Turei's confession courageous, response anything but
OPINION: How ironic that one of the biggest uproars of the election campaign so far has come as a result of a politician telling what was undoubtedly the unvarnished truth.
Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei bravely confessed at the party's annual conference earlier this month that years ago she had lied to the authorities to receive a higher benefit than she was entitled to. She admitted she didn't tell them she had flatmates to help pay the rent.
Turei was making the admission to highlight the struggle to make ends being faced by many beneficiaries today and in doing so ignited a firestorm of protest on radio talkback and social media.
The most common response was "why didn't she get a job?", which ignores the fact she was at the time a law student seeking to educate herself and so get off the benefit and also caring for a young daughter.
Indeed, it was to maintain the ability to feed her child that the young student chose not to admit she had flatmates when filling in her benefit declaration form.
I'm not suggesting for a minute we should condone benefit fraud but rather than kneejerk condemnation, perhaps we should take account of the circumstances, of both the actual offence and also of the belated confession.
Turei was making the frank admission in a speech launching the Green Party's plans to dramatically reform the nation's welfare system. In doing so she struck a chord with many beneficiaries faced by similar straitened circumstances.
But she predictably raised the hackles of many people who clearly see all beneficiaries as bludgers on the hard-working taxpayer.
Turei's one mistake in my opinion was in only offering to pay back the money if she is investigated. Her Parliamentary salary is surely high enough for her to calculate herself how much she was overpaid and refund the money without coercion.
However, what is particularly interesting about the situation is that many people seem to be far more motivated to complain about Turei's lying to be able to feed her daughter than they are about the fact that disgraced National MP Todd Barclay is quite happy to rack up $80,000 in his remaining salary while hanging on to his Clutha-Southland seat. He's making a minimal contribution to the political scene until the general election when his resignation takes effect but is quite happy to continue taking his MP's salary.
I would wager Turei's windfall benefits wouldn't add up to anywhere near that amount and to the best of my knowledge Barclay hasn't any young dependents to support.
Admittedly Barclay hasn't broken the law but morally which set of circumstances is the most persuasive of need?
The most distressing aspect of some of the criticism of the Green Party co-leader in the comments on social media was the thinly disguised racism and the not-so-thinly-veiled references to her body shape. Obviously young, white, good-looking males get an easier ride when it comes to questioning the disbursement of taxpayer funding.
And, speaking of taxpayer funding, how sensible is it of the Government to be dangling the carrot of tax cuts before the electorate when we hear repeated calls of the desperate need for increased funding for the health and education sectors?
It's hardly surprising that since British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher uttered the immortal, if not immoral, words "there is no such thing as society" that we have spawned a generation in which many believe it is "normal" to think only of themselves.
There's no denying that social welfare in its many forms is the thorniest problem facing any administration, whether it be superannuation or welfare benefits.
The Labour Party has just done a U-turn on raising the age of eligibility for National Superannuation. Having previously pledged to raise the age to 67 it's now telling voters it has plans that will make the present age of 65 affordable. This, after only three years ago claiming National had "its head in the sand" over the affordability of National Super at the current level of eligibility.
And then we have Gareth Morgan's The Opportunities Party (the acronym TOP is far too close to America's GOP Republican Party nickname for my liking) promising a universal benefit of $200 a week for 18-23-year-olds.
This has also produced an outpouring of rage on Facebook and Twitter - but is directing funds at the young in the hopes of reducing mental health problems and youth suicides any different to paying people over 65 a fortnightly sum regardless of need. And I say that as one such recipient.
Yes, the elderly have in most cases paid taxes all their working lives but today's young face far greater challenges on gaining education, employment (especially on decent wages) and a home.
How fairly to divide the nation's cake is a tricky proposition for any political party.
When it comes to social welfare it's the age-old question: who deserves to benefit most?