Bryce Edwards Analysis: Who’s to blame for Metiria Turei’s downfall?

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Bryce Edwards Analysis: Who’s to blame for Metiria Turei’s downfall?
Dr Bryce Edwards.

The fallout from Metiria Turei’s benefit confession is producing some fascinating and revealing analysis and reaction about the state of politics, media, and society.

There is anger and disappointment on all sides and much of the very polarised emotion is directed at determining who is responsible for Turei’s political demise. Below are some of the targets.
Green Party co-leader Metiria-Turei has resigned as co-leader and from the party’s list.
1) Metiria Turei is to blame
There is a case to be made that Turei has been her own worst enemy in this whole mess, and the blame for her departure sits fairly and squarely with her. Herald political editor Audrey Young is exasperated that Turei has continued to avoid apologising and refuses to accept she is in any way at fault: “At no point has she conceded she did the wrong thing, not even politically, not for a second. At no point did she think about the damage she would be doing to Labour or the Greens relationship with Labour. And that lack of self-doubt has led to slow-motion kamikaze mission of a politician, destroying herself and wounding her party. Turei’s supporters had no sense of how their adulation of her attitude serving to divide the country as much as her party. It was a shocking display of being unable to see what damage they were doing” – see: Turei resigns without the slightest concession what she did was wrong.
John Armstrong, writing on the 1News website, is even harder on the Green politician, saying “Few in the world of politics will shed a tear for her in the wake of her decision to quit politics. Not even those of the crocodile variety” – see: Metiria Turei will be remembered, but she won’t be missed.
According to Armstrong, “the glaring gaps in her account of life on the Domestic Purposes Benefit”, as well as her “refusal to divulge details of her living arrangements at the time and her convenient memory lapses”, and the revelation “that she had registered as a voter at the address of the father of her child”, all meant that the “public felt that the wool was being pulled over its eyes”.
He comments on the souring Green-Labour relationship: “The Greens had jumped in the opinion polls at Labour’s expense but the Labour Party got revenge by insisting that Turei could no longer be a Minister in a Labour-Greens Cabinet. The sound of Turei nailing herself on to the cross of martyrdom was replaced by the sound of Labour nailing the lid on her political coffin.”
He believes Turei should have expected the “very toxic and very explosive combination of nastiness” that followed her admission, as her story combined two popular targets: “There are many people who hate beneficiaries. They also hate politicians.”
But his strongest point is this: “Most MPs go to extraordinary lengths to protect their families from the ugly side of politics… In marked contrast, Turei used her family as a political weapon with which to wage her war on poverty.”
This is also the point made by former Act MP, Deborah Coddington – see: Political life is both good and bad for MPs’ children. Coddington says: “Turei is correct, her family doesn’t deserve this pain. But the media didn’t start this; Turei did. She stood up and used her child, her former partner, and her mother, as a vehicle for her narrative when she said she lied to claim more welfare and to ‘debate poverty’. From that point on the public had every right to ask questions (via media) about other authorities Turei may have lied to, what else might be exposed in future, and be given the entire story not selected tidbits Turei has chosen to offer.”
2) The Greens are to blame 
There are some who are sympathetic to Metiria Turei’s plight, but believe the whole scandal was a spectacular own-goal delivered by the party itself. Finlay Macdonald has a thoughtful must-read critique in which he says that the “Greens backroom team should probably quit, too”.
Macdonald argues from the side of the beneficiaries and poor, who he thinks have been poorly served by the Greens’ ill-considered campaign – see: Victims deserve better than Turei’s poorly played hand. He sympathises with Turei’s goals, “But it is one thing to agitate to change the system, and quite another to set yourself up as the embodiment of all that is wrong with that system. If you are going to turn your own personal history into a narrative of social injustice and the case for reform, you had better be very sure your story has a beginning, a middle and an end. It’s called political management 101, and the Greens failed it so spectacularly”.
The Greens needed to have Turei much more prepared than she was: “Turei needed to have explained her entire situation from the outset, anticipated the hard questions and been able to spin them honestly, and perhaps even have already paid back the notional amount owing. The Greens should have known all this.”
Leftwing union activist Mike Treen also makes this point: “the Greens have to bear some of the blame for that. There is no excuse for not seeing what was coming after the announcement and preparing for that with the obvious response that every cent would be repaid. Failure to do so is just stupid” – see: Resignation fever! Who is advising our political leaders?
Here’s Treen’s main point: “An advisor worth their salt would have asked those challenging questions before they were asked in public. Even when an acceptable narrative had been developed, the first thing that needed to be sorted before going public was repaying WINZ. It doesn’t matter whether she thought it was right to lie in the first place or not. To most people, if you are on the public payroll to the tune of $175,000 a year, you can afford to repay money obtained in the past by some form of deceit, justified or not. There is a strange, and unjustified, sense of entitlement to think otherwise. As far as I’m aware to this day she has said she will only pay it back if WINZ ask for it. That is just arrogant and stupid. Now the opportunity to shift the debate to how badly WINZ claimants have been treated is being lost.
3) The Media and “commentariat” are to blame
Most of the leftwing responses to Metiria Turei’s downfall place part of the blame at the feet of the media and political pundits. And certainly there were plenty of political journalists and commentators calling for the then co-leader to resign, and some very hard questions were being asked of her.
Leftwing blogger Steven Cowan sums it up as being down to “the anti-Turei cacophony of the corporate media” – see: The Media war against Metiria Turei. He says “The well heeled members of The Commentariat were tripping over themselves to see who could denounce Metiria Turei and The Green Party the loudest.”
Cowan elaborates: “Turei has been talkback gold. She’s female, Maori, an environmentalist, liberal – and a former beneficiary who fiddled the system. She is fully qualified for a good talkback kicking and kick out they did. It’s been difficult to find anyone from within the corporate media who has actually supported the Green co-leader.”
Young Greens co-convener Meg Williams explains: “She was beaten down relentlessly by the media and commentators, to the point that it became too much for her and her family and she decided to resign for their protection. All this vitriol, all this hate and disgust, because a politician was bold enough to say what needed to be said about poverty and inequality: we are not doing enough” – see: What our politics has lost with Metiria Turei’s resignation.
4) Racism and sexism are to blame
Backward attitudes on race and gender are thought by many of Turei’s supporters to be central to her demise, with accusations of double standards and hypocrisy being levelled at Turei’s opponents and critics. Gordon Campbell says in his column today, “far less is expected of white male politicians than brown female ones” – see: On the Turei finale.
Steve King explains how personal identity and “privilege” can lead to judgement of people like Turei: “I belong to the dominant ethnic group. I am male, and I am middle-class. Everything in our society is geared towards helping me along. My privilege is a consequence of matters of fortune over which I had absolutely no control at all. I had a comfortable upbringing.” And therefore “people like me are tempted to make judgements about people who are not so fortunate as them” – see: Not prepared to criticise from privileged position.
5) It’s all about class
Victoria University of Wellington political scientist Claire Timperley suggests that Turei’s downfall is directly related to being working class and a beneficiary – see: Metiria Turei debate: It’s all about class.
Timperley argues that being poor is what puts people in a situation where following the rules is a luxury: “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.”
Timperley argues that implicit in many of the calls for Turei to resign is the notion that Parliament is not a place for those “who have not experienced the security of a middle-class upbringing.” Therefore, this also raises questions about how representative our democracy is: “Recent commentary 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. Labour has a history of appealing to the working class, although this has eroded in recent years… But if we look around the halls of power, we see very few MPs from working class backgrounds.”
Similarly, see No Right Turn’s Class and Metiria. He says “its all the more apparent when you compare it with Bill English’s housing allowance rort: there, a rich man lied about where he lived and paid lawyers to order his affairs to scam the taxpayer of tens of thousands of dollars. But it was “within the rules” – rules he helped write – so its all OK.”
Similarly, Simon Wilson says “Turei didn’t get any help from lawyers: she was a beneficiary on her own. Poor people take their chances: you steal a loaf of bread and hope you don’t get caught. Rich people, however, employ people to tell them where to find the free bread” – see: The sins of Metiria, Bill and John: sense-checking the fact checkers.
And Lynn Williams argues that the Turei saga “exemplifies and exposes the class divide which the politics of the past 30 years has been all about both opening and obfuscating” – see: “Nobody should steal from taxpayers”.
A class analysis also highlights the differences between Turei and Labour’s new leader: “She has supposedly caused a wave of “Jacindamania” in her first week in the job, emerging as a feminist icon. Yet the feminism she is engaging is superficial at best, as the women she stands for are not the ones who are materially disadvantaged, reflected in her firm position to exclude Turei from a ministerial position should Labour and the Greens work together. She will stand up for women, but just the ones who don’t have to lie to WINZ to receive the benefit to feed their children. Even with this kind of position, Ardern remains clear of the public’s moralising gaze” – see Erica Hye Ji Lee’s Lessons from Metiria Turei’s resignation.
Finally, for a poignant view about the Turei poverty conversation, see Toby Morris’ cartoon on the RNZ website, Turei’s exit no fairytale ending.
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Dr Bryce Edwards is a political scientist and a lecturer in Politics.

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