Wednesday, 9 August 2017

The Impoverishment of a Nation

A few hours after I had uploaded my previous post, the news broke that Metiria Turei, the co-Leader of the Green Party, had resigned. 

On August 8th Checkpoint’s Mihingarangi Forbes had done a powerful piece on poverty in Manurewa, in which local people voiced a lot of support for Metiria Turei.

The following day, someone who was described as a ‘close member’ of Ms Turei’s family, contacted Checkpoint and alleged the wider family found it 'galling' that Ms Turei claimed hardship as a solo parent when in fact she had been given a lot of support from the family, including financial support.

Checkpoint put several questions to Ms Turei in writing, which she did not respond to, but instead phoned them to say that she had decided to resign, both as co-leader and as an MP.  In an interview with John Campbell, she addressed and refuted the allegations but said it had all got too personal so she had to step down. 

It’s not known who the family member was, why they took until the day after the Checkpoint programme to reveal this information, or whether they had spoken to Ms Turei before deciding to betray her in that way. For make no mistake, it was a betrayal. I cannot imagine how I would feel if someone in my family did something like that to me. 

We don’t know whether this person had a political agenda but, whatever their motivation, they must have known what both the personal and political consequences would be.  

The only good thing about the awful situation was that the kindest journalist in NZ carried out that very difficult initial interview so for a while at least we were spared the smug triumphalism of Ms Turei's highly vocal critics.

So here we are.  A Mãori woman  - who came from a working class background, studied to become a lawyer, raised a child and ended up as co-leader of the country's third largest political party –  started a critically important narrative about poverty and powerlessness in 21st century NZ.

She drew on her own experience of living on the DPB to give that narrative a personal touch - including the admission that, as a 23 year old, she’d not been accurate about the number of people she had shared her house with.

it's obvious that admitting to what amounts to fraud, even if it was of a low order of offence and committed 25 years ago, was a very risky strategy. Given the depths of anti-beneficiary sentiment in NZ and the prevailing rightwing bias in the media, it was always going to be difficult to steer the narrative and keep it positive once that fact was in the public domain.

Subsequent revelations about a technical breach of electoral law and suggestions that she had lived in the same house as the father of her child whilst on the DPB, muddied the waters even further. 

But, the appeals to a threadbare morality from rightwing politicians and the rightist commentariat did not diminish her support among poor and marginalized people or among those who care about them. 

However, the suggestion that she had embellished her situation for effect could mean the all important core issue of poverty and powerlessness would be obscured by uncertainty.

It was there in a question posed on RNZ two days ago ‘were you really in poverty’ and in Matthew Hooton’s claim that Turei was ‘upper middle-class’ – which is demonstrably untrue in terms of her background but which gained some traction when her in-laws were factored in.

Perhaps the intervention of this anonymous 'close' family member, which was more damaging than any of the preceding attacks had been, was just a coincidence. If so, it's a remarkable one and when there is a story in the media about a lawyer who has been struck off because she paid Dirty Politics stars Carrick Graham and Cameron Slater to help her ruin her ex-partner's career, it's surely not unreasonable to ask whether Ms Turei’s political opponents had been on the look out for someone who could help bring her down.  

Even if Ms Turei did embellish her personal story a bit - which is by no means proven - it's vital not to allow the self-righteous blowhards or calculating ideologues to distract or detract from the core issue  – that poor people in NZ today are suffering real, measurable harm.

Metiria Turei struck a chord with people who have been left behind. She told people who are mired in poverty that there is a way out; that she knew from her own experience how things are for them, and that positive change is possible. It is a message that they should hear loud and clear from the Labour Party but do not. 

The idea that the chord Turei struck might actually become a song, that the tens of thousands of poor and marginalized people in NZ might actually become energized, might be encouraged to engage with the political process and become a political force that could change the face of NZ poltiics - that could not be permitted. It was imperative that she be discredited, and so she was. 

The message that has gone out to replace Ms Turei's message of hope is : 

"look what happens even to a powerful and well-educated person who challenges us; we pulled her down and made it look as though it was all her own fault  - imagine what we could do to you."

I don’t think I have ever felt more ashamed of so many of my fellow Kiwis, or more proud of some others. 

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