Raging at Metiria is not about the fraud; it’s that she sided with the lepers

In case you missed it, at the Greens annual conference in mid-July, Metiria fronted the launch of an impressive welfare policy, Mending the Safety Net. During that launch, she used an anecdote from 25 years ago to personalise the policy; when she was solo mum she didn’t tell Work and Income that she had flatmates so that she could retain the accommodation supplement.

It was a calculated risk, a chance to capture the news cycle, and if the last two weeks are anything to go by, it paid dividends. Every day there has been hand wringing and righteous anger from National and their proxies, sympathy from the Greens’ friends and the hashtags #IamMetiria and latterly #LeftwithEnough were an offensive defense of Metiria that dominated social media.

The attacks have been inevitably led by white and wealthy men who have stated that it is the crime of benefit fraud and should be prosecuted forthwith. It’s been a pile-on really: Barry Soper‘s written a self-congratulatory series of masturbatory metaphors; Martin Van Beynen claimed to not want to judge but then did; John Armstrong writes like he is the id of the Baby Boomers generation; Patrick Gower‘s heart is bleeding so much for the NZ taxpayer I’m surprised he’s still breathing. The coverage has been overwhelmingly critical, not because of the crime, but because Metiria’s attitude is an attack on the comfortable narrative of the past quarter of a century.

The ideological narrative that was deliberately manufactured, particularly in the nineties, was that people who required a benefit of any description from the welfare state were flawed people. They had failed. They had not seized the readily apparent opportunities to make a positive economic contribution to our society and were therefore enemies to growth and productivity, and as such, enemies of ‘good’ New Zealanders. Beneficiaries are our modern day lepers: unclean, dangerous and infectious.

Whilst manufactured initially by the second term Labour government and then Bolger’s National government, the narrative was quickly adopted by New Zealanders because it fits comfortably with our racist and sexist narratives: many beneficiaries were Māori, a violent and failed race who had consistently threatened New Zealand society; some beneficiaries were Pacific peoples, outsiders who stood at the barricades of white New Zealand trying to seize our riches and opportunities; many beneficiaries were single women, the promiscuous detritus of feminism that was a threat to the proper New Zealand family. If you need any further convincing, it’s telling how superannuation is not treated as a benefit in this regards, as the predominantly Pākehā elderly population don’t fit into the former narratives.

These narratives allowed governments to transform the welfare state. I know a few old social workers from the sixties and seventies. They are very clear that they understood their role was to provide an average standard of living so that families and people on a benefit had enough left over to engage in their local community and society. By the nineties and through to today, the welfare system became a system of punishment. We have condoned reforms that punish beneficiaries by decreasing benefit levels in real terms, reducing their potential for autonomy in spending decisions, and increasing funding to surveil and prosecute people on a benefit for infractions.

Just as lepers were a threat, now people who are on the benefit are a threat. Just as lepers must be excluded and controlled, so too we must control and exclude people on a benefit.

Metiria has unmasked this narrative. She has provided an alternative narrative: the lepers are the same as us. People on a benefit are caring and loving parents, children and grandparents who are oppressed by a system that is so punitive that survival often requires them to act in a dishonest manner; and the agencies of that system are unable to meet the real needs of those people because they are purposely designed to act as a barrier to support.

The reaction has not been because this is the first time that somehow has pointed to these alternative narratives. No, it has been because Metiria Turei, as co-leader of the Greens, has a real chance of being in a Labour/Greens Executive at the conclusion of the next election, and has expressed a desire to be the Minister for Social Development. In other words, she has the potential to have the tools to transform the status quo. So, as they have always done when faced with change, the defenders of the status quo are rallying to the cause with hate and vitriol.

Meanwhile, Metiria is asking us to care again for each other. To have compassion for our neighbour and our whānau. To see ourselves in the other. To embrace the leper. Stacey Kirk described it succinctly:

“She’s effectively drawing an ideological line in the sand and asking New Zealanders: “Which side are you on?””

Each of us needs to ask ourselves that question in the coming election and vote accordingly. If you are going to vote for the status quo, for individualism, for gated communities of the like minded, for the current power arrangements, for the current economic system, for you retaining much whilst many have little, I have a warning for you. If we will not change to a path of generosity, then look to the recent Bastille Day celebrations and remember: a day of reckoning is coming, when all of your walls will fall and the many will take what the few have greedily hoarded.

[The header image is an icon The Healing of the Ten Lepers]


24 thoughts on “Raging at Metiria is not about the fraud; it’s that she sided with the lepers

  1. A universal UBI should be a birthright of all Kiwis. Income taxes don’t work at redistributing wealth, destroy incentive, and cannot possibly fund sustainable government. What they do do is enslave most Kiwis in un-repayable debt to the tune of around $55,000 per person. This is insane. Govt’s most important job is to create, distribute, and maintain a stable means of exchange. Income taxes are going the wrong way on a one way street! This country will never be sovereign and free until income taxes are gone and govt issues its own interest-free money!

    1. Kia ora Carl, I agree the Government’s job includes facilitating the means of exchange nationally. However I personally think that if we are going to have a functional democracy that supports individual and community well-being then taxes and the services that they support are one part of our social contract, the connections between the individual, her community, and the state. Of course, we can probably argue for a no-state, for anarchism, in which instance the power resides in small local communities, but that’s for another day!
      Thanks for commenting.

    2. If govt’s job is to maintain a ready and stable means of exchange, why does govt. constantly remove money from circulation via income taxes? this is contrary to the supply of new money in order to float the growing economy. Until elective govt understands that they continue to hold the right to create our money supply, and this can be interest-free money, the people will never be free from the enslaving debt and high costs of living resulting from income taxes.
      Govt withdrew around $40B in income taxes and issued about $20B in benefits. The net deficit from this ‘transaction’ was about $20B. Curiously, net NZ debt increased around $18B (NZfirst figures), which is pretty much equal to the deficit. Go figure. Income taxes and govt borrowing are the sole reason NZ is presently $380 Billion in debt. Taxes do not fund govt funding, they destroy it.

    3. Kia ora Carl, you are very clearly very passionate about this particular issue. It’s a tangent from the issues covered in my blog, so I won’t be including any more comments in this thread on this topic after this one. You should perhaps write a blog of your own.

  2. I think that you simplify the issue too much. You set up a dualism at the end of the piece whereby we are either with the beneficiary lepers or with the rich – who will get their just desserts in a bloody revolution.
    Is it possible to see a third position here? One in which beneficiaries are fellow humans who need help from the rest of us, regardless of their race, sexuality, relationship status or age. But at the same time that acknowledges that for society to work, we all need to carry our load. And to further muddy the waters, to believe that both beneficiary fraud and accounting fraud by well off people work against society.

    1. Kia ora Mike, thanks for your comments. You might recognise that the implied symbolism of my duality is the Christ’s rich/poor dualism. It is a nice semiotic device and also a symbol that unmasks.

      I’m reasonably comfortable with your third position in reality, particularly the sense in which we are all, first and foremost humans with inherent worth. I have concerns about the values that underpin the statement “carry our load,” that we operate in service to a productive economy. A society that is primarily a series of economic exchanges is a society where power will be maintained over others. A better society is one that you suggest: one that is about relationships that build wellbeing.

      Finally, we can name dishonesty in the welfare system, fraud, but that ignores a system that punishes honesty. I supported a beneficiaries who was materially worse off when they came to Work and Income with their honest needs; I commented to the case manager, “she’d be better off if she lied.” He said, “Yep, she certainly would.”

  3. I wonder where all the beaten down, worn out, beneficiaries of the 1990’s are now? How have they survived until today! What became of them once their children left home? Who abandoned them? This is well worth a ‘ Social Science’ research paper. You will find, i feel sure, stories of miraculious care, prayer , persaveriance and fortitude. Otago University may be a good start. Angela Minton.

    1. Kia ora Angela, yes the Otago study provides information about this, as does Growing Up in NZ (GUiNZ). They confirm many stories of hope but also show that poverty stunts opportunity and leads to more instances of inter-generational failure. Hence the urgency to do something about it.

  4. I wonder if there is an element of cognitive dissonance at work here. The concept of an “undeserving poor” could be a very useful psychological suit of armour, one that allows people to look away or make excuses when confronted by the homeless begging in the streets, or any of the obvious signs of the multiple failures of the bleeding, corporatized NZ welfare state. To accept that anyone down on their luck in a resource-rich country deserves help, is to accept that we have replaced the systems that used to do that really well, with systems that do it really badly, and regularly kick people while they’re down for good measure. Perhaps its not surprising that many people find it easier to cling to the myth of the “undeserving” than to face the true horror of how badly this country has been run for the last 30 years, not to mention the suppressed guilt that they too are not begging for change and sleeping rough.

    1. Kia ora Danyl, thanks for the useful contribution to understanding what the subtext to this whole affair.

    2. Danyl, I found your contribution as enriching as the article itself. Thank you ..both of you. Graham this is a valuable contribution to the essential debate beyond the braying media sensationalism and finger pointing. Metiria has been brave and daring in putting herself forward- even as she knew that the real issues could be submerged by hysteria. Yet quite the opposite is happening in the community dialectic: more and more, in the past days, I notice that the online threads are filling with thoughtful posts and comments like yours showing Kiwis thinking in to the deeper issues underlying the Metiria story, far more intelligently than the finger jabbing mainstream media headlines reflect …

  5. @Angela Minton I was one of those beneficiaries, I was lucky enough to go to Uni and got a job in a ‘helping’ profession where I earned little and continued to struggle until I had a mental breakdown at 40 years old. My children were bright and racked up huge student loans getting an education as I was unable to help them financially. My daughter also went into a ‘helping’ profession and will never own her own home due to her stubborn inability to see working with people as financial ruin in Aotearoa! Bless her she’s truly my daughter.
    I returned to Uni at 40 while on invalids benefit and retrained as an artist (no more soul destroying people ‘helping’ for me) I even got a full scholarship for most outstanding portfolio on entering AUT to complete my masters. Since then I have exhibited my work whenever possible and struggled to pay off my student debt. I’ve had part time work lecturing at an art school and also worked as an advisor for the mental health community, neither of these jobs provided me with a decent living wage or tenure. At 51 I lost my lecturing work due to the financial climate in New Zealand and since that date I have been unable to get my well educated arse into any sort of paid employment.
    Now after 8 years struggling to paint while having cataracts on both eyes that the hospital board didn’t see as any sort of priority (Artist isn’t a real job is it?) I can’t get exhibitions because I took 8 years off mid-career, I’m an older white woman and have failed to die of some interesting addiction while being young and male and so my art isn’t really worth anything. I finally paid off my student debt just before I turned 60 years old.
    From that moment at age 27 when I chose freedom for myself and my children rather than staying in a marriage that promised to be the death of me, I chose to live a life of debt and poverty.
    Please don’t think for a moment I regret that decision, I don’t. I have contributed to our society in hundreds of ways that can’t be measured in terms of financial worth. I have raised compassionate and productive children, I have volunteered within the margins of our society, I have marched, petitioned and voted. I will continue to contribute until they prise my last paintbrush or pen from my cold dead fingers and I return to the ground as compost.

    I think however, I could have done all of that and so much more had I felt less like a leper and hadn’t had to endure the scorn and criticism of our society.

    @ Graham Cameron Thank you, this article was a good read and clarified my feelings about my role as welfare recipient, leper fits.

    1. Kia ora Ruth, thank you for sharing your story. A life with struggles and a life well-lived. Blessings.

    2. Ruth, I wonder if you could FB friend me? I do an arts blog and would dearly love to interview you about your work ? Liz Gunn is the handle . You are not and never were, a leper. If the label or action of others does not fit, turn away from it…. as you had the courage to do from a destructive awful marriage ( I can relate ) . You are powerful beyond measure, and simply need to know that beyond any doubt . As I read this, I saw a powerful wahine who brought up children and loved and cared from them, solo, from 27 – huge achievement #BigRespect

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