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Let 2020 be the year of the ‘povertyquake’

2017 was the year in which the first tremors of a povertyquake started in Aotearoa, but fake news based on fearmongering and selfishness saw them speedily suppressed.

Former Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei’s admission of benefit fraud electrified the country and – finally – started a real debate about poverty and our awful treatment of beneficiaries.

In the wake of her confession the Greens soared to 15 per cent in the 1 News-Colmar Brunton poll, their highest-ever result.

Small wonder, then, that Turei had to be brought down.

She had galvanised a part of the New Zealand community which has never before had political representation.

If those people had turned out to vote, the political landscape would have been utterly changed.

Turei has spent 20 years campaigning against poverty. She said she had made submissions, given speeches and promoted members’ bills, but the result had been no improvement.

In fact, things had got worse.

All she had left was her story and her baby’s story.

She was right. Without her admission, the Greens’ 'Mending the Safety Net' welfare policy would have been a sidebar in journalists’ stories.

Political journalists have serious reflection to do on their takedown of Turei.

They decided their job was to dig into who Turei flatted with 25 years ago.

Our country would be a very different – and much better – place if they had instead seen their role as challenging the Minister of Social Development on why benefits are deliberately kept at unliveable levels.

Do any of those who took down Turei have any idea of exactly how little beneficiaries receive each week?

If Turei had family support when she was on the benefit that is a good thing: it is the only way she could have survived and completed her law degree.

Beneficiaries without family or other help do not actually survive. They face a downward spiral of escalating debt and despair.

Do any of those who took down Turei have any idea of exactly how little beneficiaries receive each week?

Commentators universally described Turei’s confession as an error. It was not. She sacrificed her career for what she believed in and worked for. 

The Greens’ immediate rise in the polls confirmed the correctness of her decision.

Her subsequent immolation is an indictment of Aotearoa and persuaded the most disadvantaged in our community that their view there was no point in voting was correct.

The other key feature of the election was the ripping aside of Prime Minister Bill English’s mask as an honest, compassionate conservative.

This was never an accurate image, given that one of English’s first acts on being elected to Parliament in 1990 was to vote in favour of the benefit cuts which have wrecked the lives of hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders and continue to cause poverty to this day.

It was not former Prime Minister John Key who for eight years drove the policies which have resulted in homelessness, low wages, a mental health crisis and other despair.

Key was the popular face, but it was English who was the policy initiator.

In 2017, when Labour overtook National in the polls, English did not hesitate to import Trumpism to Aotearoa and to repeatedly make inaccurate claims.

English won for National the largest share of the votes, but he lost the respect of a wide swathe of the electorate – people who until now might have disagreed with him but regarded him as “fundamentally decent”.

He saw that National could not defeat Labour on policy and debate, and decided to win at all costs.

In the final televised leaders’ debate English stared into the camera and said Labour’s fiscal plan had an $11.7 billion hole, Labour would increase income tax, and the party with the largest number of votes had the right to form a government.

All of those things were untrue.

English won for National the largest share of the votes, but he lost the respect of a wide swathe of the electorate – people who until now might have disagreed with him but regarded him as “fundamentally decent”.

When politicians are dishonest with voters, it diminishes and degrades our democracy.

That should concern all of us.

2017 was also the election in which there were more Māori leaders and deputy leaders of political parties than ever before. By the end of election night, three of those leaders were gone from Parliament.

But they have led the way for other Māori and there will be more in future.

In particular, Māori Party co-leader Marama Fox made a massive impact in her short time in Parliament, including by persuading the Government to increase baseline benefits by $25 a week.

She was also the consummate MMP politician – respected and wooed by all sectors of the political spectrum.

Also gone from the House is Green MP Mojo Mathers, who is deaf and finally gave representation to the 24 percent of disabled New Zealanders who have never had an advocate in Parliament before.

Turei sacrificed her political career to fight poverty.

Let 2020 be the election of the povertyquake, when New Zealanders come together in shared concern for all parts of the community and vote to lift everyone up, rather than only the favoured.

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