Alice Snedden: Stop the Metiria Turei witch hunt
OPINION: Last week Metiria Turei made a shocking announcement, admitting she was a hardened criminal, on the run from the law.
It was a truly bizarre way to launch her forthcoming campaign. Not only because evading the law isn't strictly 'policy', but also because few criminals have so boldly tested the theory of "hiding in plain sight". Metiria's crime was of course, stealing from the government.
Years ago, as a struggling single mother, Metiria broke into the Prime Minister's bedroom and ransacked his night stand (Treasury) and stole cash. I'm talking 10, 20, 30 (more than that?) dollars. She is basically a one-woman Ocean's 11, or rather, the one women in Ocean's 11. And she would have got away with it too, if it weren't for her insistence that she announce it publicly. It's fair to say, that in a perfect crime, that was her only real misstep.
The reaction to her announcement has been split.
* Turei's middle-class hand wringing will hurt Labour
* Metiria Turei: I'll pay MSD
* Alice Snedden: an ode to the Waterview Tunnel
* Alice Snedden: cheers Bill English, you're Labour's secret weapon
There's the usual beneficiary lynch squad,led by Christine Rankin, who want nothing more than to condemn this behaviour. And then there are those to see this behaviour not as an indictment of the individual, but a symptom of a system failing to provide adequate support. This side is made up of a hodgepodge of liberal hippies, god-botherers and evidence based social policy analysts. They have no leader as they don't believe in hierarchy. Personally, I belong to the latter group. If not solely for their social values, then for the superiority of their Christmas party.
Outrage at this story is completely wasted. For one, this is a cleverly placed admission designed to get attention and spark discussion. It is a calculated risk and not one Metiria would have admitted if there was genuine concern about her still being prosecuted.
Secondly, given the position she was in, as a poor single mother, she did what she had to do to survive. Was it against the law? Yes. Strictly speaking, it was illegal fraudulent activity. But strictly, is not always a good threshold for interpretation of the law. If it was, I'd be handing myself over to the local police station on account of some of my actions between the ages of 15 - yesterday.
Beneficiaries in this country have long been villainized by the political parties, the media and the public at large. Too often they're tarnished with tired stereotypes that paint them as lazy, failures and the authors of their own demise.
Our dialogue around those on the benefit so rarely offers them the benefit of the doubt. Opinions are formed about them in isolation from the societal factors that have contributed to their situations. Assumptions are made that those who need help should be doing more to help themselves. All this adds up to a strict approach to benefit fraud that doesn't examine why the need is there in the first place to be fraudulent. We should be reacting to a story of a single mother unable to support her child and herself with compassion not calls for criminal conviction.
I've sat at the back of a court room as a person was convicted for benefit fraud for the sum of around $130. It was a waste of time and the result of nothing more than a witch hunt. A witch hunt, I might add that costs the system in real dollars more to prosecute than the damages awarded.
It's bad business to focus on benefit fraud, especially when this country is stacked with people regularly undertaking tax avoidance and evasion. It's like a shop owner worrying about the till missing $5, while someone robs the place around them. Cutting back on loop holes for tax avoidance and convicting people for tax evasion is where our effort should be spent. In fact, you could start with the dozens of rich kids I knew receiving falsely receiving student allowances. That's fraud! Mind you this government doesn't care, because those fraudsters get out to vote.
- Sunday Star Times