Hard News by Russell Brown


A thundering clash of perspectives

It was a deep irony that the final push for the decision of Metiria Turei to end her Parliamentary career appears to have come from Checkpoint, a programme whose people have so often weighed in behind the vulnerable New Zealanders she cares for.

The programme had been contacted by a member of her extended family upset by her account of struggling as a solo mother in the 1990s, to the point where she had had no choice but to misrepresent her living circumstances to Work and Income. Its editors could simply have ignored the family member, pretended it never happened – but they wouldn't have been doing their jobs. At any rate, at least one other news organisation was working on the same story. It was coming.

There's a thundering clash of perspectives here. The people grieving Metiria's harsh exit see journalists as pursuing the poor, brown solo mum she was 20-odd years ago. Journalists are obliged to see her as the Member of Parliament she's been for the past 15 years, as a would-be member of the country's governing executive.

Metiria's AGM speech prompted me to do something I hadn't done before: to say, yeah, me too. Twenty five years ago, I felt it necessary to misrepresent my own family's circumstances to get by, because the system worked so badly. That system still works badly. And the evidence is that the most vulnerable people in it are doing worse than ever. You see those people now on the streets of Auckland.

It seems to have been Metiria's decision to identify her predicament with those people that prompted the family member to contact the press. Perhaps she didn't adequately consider the impact on those who were around her two decades ago of what she said last month.

But I think many people who haven't been there genuinely don't understand how hard it can be to get by on a benefit in New Zealand – still less what people do to get by. People do do cashies where they can, they might cut corners where they have to. Some are so powerless, sick or bereft of whanau support that the best they can do is sit miserably and beg outside the supermarket. They don't count up the coins and report them to Winz.

They were the people Metiria sought to represent. But, as she herself acknowledged on Monday, it might have been better had she settled her own account with the state before doing so. She has earned an MP's salary for 15 years, and that of a commercial lawyer for three years before that. It will probably end up being a matter of around $7000 owed. She could have paid that, closed the matter and cut off any avenue for the Taxpayers' Union to make up a number and multiply it by 10. (At which point, ironically, it looked more like the sum claimed by Bill English for living where he didn't actually live.)

And she'd still have been there fighting.

It is possible for good people to take a different view of the same set of circumstances. Metiria's colleagues and fellow candidates have been overwhelmingly behind her. Yet Dave Clendon, the colleague who resigned in protest at her apparent lack of remorse, actually has more in common with her than many of them. He, too, identifies as Māori. He grew up in a working-class family in Otara.

Meanwhile, I'm aware of both Green Party members enraged by her treatment and who resigned last week because they couldn't support her actions. There are also some Green Party staff furious at how this has gone down. How, they ask, was this not thought through? How could this not have been signed off by the whole Green caucus? They feel let down.

Apart from the usual suspects, I don't think there's a lot of genuine ill-will towards Metiria personally. Her own commitment to her ideals isn't in doubt. Even the scalp-claiming by a couple of journalists last night was half-hearted. (Patrick Gower actually apologised to James Shaw this morning for claiming yesterday's Newshub-Reid poll had preciptated his co-leader's resignation, and I can't recall that ever happening before.) Unlike Todd Barclay, Metiria Turei never treated those around her badly. Unlike Barclay, she didn't brazenly lie to journalists. Indeed, she got caught telling the truth, if not in all its untidy detail.

But before all this, she had also privately expressed doubts about a long political career. To be a Cabinet minister? Or to go back and be an anarchist? It sometimes frustrated people around her. And now the decision has been made in a way no one would have wished. We haven't heard the last of Metiria Turei. I think she'll make an awesome anarchist.


Metiria has, wholly understandably, taken this coming weekend off politics. But I'm extremely grateful to her for – before I even asked – arranging for James Shaw to take her place in the lineup up at Sunday's Orcon IRL. Free RSVPs are close to filling up, so if you'd like to come along, get in today.

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