In modern politics you have to make people feel: Metiria Turei reflects on her benefit bomb

My job is to stand up for those who don't have a voice: Turei

My job is to stand up for those who don't have a voice: Turei

"You have to make people feel, whether they hate you or love you."

It was Wednesday, and Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei was pondering the impact of her benefit fraud confession and the party's radical welfare policy.

"I think we took a big risk".


Jacinda Ardern has said she would have ruled out Green co-leader Metiria Turei in a ministerial position if she had not done so herself.

But the Greens had been sent a wave of supportive messages, and seen a big polls lift.

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Turei wiped the back of her hand across her brow in an exaggerated show of relief.

It's a fair bet the relief was shortlived.

Thursday's bombshell Newshub story revealed she had registered to vote where she says didn't live, that her registered address was the home of the father of her child, and that she had lived with her mother "as a flatmate" while receiving the DPB.

By lunchtime on Friday she was forced to end her ambitions to be a minister, accepting that she could not credibly take on the role - even if Labour leader Jacinda Ardern wanted her ... which she didn't.

Turei has pledged to fight on for her top political priorities, the poor and beneficiaries.

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But rewind to Wednesday and she clearly felt with the welfare policy and her benefit fraud admission the Greens had plugged in to the new international trend, where "disruptive" politicians like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have energised voters - even with wildly different agendas.

"You are going to make them feel love for you, and you're going to make them feel hate for you. But if they don't feel, they're not going to come out. It's not going to matter to them. it's not going to work. I think this is the new politics. We've had that very managerial politics for a long time and Hillary Clinton was an example of that. Business as usual."


The key was to tell a story people could connect with. 

"Having the solution to the problem is good, you need that as well, but if you not also telling a story you are not talking about them at all. You are talking about abstract ideas that may or may not affect them."

She said the Green welfare policy backed that up.

Its main planks were a 20 per cent lift in benefit levels, the removal of sanctions on beneficiaries and a three year time limit - to match the relationship property rules - before it was assumed a couple were in a relationship in the nature of marriage.

But the structure of the welfare system would stay in place including entitlement criteria such as income and employment status and the obligation to look for work.

To Turei the Green policy is about removing the stigma of being on a benefit and replacing punitive sanctions with the assumption that people are "inherently good"; that they want to work rather than need to be forced into it. 

"I really don't understand why beneficiaries are hated so much."


She said there were a lot of myths out there.

"We are confronting the whole ideology that the majority of people who don't have work don't want it, and have to be forced into taking it. That has been the dominant paradigm in welfare now for 30 years and it's not true."

Most of those on the dole were desperate for work and they need some help.

She contrasts society's attitude to beneficiaries, and especially sole parents - with echoes of her own circumstances - with the kinder view of those on disability allowances and superannuation.

"There's a group with disabilities that will require some sort of financial support with their life, and we accept that and everybody accepts that and they don't need further obligations to prove that.

In the case of the state pension, "we place no judgement on the people who get it. i don't care if they deserve it or not. I don't know if those recipients have been good people or not.  That's not the point. The point is we agree that at 65 people are entitled to some financial security for a whole lot of reasons, including the fact that their chances of getting employment are lower."

So why not take a similar attitude to sole parents? "They are doing a hard job, a great job. Right now they need financial security and support and right now we agree it's the right thing to do and we'll provide it. No judgement."

She accepted there were "corner cases" in every system - the classic talkback target who spend time surfing or gaming and treated the benefit as a lifestyle choice - and refuses to work - but says we might just have to live with that.

"They are not the majority but the majority are being forced to suffer, particularly sole parents, from this false belief about what life is like for an unemployed person." 

It had to be asked if there was a minimum support a person should get, or did we accept that people would have no financial support and be left homeless and living on the street.


"Is that acceptable? I don't think it is. I'm challenging New Zealanders to set a higher more moral bar," she said

"It's not actually about them, it's about me and the moral standard I set. We surely wouldn't be a country that says people should just be abandoned, but we have become that by default because the safety net we believe ought to help has been eroded to the point where it does not."

As for income levels, and the need for a gap between earned income and the benefit, she points again to superannuation, which is set at 66 per cent of the average wage.

"I would like to see the benefit at something like that - or above ... but you've got to make sure if you are going to set benefits below, say, the average wage or below the minimum wage it is still above the poverty line and that it is consistently moving and is always above the poverty line."

The definition of when a couple have a relationship "in the nature of marriage" and the intrusive policing of it particularly angers Turei.


"It gives (WINZ) enormous discretion. It's as minor as having sex with a person two or three times a week ... and then the assumption is that in a relationship like that the other person takes financial responsibility for you and for your children."

Turei say that is "deeply offensive and dangerous".

"It's offensive in that it suggests that women in particular must only be waiting on the benefit until some husband or potential husband comes along to take support of them. But they are not entitled to independent  financial security as of right, and they are. But it is also dangerous ... the benefits are low so people are often looking for relationships to help with their financial circumstances" and that may not mean an appropriate relationship for her or her children.

Turei says what she has been talking about is not just her personal experience but the personal experience of hundreds and hundreds of people she has known over the years who have relied on welfare and been looking for the pathways off it.

"Change is coming and I am proud of being part of leading that change in this election. But it is true that change always comes at a price," Turei said on Friday.

She had paid the price.

Her own actions have put her out of the running for the social welfare role in Cabinet that would have put the levers of change in her hand.

 - Stuff

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