sue Bradford?

by Moz on July 18, 2017
Moz

Another side to this is the question of just how pure we want our politicians to be. If we demand saints I suspect we're going to end up with liars, simply because no-one is that pure.

I know for myself that if I got audited by the tax department I would probably not be able to justify some deductions, and that's only partly because the receipts are those useless thermal printer scraps of paper. And the tax office is not going to accept "I didn't claim all the deductions I was entitled to, so it balances out" and more than anyone else should. I can't produce the paperwork from 7 years ago, let alone 20 years ago, so I'm a tax evader. It's that simple... to purists.

by Moz on July 18, 2017
Moz

We also face the conflict between law and morality, which was perhaps most blatant with conscription but also strongly affects a lot of Treaty protests. How should citizens deal with law-breaking by the lawmakers, let alone gross immorality... that's a strangely topical question today.

The question of protests is somewhat different, and IIRC Aotearoa even has the necessity defence that recognises protest in some situations. I've been arrested for breaking the law during protests, and even convicted on occasion. But my feelings about that are very simple... what I did was right. I wonder whether John Key and Helen Clarke feel the same about their decisions to let people in their care die? Trading votes for lives is common in politics, but I find it hard to describe doing so as morally acceptable.

by barry on July 18, 2017
barry

It is a question of which laws you break and why.  Clearly the Greens supported the Waihopai attackers and other acts of civil disobedience.

So criminal greed or selfishness is bad, but breaking laws in support of the weak or of noble causes is not.

by Dennis Frank on July 18, 2017
Dennis Frank

I had the same reaction as Andrew & Russell initially.  After a few days assessing the media coverage I find myself giving her more credit for courage.  I do agree with Tim re the hypocrisy in respect to criticising Banks, but the adversarial structure of parliament forces politicians into a straitjacket that makes hypocrisy inevitable and normalises it.

I agree with Moz too.  The law is often an ass, and bad law inevitably produces outlaws when folks act according to conscience.  At age 68 I look back on a life mostly spent as an outlaw, being a typical sixties rebel.  The only healthy and sane life path when enmeshed in a sick mainstream society required getting high frequently and creating a positive alternative instead.  The public morality of the mainstreamers was a malignant social pathology.  Bolger's welfare nazis were a popular expression of it.  Public morality condoned WINZ oppression while Labour was in government too, of course.  Left/right collusion in the mass-production of victims is a tradition inherited from the christians.  About time to eliminate it.

by Mikaere Curtis on July 19, 2017
Mikaere Curtis

It is a false equivilence to compare Metiria feeding and housing her child - btw. the difficulties in having enough money to survive are a direct result of National's 1991 benefit cuts - with that of John Bank's dishonest approach to signing off campaign documents.

Not having enough money to support yourself and child is one thing, but taking a deliberate approach of not checking the details of a campaign expense declaration is totally different.  One happened years ago, the other is directly related to an attempt 
to get one's self elected to public office.

Tim, surely you can see the difference ?

by Moz on July 19, 2017
Moz

For contrast, the Greens in Oz have just lost another senator to the bar on dual citizenship. Australia really is purging the federal senate, that makes four so far this year. On the one hand I think it's good to make sure elected representatives obey the law, but I'm almost tempted to say that we should announce a new, strciter compliance regime to start at the next election rather than the current setup where the honest ones resign and the cheats sit schtum hoping no-one finds out. Or it may be that The Greens genuinely have lax pre-selection checks and the other parties don't... but then I look at some of the people who get selected and surely that can't be true.

by Alan Johnstone on July 19, 2017
Alan Johnstone

"Isn't the issue that our system of benefits post-1991 has become so punative that it forces many individuals into making quite invidious choices? "

I don't think it is, as evidence I'd point to the 10s of thousands of other people in the same situation as her who presumably didn't lie and cheat the system.

by Dennis Frank on July 19, 2017
Dennis Frank

We don't actually know how many thousands of beneficiaries do or don't lie & cheat the system.  Human nature being what it is, my guess is a 50:50 split is likeliest (bell curve).

I suspect the benefit system was deliberately constructed to punish poor people who had too many children, and has been operated accordingly.  Fair to describe those who did this as agents of a latter-day form of class warfare.  I interpreted Metiria's outing of her choice to keep her children alive rather than conform to Bolger's rules as a way of demonstrating solidarity with other such victims of malign government policies.  Rather than seeming just another platitude-dripping leftist, she is now presenting as authentic, courageous.  The Herald editorial said she had no right to do what she did, but the Herald has always tried to turn kiwis into conformist cowards.  Faced with that ethical choice, she knew the greater good lay in choosing to feed her children, and Bolger's policy had made it impossible under his rules.  She was right to so choose.  I bet a large swathe of this country knows that.

by Tim Watkin on July 20, 2017
Tim Watkin

I have sympathy with a lot of the arguments here and am wary to create a false impression. I'm not seeking to force our representatives into sainthood. Indeed, some saints and the very person they follow were rather rebellious in their own right.

The point is well made that other Greens MPs (and MPs from other parties) have been arrested. And, as I said in the post, it matters that a child was involved.

But I'm stubborn enough about political ethics to keep discussing this and asking some questions. First, I'm still wary that people for partisan reasons howl with outrage at possible law-breaking by one party and the perceived failings of those they don't like, but make excuses for their own team. If deceiving WINZ does not disqualify you from being Social Welfare Minister, for example, could anyone condemn Todd Barclay or Chris Bishop should they become Health Minister? (I realise one of those examples is entirely hypothetical!). Point being, sometimes what is done before a person is a politician is judged to have implications for their political career.

Second, principle is not sacrosanct, but it matters. Mikaere, yes I take your point, but you're arguing that if the means justifies the ends, let's forget about the principle that politicians should abide by certain standards. Yep, there are lots of reasonable reasons to explain away what Turei did. But I don't think we should brush off questions of honesty so easily.

Moz, sure you can choose your own moral standards over the law. But then you have to allow others to live by that standard too. Barclay for example chose his moral standards over the law, and was forced to resign. So where's the consistent line if we are a nation of individual moral choices rather than a nation of laws? Yes, perhaps that's a high falutin' point for a probably minor sin of omission, but I believe it's worth considering.

Some of say she did it to feed her child, which makes it OK. I'd agree. But we don't know the full facts yet. For a start, many others on the same punative benefits did not deceive WINZ (sure, many surely did). They found other ways to get by. No child starved. We don't actually know how long she did this for and how much would be owed. Would it make a difference if it amounted to $50,000 compared to $500?

I often say 'you can only spend a dollar once'. So the money that went to her didn't go to someone else.

And given that she's now one of the elite now, earning more than 95% of New Zealanders, why not pay it back? Why wait for WINZ to decide? Why not empower herself and clear the debt to society? Why not make sure that money now does go to someone else?

Finally, the bigger political point is not her moral dilemma, but what it does to Brand Green. Do they lose the moral high ground? Not to mention the policy point, which is what the detail of the policy says about where the Greens are going and how they are setting themselves apart. It's here.

by Moz on July 20, 2017
Moz

Tim, with politicians I think we have generally decided to let convictions be the deciding line. When a politician breaks the law, as they all do pretty much every day*,no-one bats an eyelid for the most part. The furore over Helen Clarke speeding was instructive, in that no-one went round asking every MP whether they broke speed limits then set up a speed trap to see whether they were lying. Just one obvious example.

As far as personal morality, that is a tricky one and I am as a rule inclined to let law be the baseline, but allow "more moral" behaviour. So when John Banks says "you stupid suckers didn't even notice"... he's not claiming a higher moral purpose, he's admitting that he's a criminal only restrained by fear of punishment. But when Ms Turei says "I stole to feed my child"... I think that counts as higher moral purpose purely on the grounds of necessity. And in her case she was dealing with a system that had been designed specifically to immiserate people who were already in poverty, despite the general will of the people being that children shouldn't be allowed to starve. I think you could justify her actions as protest if you wanted to.

*the British legal system is based on the idea that everyone breaks the law, what matters is who gets prosecuted.

by barry on July 20, 2017
barry

Tim: "I often say 'you can only spend a dollar once'.

Funny habit!  I am pretty sure that I have managed to go through a good many years without saying that even once.

In any case, that doesn't apply to governments.  If the government gives a dollar to someone, then they get back the GST when it is spent, and tax on the income of the shopkeeper and their suppliers. And the rest is spent elsewhere in the economy going round and round until it has all ended up back with the government (apart from a small portion that might end up overseas or under a mattress).

If the government wanted to see growth they would increase benefits by 20% and GDP would suddenly increase by 5%.

Neoliberals know this and the reason they want to keep benefits down and bully beneficiaries back to work is not to save money so much as to keep down wages.  If poeple have choices they won't work for minimum wages.  This is why NZ wages have been largely stagnant in the last 20 or so years.

by Tim Watkin on July 21, 2017
Tim Watkin

Moz, yes we have usually decided to let the law be the line, which is why Turei's admission that she lied to WINZ (something that people are prosecuted for), can't just be dismissed. You then go onto points of higher moral purpose, but that's exactly the point – one person's higher moral purpose is another's moral failure. And vice versa. You may think it counts as a higher moral purpose, others do not.

The question politically is what do most voters think. 

I think you've also got to be very careful with the political views you introduce there in place of facts. And I say that to those on the other side of the debate too. You can't say she 'stole to feed her child'. We don't know how long this went on for, how much was taken, where the money went... We can reasonably assume she was struggling financially, possibly seriously. But no children were starving to death in NZ in the 90s. Certainly poverty-related diseases grew etc, but 'stole to feed my child' suggests are more life and death scenario than is the case in NZ, at least to me.

People have been quick to compaer her to Jean Valjean. Now given what I've been writing, I understand the point of principles. But Dunedin in the 1990s was hardly Paris in the 1830s. There was no dead mother ... and no offer to come back in a few days to pay for her crime either, if we're being pedantic! So while the benefit cuts were all kinds of harsh, you make Bolger and co some kind of monsters by saying their policies were "designed specifically to immiserate people who were already in poverty".

I think we should be careful not to paint her as either a saint or a devil who must be locked up forthwith even without any investigation, as some on the right are demanding.

 

by Tim Watkin on July 21, 2017
Tim Watkin

Barry, I've spent a lot of time asking politicians questions and the 'spend a dollar only once' one is a particular favourite. My colleagues can testify to that! But I'm odd that way.

While money does circulate, I don't agree with your idea that dollars are that elastic. And while I agree money spent raising benefits would largely be spent again and would create some stimulus, I'd love to know where you get 5% from. We've seldom got that sort of growth, including when benefit rates were much higher. Sorry, it's not that simple. 

by Moz on July 21, 2017
Moz

yes we have usually decided to let the law be the line, which is why Turei's admission that she lied to WINZ (something that people are prosecuted for), can't just be dismissed

As certain people like to vigorously point out, she was never proecuted let alone convicted, so she's not guilty of any offence. This is really important to one side of politics, and it's not the one The Greens are on. But conveniently they have forgotten that because they also operate in a "what we do is good, what they do is bad" framework. As with people linking to WhaleOil to bolster their arguments, once you've gone there you can't turn back, you've set the bar that you're judged on.

I think a big part of the reaction her her admission is from Just World fantasists who correctly see her statement as a threat to their preferred way of presenting the system. Those who say "the system works, the outcomes are fair, good people are rewarded and bad people punished"... this story is wrong in many ways and directly undermines the fable they rely on. It's impossible to say "tax cuts for the rich are a just reward for hard work" when Metiria Turei is standing there saying "I did a bad thing, but you want to give me a tax cut".

I regard the law as, at best, a poor minimum standard for moral behaviour. To me "thinks anything legal is moral" is an extremely harsh condemnation but I have met people who regard anyone with higher standards as naive and foolish. Often they also subscribe to the "if you don't get caught you're not a criminal" idea.

I'm not bothered by the particulars of her offence, because as I said she was dealing with a benefit level deliberately set lower than the poverty line. Criticising people who broke those rules is explicitly demanding that those people live in misery for your benefit, and the more you do that the lower my opinion of you becomes. I know there are people who delight in the misery of others, but I choose not to associate with them.

by Moz on July 21, 2017
Moz

The arguement that "if you allow one type of lawbreaking, anything goes" doesn't work for me.

As I pointed out, many lawbreakers don't try that defence even though it exists now. As I understand it the entire point of sentencing hearings is so that the arguments being had about Metiria Turei's admission can be aired and taken into account. In the unlikely event that  she could be convicted, there would be a discussion about how severe the offence was, what mitigating factors exist, likelihood of reoffending etc etc.

One of the key differences between a democracy and more authoritarian systems is that when the body politic change their mind about a law, the law can change. We legalised honosexuality and gave women property rights, for example. We also have exceptions to laws against killing for motorists because we recognise that driving safely is hard - and even those lax laws restricting dangerous behaviour by motorists are rarely enforced.

I'd like to hear you argue the consequence of your apparent desire to see all the laws enforced all the time, and every lawbreaker punished. Or even see some evidence that you've thought about what that means. Take the trivial example of speeding, since it seems a popular comparison. If every vehicle had a GPS and licence slot/reader with mapping etc, and speeding fines were automatically applied whenever the vehicle was speeding, what do you think would happen? How about if the vehicle was immobilised unless there was a valid license inserted, and the license was disabled in real time when sufficient points were accumulated. Fair and reasonable, or strawman argument?

by Moz on July 21, 2017
Moz

Also:

The question politically is what do most voters think.

There is solid eveidence that people rarely think, and especially not when voting. They feel. And how they feel very much depends on how the question is phrased. Which is why there's such vigorous debate right now.

Should the sanctimonous Greenie be punished for defrauding honest, hardworking taxpayers like you?

compared to

Should a solo mother forced into destitution despite her best efforts be punished decades after she's rebuilt her life for a minor offence she committed out of desperation?

Confirmation bias pushes different people in different directions on this issue. My experiences of (vicarious) poverty, and my researching and thinking on the issue, push me to say that what she did was almost certainly a good thing. I don't say that out of any affection for, or even knowledge of, Metiria's specific situation. It's almost entirely based on the argument from necessity, and in the context of my distaste for a state structure that deliberately punishes the poor and rewards the rich. As if being rich isn't its own reward, and being poor its own punishment.

As I suspect you know, I'm in that socially-deviant group of high income people who not only believe people like me should be forced to pay more tax, and you can probably guess (correctly) that I also donate to charity at a rate more common among poor people than rich ones. That's higher than average not lower, in case you're unaware.

by Megan Pledger on July 21, 2017
Megan Pledger

The two alternatives seem to be starving the child or taking in a boarder.  But there are other alternatives - working part-time/studying part-time;  year on/year off studying and working.   Both of those things are not uncommon.  

However, from societies perspective, we are better off that she acquired her qualification sooner rather than later - her child got the benefit from her mother having a higher paid job earlier and from having a well-educated mother earlier (which is associated with all sorts of positive outcomes for a child).  She would have got off the benefit sooner and she would have been paying boatloads more tax in a higher paying job.  The  "dollar spent on her once" got repaid in tax.

In the "cost to society" stakes, it's probably a wash. 

 

 

 

 

by Ross on July 23, 2017
Ross

But no children were starving to death in NZ in the 90s

Hmmm I'm not sure of the relevance of that. Anyway, Turei's daughter reckons she would've gone hungry (or maybe her mother would've gone hungry). I would've thought that's fairly important, not whether she would have died.

http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=11893562

I suggest to anyone that they watch the film I Daniel Blake which is most relevant to this issue.

by Ross on July 23, 2017
Ross

In 2010, former National MP and former Children's Commissioner Roger McClay was convicted on multiple counts of fraud and was sentenced to 300 hours community work. That seems like a light sentence given his position, his persistent and prolonged offending and given that he maintained his innocence for quite some time.

http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/crime/4058747/Former-MP-commissioner-sentenced-for-fraud

http://www.radionz.co.nz/news/national/329/former-mp-roger-mcclay-admits-fraud

by Andin on July 24, 2017
Andin

"But Turei and the Greens have built their party on the moral high ground"

On certain issues maybe, but stop being so pollyannaish. It's part of the stock and trade of politicians today. (I dont know why) Maybe that is what should change. All this squabbling over who has a claim to the high ground is a morbid joke.

by Tim Watkin on July 24, 2017
Tim Watkin

Megan, your judgment is reasonable, but it's not the judgment of the law. That has never been made. There are lots of people who have probably 'paid off' their crimes in some way or another because they haven't been prosecuted/caught. But that's not the way the law works. You don't get to set your own sentence.

Andin, you judge politicians to some extent by the standards they set for themselves. The Greens have always urged higher standards. They say, as you do, politicians should do better and they will be an example of that. Hence the issue here.

by Charlie on July 31, 2017
Charlie

There may be more to uncover about the lady who wears $5,000 dresses to Parliament:

Was she also getting cash under the table from her partner's mother?

Was one of those flatmates also the father of her child? 

If the above are shown to be true then she was never entitled to DPB at all, has committed a far more serious fraud and owes the taxpayer a far larger sum.

by KJT on August 01, 2017
KJT

"Bolger and co some kind of monsters>.

Yes. The deliberate setting of welfare below sustainance levels, to force people into jobs that are also paid below sustainance levels,  was not only monstrous, but should be regarded as a moral and legal crime.

All the politicians which carried on with the same level of moral bestiality, should be in jail.

Unfotunately. Blighting the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, is legal!

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