Metiria Turei debate: It’s all about class

By calling for Metiria Turei’s resignation, Kennedy Graham and David Clendon not only undermine the Green Party and its leadership, but draw attention to a major problem in New Zealand’s representative democracy.

As its name suggests, in a representative democracy the citizens are meant to vote into power individuals who are able to represent our views and interests in proposing, crafting and passing legislation.

But who are our representatives?

Recent commentary, like that of the University of Auckland's Jennifer Curtin, has lauded the diversity of the new Labour leadership, focusing on classic markers of identity politics: age, sex, ethnicity and geography – Jacinda Ardern is young and female, Kelvin Davis is Māori and from the North.

A characteristic missing from that list is class.

The longer an MP stays in power, the more solidified they become as a member of an elite class of New Zealanders.

Labour has a history of appealing to the working class, although this has eroded in recent years (see Josh Van Veen’s analysis). But if we look around the halls of power, we see very few MPs from working class backgrounds. We are familiar with individual stories – for example, Paula Bennett and Turei’s challenges as single mums on the benefit. These, however, are few and far between. Furthermore, upon moving into politics, MPs immediately become middle-upper class citizens by dint of their parliamentary salary.

The longer an MP stays in power, the more solidified they become as a member of an elite class of New Zealanders.

The political science literature on representation suggests that experiences matter – both in terms of the substance of policy emerging from more diverse governments, but also in terms of the legitimacy of parliament and the ways in which MPs act as role models, encouraging political engagement and participation (for example, see Hilde Coffé’s excellent analysis of women in politics).

Prominent political theorist Anne Phillips coined the term ‘politics of presence’ to account for these factors – arguing that, although ideas matter, equally important is that representation genuinely reflects society at large. She argues that descriptive representation can be seen as intrinsically valuable, not simply because it improves the quality of deliberation or policy outcomes, but because of the relationship between representation and democratic legitimacy.

'The longer an MP stays in power, the more solidified they become as a member of an elite class of New Zealanders.' Photo: Lynn Grieveson

This means our Parliament should be composed of roughly 50 per cent women, that it should be roughly proportional in terms of ethnicity and geography (the latter is aided by electorate MPs who represent a geographical community of interest) and that it should reflect our national composition in terms of class.

One of New Zealand’s strengths is that by dint of a culture of egalitarianism (whether or not that culture accurately portrays realities on the ground) and a small population, it is relatively easy for individuals to run for office – and to be successful in so doing.

Unlike the United States, where candidates for the House of Representatives spend on average US$1.7 million, candidates for the Senate spend on average US$10.5 million and candidates for the Presidency spend upward of US$1 billion to run a successful bid for office, New Zealand’s politics has been relatively free from such requirements – both in terms of the monetary commitment to run for office and the kinds of loyalties such financial commitments entail.

However, before we congratulate ourselves too heartily, I would argue that Turei’s recent treatment makes for troubling analysis in the context of representative democracy.

By dint of her experience of this specifically class-based conundrum, [Turei] is no longer considered fit for high office.

Beneficiary fraud is a uniquely class-based problem. The only people who are in the position of having to make difficult choices about whether to ‘play by the rules’ and by doing so risk not having the means to support their family are those who are in the poorest group of New Zealanders.

The fact Turei lied to the authorities demonstrates the very difficult position many beneficiaries find themselves in. Whether or not Turei made the morally or legally correct decision is not relevant to the issue I am raising (although there are undoubtedly important questions it raises about the beneficiary system).

What is important, however, is that by dint of her experience of this specifically class-based conundrum, she is no longer considered fit for high office.

Some might argue that it is not the beneficiary claim that has resulted in Turei stepping back from ministerial claims but the electoral fraud issue. This has certainly complicated the situation, although there are compelling substantive reasons to dismiss it – in particular that this is not a unique occurrence and, as Professor Andrew Geddis, from the University of Otago’s Faculty of Law, has noted, no other New Zealander would be ‘hanged’ for the same offence.

In fact, I would argue Turei’s intention “to vote for a friend” is less morally problematic than many students’ intentions, who may remain enrolled in their parents’ electorate with the aim of influencing the electorate outcome. However, the relevance of the electoral fraud claim to my argument about representation is that it has been brought to public attention as a result of Turei’s beneficiary fraud.

In other words, it is intimately linked to class politics – to my knowledge there has been no detailed scrutiny of any other MPs to see if they may have participated in electoral fraud at some point in their lives.

The response to Turei is not simply damaging to her own political ambitions, but also to future generations of Kiwis.

Critics might argue Turei’s actions are less problematic than the fact she ‘lied’ about them. Only Turei knows why she did not disclose this information when she first ran for or became an MP, although it’s quite possible that either she didn’t see it as significant or she felt caught in the ‘double bind’ where through disclosure she would exclude herself from politics (in which case the argument about class-based representation still stands). In either case, neither explanation seems to justify excluding her from a potential ministerial position.

Turei’s treatment highlights a lie in our claim to be representative. Censure on the basis of such experiences means valuable perspectives are sidelined in the halls of power. Further, her treatment acts as a disincentive for any current or past beneficiaries who have exploited the system (whether in direct violation of the law or not), by asserting that they have no place in our government.

In other words, the response to Turei is not simply damaging to her own political ambitions, but also to future generations of Kiwis – both those who might otherwise seek political office and those who would benefit from legislation crafted by those who have been at the receiving end of such policies.

The popular hashtag #IamMetiria signals something to this effect – that many citizens recognise the importance of the politics of presence and that Parliament – and government – should not exclude those who have not experienced the security of a middle-class upbringing.

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