One lied, one says she never did: The untold back-stories of political leaders Paula Bennett and Metiria Turei

Greens co-leader Metiria Turei has confessed she lied to keep her benefit.
CAMERON BURNELL/STUFF

Greens co-leader Metiria Turei has confessed she lied to keep her benefit.

Paula Bennett and Metiria Turei could have been soul sisters. They are the same age, both part-Maori and have remarkably similar life stories.

They gave birth to their sole daughters when young and single – Bennett at 17, Turei at 23 – collected the domestic purposes benefit, did tertiary study with Government help and against all the odds, became Members of Parliament.

Their experiences as young women were similar – but those experiences influenced them in different ways. What they learned from the experiences of being solo mums on benefits taught one of the importance of a welfare safety net for those who need it most, and taught the other the importance of self-sufficiency.

Paula Bennett was once a truck stop waitress in Taupo - now she has an office in the Beehive.
MONIQUE FORD/STUFF

Paula Bennett was once a truck stop waitress in Taupo - now she has an office in the Beehive.

The two were shaped by those challenges into very different political leaders and are now fighting for New Zealand's vote in September's election.  But Turei and Bennett's life experiences are at the very heart of their world views.

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Bennett, 48, became Minister of Social Welfare in a conservative National government, eventually climbing to the giddy heights of Deputy Prime Minister; while Turei, 47, had early dalliances with the McGillicuddy Serious Party and the Legalise Cannabis Party before gaining respectability as co-leader of the Greens.

Mike Charlton knew Paula Bennett when she was a truck stop waitress
supplied

Mike Charlton knew Paula Bennett when she was a truck stop waitress

Turei became a hero to beneficiaries this week after promising to increase core benefits by 20 per cent and dismantle Bennett's controversial obligations around job-seeking.

When making the announcement she also admitted to fraud - saying she'd lied about her living arrangements to keep her benefit. People came out in support, using the #IamMetiria hashtag, but others were furious – former Winz boss Christine Rankin calling Turei "absolutely disgraceful". 

Bennett, meanwhile, is still known in certain circles as "Pullya Benefit" after she ushered in strict new rules and sanctions for beneficiaries during her time as minister from 2008 to 2014 – and is seen by many to have betrayed her roots.

She told media Turei's admissions were "disappointing" because hard-working taxpayers expected honesty from people claiming a benefit.

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She herself had not "deliberately" lied to receive money during her own time on the DPB, she said.

WILD TIMES

Bennett has spoken before about how she worked hard at multiple jobs to support her daughter, Ana, eventually moving to Auckland and working in a rest-home before being accepted as a mature student at Massey University.

She's only hinted at what she was up to in her late teens and early 20s, once telling The Independent "I took an unfortunate turn in my teenage years and found myself mixing with the wrong people"; and the New Zealand Herald, "I made mistakes and rebelled a bit. When you do that sort  of thing, you meet people on the edge and doing some unsavoury sort of stuff."

Bennett, who is Minister of Police, Tourism and Climate Change Issues, declined to be interviewed about what she had told Social Welfare officials when she was on the benefit. Some people we approached said they'd been asked not to talk to the media.

But others who knew Bennett when she was a waitress at the Stag Park truck stop near Taupo and attending social events connected to the Napier Tattoo Club were happy to speak.

Truck driver Mike Charlton, known as "Charlie", was a regular at Stag Park and socialised with Bennett's circle. He remembers her as a "party girl, doing everything hard, living life to the fullest".

"She was the life and soul of parties really, she wasn't shy."

Parties would sometimes last all night, Charlton says. "There was always heaps of dope there, I saw Paula smoking."

(A spokesperson for Bennett said: "The Minister has said before she has tried cannabis in the past but she didn't particularly like it.")

Charlton says: "It pissed me off when she got into Parliament and then she started putting it into the beneficiaries. I thought 'that's a complete turnaround from what she was'."

'SHE WAS A PERFECT FIT'

Another truckie, Rex Howie, says he knew Bennett and her then boyfriend, truck driver Alan Philps, or "Philpsy", who'd helped to set up the tattoo club.

Bennett re-connected with Philps later in life and they married in 2012.

The pair were living together at a place in Lake Tutira, 40km north of Napier, Howie says, and Bennett also rented a place in Wellesley Rd, Napier.

At its height the club had more than 100 members, many of them truckers and bikers, and things would sometimes get a bit wild.

"She remembers the respectable part of it, then she glosses over the rest by saying she fell in with the wrong crowd. I say she was a perfect fit for the crowd – and they weren't a bad crowd at all."

'I NEVER THOUGHT SHE'D BECOME DEPUTY PM'

Another truck driver, Billy Sherman, who was the tattoo club's patron and worked with Philps,

remembers Bennett as "very loud, very jovial. She always managed to get herself noticed when she was in the room.

"It was a hard case crew. I never thought she'd become Deputy Prime Minister for f... sake.

"I don't have a lot of time for the woman, for her to be doing what she's doing now, and what she's done."

Lisa Farrell knew Bennett as a school kid because her parents used to be friends with her and Philps.

Farrell says she would feed Bennett's cats when she was away and babysit Ana.

She remembers visiting Bennett and Philps at their Lake Tutira place.

"All the truck drivers would hit the piss and us kids would go exploring up the hill."

Other times, parties would be held at Farrell's place. "It was keg parties, with truck drivers and bikies and stuff. Us kids would be pulling the jugs. They were always passing the funny smelling cigarettes between each other."

Farrell says many of the women in the group were on the DPB while in relationships, which is against the rules.

Stuff asked Bennett if she had claimed the DPB while in a relationship, or while living with Philps.

She said through a spokeswoman: "I was on and off a benefit during my teens and early twenties but I did not receive support that I wasn't entitled to."

"I'm proud of the woman I am, it's been a journey to get here. I have always been upfront about the fact that I haven't led a blameless sin-free past."

STRUGGLE STREET

Meanwhile, Turei had dropped out of high school with no qualifications and was looking for work in Wellington.

She and her younger sister had grown up in Palmerston North, their Maori labourer father and Pakeha mother struggling to make ends meet.

At one point, they'd had to live in a car for a couple of weeks because they couldn't find accommodation.

Turei's father, Richard, had found work through PEP schemes but in the late 1980s that suddenly changed and he had to work for the basic dole.

He was told to work for a school and asked if he could be assigned to one with a high Maori roll. Instead he was sent to a school in a wealthy, Pakeha area, Turei recalls, where he was made the janitor's assistant. It stripped him of his dignity.

"He was treated terribly, he was treated like 'the boy', it was appalling."

Like Bennett, Turei had worked as a waitress, at the Hard Rock cafe in her home town. At 17 she left home and went to Wellington, where for a time she helped write songs for a singing telegram service.

She moved back to Palmerston North and entered teachers college before becoming a community organiser at an unemployed workers rights centre. She moved to Auckland in 1991 and did similar work.

BENEFIT FRAUD

In 1993, she gave birth to her only child, Piupiu. She was single and flatting in places such as Balmoral, Dominion Rd and Arch Hill.

"It was a struggle to get by. When you're living on a really low income you have no flexibility, no control over your financial circumstances because everything you get is the barest minimum.

"You can't save ... so when things go wrong – kids get sick – you have zero ability to manage it.

"That's why people do what I did, which is just try to get a little bit more to make sure you're going to be able to keep your kids well when things go bad."

What she did was to lie about her living situation in order to keep the maximum accommodation allowance.

"So what I did basically was, I'd be living in a house and there'd be other people living there and it might be a three-bedroom house. I'd say there were three people living there but there were four.

"In one house it was one extra flatmate, in another house it was two. It was bad – it just helps you reduce your costs. It was just enough to get you over the hump."

She estimates she received somewhere between $20 and $50 a week but can't remember how long it went on for.

In 1995 she entered law school while on the DPB, receiving a training incentive allowance which helped towards fees and child care.

She was with her now-husband, Warwick Stanton, during this period, but refuses to say if she was collecting the DPB while in a relationship.

"That involves talking about other people and I think that would be a breach of trust."

Turei says she's put Work and Income NZ in a position where it has no choice but to investigate her. She'll pay back what she owes, she says.

She says admitting to her deceit was a political and legal risk.

"I didn't get any legal advice before I did it, because it wouldn't have made any difference to me and I know what the consequences are likely to be.

"It's risky to me and my family and my party, which is why I checked with them first.

"But it's worth me taking the hit if it means New Zealanders understand how appalling our welfare system has become and how easy it is to fix it."

'PAULA KNOWS EXACTLY HOW HARD IT IS'

Bennett told RNZ this week the Greens' plan to take away work obligations for beneficiaries "completely horrifies me".

She admitted that thousands of people had had their benefits cut, but said sole parents who'd found work were doing "so much better off benefit".

Turei says Bennett's changes to the welfare system have been "disastrous".

"Under her changes there's no way I could have been on the DPB and studied for a law degree. I would have been trapped in a system of low pay and benefits.

"In my opinion she has stolen from thousands of women and children their rights to a decent future by imposing these burdens and sanctions that have locked them into a poverty cycle.

"What angers me mostly about Paula is that she knows exactly how hard it is to live on a benefit with a small baby, and she has looked other women in the eye and said 'I will not help you'.

"I look at her story and I just cannot understand how someone who knows what it is like would subject that same experience on anybody else."

 - Sunday Star Times

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