Turei trouble puts microscope on welfare woes

How much is too much? Since Metiria Turei’s benefit fraud confession the question of how much it's OK to defraud the system before it starts to look a little disingenuous has been the hot topic, though certainly not in the way Turei intended. Two political leaders, first Andrew Little and now Turei herself, have had careers ended by the scandal — Kennedy Graham and David Clendon are likely finished as well. With political bloodletting on that scale, we owe it to ourselves to parse the episode out.

It’s possible to distill two criticisms from the media maelstrom: the first comes from those who abhor fraud and refuse to condone it regardless of the mitigating circumstances; the second, from those who just don’t think things were quite bad enough for Turei to justify defrauding the welfare system. 

As more details emerged indicating Turei’s circumstances might not have been as dire as she initially implied, the Greens’ haemorrhaged support, suggesting the second of the criticisms was the one that really grated most New Zealanders. Sure, sometimes we can understand lying, we just didn’t think things were bad enough.

The argument is not wholly without merit. There is an obvious moral difference between a scenario in which Turei cheated the system for a downpayment on an expensive overseas trip to one in which she lied to keep the heating on in winter or to sneak a cheeky pint with her mates. If Turei committed a fraud reminiscent of the first example she will in the fullness of time have some serious questions to answer – MP or not.

But the details that seem to have struck a nerve aren’t really to do with the scale of the fraud — it’s what she did while on a benefit that seems to have gotten under people’s skin. She studied – a long and difficult law degree no less. She even had the temerity to refuse work to focus on her studies and then, to add insult to injury, she ran for a joke political party. She had fun on a benefit.

This is not as easy to understand. Hasn’t she used the benefit for what it is for? She drew on public funds to give her child a good start in life and, when she realised that a qualification might improve her own wellbeing she drew on public funds to support herself whilst she re-skilled for the workforce. In many ways she’s a model — an example of just how transformative the social safety net can be, but that’s not really what this is about. 

We like our beneficiaries to be grateful and supplicant. We like them to know that they’ve done wrong and screwed up, and if we take the same attitude to beneficiaries as we do to our prisoners, we like them to suffer just a bit too.

Just look at how the debate has been framed: what people really seem to want to know is not how much money is needed for a single mother and her child to life a fair life, but how much fun you are allowed to have on a benefit and whether it’s right that Turei drew so extensively on the benefit whilst improving her own situation in life rather than taking the first job she could find. It’s almost as though Turei was too successful. If she’d managed to fit all that stuff in, well we must have been giving her too much, right?

We like our beneficiaries to be grateful and supplicant. We like them to know that they’ve done wrong and screwed up, and if we take the same attitude to beneficiaries as we do to our prisoners, we like them to suffer just a bit too.

I am not Metiria. Living in a healthy, functioning democracy requires us to be promiscuous voters. If there’s one free market everyone can agree on, it’s a free market of electoral support in which none of us give away our support for nothing. I do, however, stand committed to having the debate that Turei tried to start, which is to ask whether the welfare system is working and how we can make it fairer.

Paula Bennett, herself a young mother on a benefit, took up Turei’s challenge and to her credit ably made the case for National’s heavily incentivised benefits aimed at getting beneficiaries back to work as soon as possible. She personally thinks nudging beneficiaries into the workforce will ultimately be an empowering experience and will mitigate the threat of entrenching poverty. 

Turei parried this saying the success of her time on the benefit can be shown in the success she has garnered, having been able to take four years out from the workforce and train as a lawyer shows just how much can be achieved if beneficiaries have more choices available to them than just taking the first job that lands before them. Two fair points, well made by two skilled politicians — if only the rest of us had met their challenge and taken up the debate ourselves. 

If we’d had the rational discussion that Turei had called for, we might have asked about why this happened.

It’s never been more timely. With commentators suggesting up to half of jobs will be automated in the next decade or so, a whole host of New Zealanders will likely find themselves in Turei’s position. Lawyers, accountants, teachers, journalists – it’s a future we all face and it will surely challenge our ideas about just what someone has done to ‘deserve’ to be on a benefit.

And again, in this, Turei can be a model to us. If a robot steals your job, shouldn’t you be given the opportunity to retrain, look after your children and yes, have a bit of fun? Since when did eternal supplication to the New Zealand taxpayer become a precondition of drawing on the welfare state as is your right?

It’s also important to talk about what role low income workers and beneficiaries have in our economic system. They’re an integral part of it. In 1989, the Reserve Bank Act gave independence to the Reserve Bank to set interest rates and formulate monetary policy. Before the act was passed, the bank had to consider the effects of interest rate changes on employment as well as price stability, but the act removed the first requirement to focus on the latter (incidentally, the US Federal Reserve is still governed by legislation that forces it to balance the twin imperatives of maintaining low levels of unemployment and low inflation).

If we’d had the rational discussion that Turei had called for, we might have asked about why this happened. The legislation isn’t wholly malign. Before the independence of the Reserve Bank, governments of both colours engaged in irresponsible monetary policy, printing money during election years to artificially lower unemployment.

This was a contributing factor to the catastrophic inflation of the pre-Rogernomics era. Unions tried to raise wages to compensate for inflation, which in turn caused even more inflation. It wasn’t an ideal situation, but nor is the persistently high unemployment (averaging between 3 and 7 percent, as opposed to 1-3 per cent pre-1984) that has replaced it.

A more civil discussion might have asked whether punishingly low benefits and persistently high unemployment is a price we feel is worth paying for price stability. It’s an ugly compromise, but if we’re going to make it, shouldn’t we at least do so in full knowledge of the consequences?

Ardern’s media mobbing bares a dismal resemblance to Turei’s. Again, it seems to tap into a deeply felt notion that she should somehow be grateful to be a woman in a position of leadership.

Sadly, that civil discussion never really emerged, but are we surprised? The last two weeks have shown New Zealand’s politics unfit for purpose. Politics at the very least must be capable of debating the issues that matter. Jacinda Ardern wanted to start a discussion about how motherhood and family could fit into a woman’s life and career, an important conversation given New Zealand’s persistent pay gap and bleak record on women in executive positions. Unfortunately, the debate never got that far either — in fact, it didn’t get much further than the last time we had a discussion about Prime Ministers and children. Then, Helen Clark didn’t have enough, now it seems Ardern has too many. How confusing. 

Ardern’s media mobbing bares a dismal resemblance to Turei’s. Again, it seems to tap into a deeply felt notion that she should somehow be grateful to be a woman in a position of leadership. How many times must we be reminded of New Zealand’s selfless beneficence in endowing the benefits of suffrage upon women in 1893? In this version of history, the nation simply ‘gave’ women the vote. It’s as if the suffrage petition never happened; Kate Sheppard just asked nicely one day and found a ballot box waiting under the Christmas tree.

Have we ever been capable of a proper national discussion that has not descended into absolute chaos? I’m not nostalgic enough to think so. If the millions of dollars we shower on the Beehive every year is worth anything, it’s to the serious, considered discussion you won’t find on Seven Sharp, the Project, or the A.M. show. Sadly, with Turei out of Parliament, we might not even have discussions like this in the one place they really matter.

For those reasons, I’ll be having the discussion Metiria asked me to have with my friends and family – it sure beats discussing the merits of spaghetti on a pizza.

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