Saturday, July 22, 2017

Turei explains

Meteria Turei explains to an audience who hasn't a clue about New Zealand.

Last weekend I revealed a lie, a lie that I decided to talk about because of the situation we as a society find ourselves in.

I am the co-leader of the Green party of Aotearoa New Zealand – the third biggest political party in our small democracy. We are two months from our general election, and we’re in a tight tussle to change the government.

Yes, a small party in a small democracy which nevertheless requires two leaders. A small party which in 6 general elections has never convinced enough voters that they are fit to govern.

Over the weekend, at our party’s AGM, we launched an incomes policy which would create the most significant changes to New Zealand’s welfare system in a generation. It’s a comprehensive piece of work that rolls back many of the benefit cuts and sanctions that have been put in place by successive governments in New Zealand (some of which are mirrored in other countries).

Sanctions (which result in cuts) that require the beneficiary to attend job interviews, pass drugs tests and tell the state who the father of their child is so he can play his part in financially supporting them - alongside the taxpayer.

 I decided this weekend I would tell supporters, the media and the country that two decades ago I lied to a government ministry while I was receiving a benefit.

I also lied while training to be a lawyer but that seems neither here nor there. Neither does the fact that I now want to make laws seem to be under any sort of ethical scrutiny.

This is why I did it.

I had my daughter, Piupiu, at 22. I was a single, young mum with no formal education qualifications. After she was born, I knew I needed to forge a career for myself so that I could financially support us and give my girl the best life possible. I made the choice to go to law school.

Over five years, I received a training incentive allowance (a benefit that has since been ditched by our current government), as well as a payment for single parents. I also had help from my family, and my daughter’s father’s family.

Actually I also kept the father's identity from the "goverment ministry" so he wouldn't have to pay child support. Some other strangers with children of their own to feed could face that responsibility.

Despite all that support, which is much more than many people in similar circumstances have, I did not have enough money to pay the rent and put food on the table. And so, like many – but not all – people faced with that choice, I lied to survive.

I lived in a few flats over the years with a few different flatmates. I didn’t tell the government department in charge of my benefit about some of those flatmates. If I had, my benefit would have been reduced, and I would not have had enough money to get by.

I told the government department that I was paying the rent all by myself or maybe with just one or two others. And the other flatmates won't come forward now because they were possibly doing exactly the same. None of us could get by. We'd never heard of pooling benefits.

Of course, I had no idea that when I made that decision that 20-odd years later I’d be a politician, campaigning on benefit reform, two months out from an election.

"That decision" was many decisions, year-on-year. It wasn't a solitary desperate mistake.

I am in a privileged, fortunate position now; I have a voice and I have a platform. Thousands of other New Zealanders who are on a benefit don’t have that. In fact, they’re routinely silenced, marginalised and persecuted for the mere fact that they are poor.

Everybody on income support has a voice and a vote. If the benefit system was so mean and so degrading and so inequitable, the Greens would have been in government long ago.

That came into sharp focus a couple of weeks ago when we were preparing for our policy launch. I came across a news story about a woman who took her own life after she was accused of benefit fraud and told that she was to be prosecuted. It was eventually found that she had committed no offence but it was too late for her and the family she left behind. Reading about that case is what spurred me to tell my story – the whole story, not the redacted, PR version.

Some people have asked why it took me 15 years as an MP to do it. To that, all I can say is that nobody wants to be defined by a lie – I certainly never wanted to be. But the outrage and the urgency I felt after reading that woman’s story was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. For me, it felt like it was now or never.

So "never" was a consideration? That just adds to the sense of mistrust the Greens (via Turei) have engendered.

I also think that as a country we are ready to have a conversation about what life is really like for people on benefits and for the 200,000 Kiwi children growing up in poverty. How the welfare system set up to help people actually keeps them living beneath the poverty line; how the government uses the threat of further poverty against the poor; how the best thing we can do to lift people out of poverty is simply to give them more money.

And if we don't just "give them more money" they should take it. Like I did. Oh, and by the way, if you don't vote Green you may just have to. Don't follow the rules that have been designed to make the system sustainable and fair. And make sure you tell your children that you are ripping the system off to set a good example. Inter-generational fraud should be the goal.

In the days since the speech, I have heard from scores of people, mostly single mums, who have had to make the same choice I did. I’ve had people come up to me on the street and say the same. That reaction was unexpected but has been quite amazing.

So many people have admitted benefit fraud to me but despite being an MP, their secrets are safe with me. I made them kneel down and I touched their shoulders.

I’ve also heard from people who are outraged. They think I’m a fraud and a criminal. (Of course, as I’ve said, I will pay back what I owe.) 

Well, I ruminated over that decision for a few days (and years prior to disclosure.)

But importantly, all the abuse and vitriol that beneficiaries face today, by the agencies and in private, is now being levelled at me, in public. That reaction was expected. And it has broken the silence about how awful life on a benefit really is.

I don’t know whether people’s feelings towards me will change over time. And actually, it doesn’t matter at all. What matters is what comes out of these conversations, and whether we will see the day when our welfare system is restored to its original purpose – to be a true safety net that helps our people when they need it.

Which is what it already is. At the very least.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Overt media bias

From today's DomPost (though the on-line version differs from the hard copy offering I have responded to, you'll get the gist):

Kiwi baby death rates not improving as experts blame poverty

"New Zealand's high rates of infant deaths places it near the bottom of the OECD, with opposition parties blaming inequality and poverty for the country's poor record compared to the rest of the developed world.

Poor healthcare; poor housing; lack of access to a midwife or maternity carer; and poor health in the mother have all been blamed by experts for the poor statistics."

My response:

Dear Editor

The DomPost ran a headline on July 20, "Poverty cited as baby death rates get worse."

While not strictly 'fake news' it is outdated news, drawing on OECD data from 2012/13. Since then the infant mortality rate has dropped to its lowest number ever in 2016 - 3.58 deaths per 1,000 infants.

How difficult would it have been for your reporter to access this data from Statistics New Zealand? I could.

Instead the article was peppered with quotes about poverty, family violence and poor housing. Undoubtedly these factors contribute but the trend is positive - not negative.

Lindsay Mitchell

"Society is not a family, Government is not a parent."

Here's a thoughtful offering. It's from an Economics Professor. Imagine if we had academics in New Zealand who prescribed to these views.

"...when the government takes on the role of “parent” or ‘big brother” and takes responsibility for all such things, it weakens the personal and familial senses of duty and obligation most people in a free society would ethically and voluntarily feel “the right thing to do” to help, handle and work out with others in the narrower or wider circle of actual relatives."

There was however a time in NZ when the law forced sometimes even distant family members to take financial responsibility for indigent relatives. Not sure I am comfortable with that either. But the pendulum has certainly swung way too far towards state involvement in matters they should keep out of.

People in the interventionist-welfare state soon are desensitized and even dehumanized to these matters. After all, “isn’t that what government is for?” Besides, “I’ve paid my taxes” to pay for those “social services.” And, in addition, “shouldn’t that be left up to the qualified experts in the government who know how to handle these things?”

Now that rings a bell.


Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Clearly a lifestyle choice

Doesn't Meteria Turei provide clear evidence that living on a benefit is a lifestyle choice? Whenever I call having a baby/ies and staying on welfare long-term (National's definition is over one year) a lifestyle choice, people scoff. "Do you know what a struggle being on a benefit is?" they say. "Who would choose to live like that? Give me a break."

Meteria did. She made it her 'job' to be the rent collector in each house so she could charge flatmates. She knew how long her degree would take and that she would use this arrangement - living off the taxpayer and her fellow flatmates - for the duration.

It was cynical and illegal.

That so many people are prepared to not only excuse her, but deify her, is bewildering to me.

After a period in the UK, I returned to NZ in 1992. At the height of the 1990's recession unemployment. I had worked since aged 18 (1978)  full time. Unemployment was foreign to me. Months passed and I was unable to find a job. Luckily I was living back home with mum and dad. By chance I ran into an old work mate now employed by WINZ. She was adamant that I should apply for the dole. I distinctly remember her saying, "You worked for years and paid your taxes." I was reluctant, but starting to get a bit despondent and desperate. I am sure I didn't go into the local office (or have wiped the memory of it) but equally sure I received the dole for two weeks - about $60 a week because I wasn't living independently. Then I found work.

This is related only to illustrate the contrasting attitudes that people have to welfare - the chasm that has kept this story hot for 3 days now.

I would suggest that if Turei's attitude prevailed, the country would grind to a halt.  Whether she is right or wrong there is only so much of her morality the country's coffers can finance.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Politician commits benefit fraud ... in UK

A councillor and former Parliamentary candidate has been sentenced to 40 hours of unpaid community work after pleading guilty to two counts of benefit fraud which resulted in overpayments of more than £10,000.

Hanna Toms, Cornwall Councillor for the Falmouth Penwerris Ward, made monetary gain after failing to tell local authorities about an increase in income between 2008 and 2014.

The 40-year-old came clean about a "genuine mistake" two years ago and says that she will not be stepping down from her role as councillor.

She was sentenced at Truro Magistrates' Court.

Cllr Toms was set to stand as Labour's Parliamentary candidate for Truro and Falmouth in 2015 before withdrawing just months before the election.

In a statement, she told the BBC: "I was under the impression that as I had advised Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs of changes in my personal circumstances, this information would be passed on to Cornwall Council. I was wrong.

"I would like to publicly apologise to my family and friends, my constituents, my fellow councillors and to people in Cornwall for letting them down in this way."

The money has since been repaid using a bank loan.


Monday, July 17, 2017

Which Minister said this?

"The Minister said that the ministry takes a zero tolerance approach to benefit fraud for the same reasons it takes a zero tolerance approach to staff fraud. Benefit fraud is unacceptable because it undermines people’s confidence in the benefit system. If taxpayers suspect that some people are defrauding the ministry, this could cause a backlash against beneficiaries."

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Green's shot at outbidding Labour

The Greens have announced their latest bid to achieve government:

"It includes a big overhaul of social welfare, with all benefit payments increasing by 20 percent and all sanctions and obligations for beneficiaries removed.

It means those receiving welfare won't have their benefits cut if they don't search for jobs or fail drug tests, or if mothers don't name the father of their child.

Working for Families also gets beefed up under the policy, with weekly payments increasing by at least $72. However, the threshold of eligibility won't be changed.

Ms Turei has also made the bold move of introducing a new top tax bracket of 40 percent, which kicks in for all income over $150,000.

The tax rate in the lowest bracket, presently 10.5 percent, will reduce to 9 percent.

Minimum wage will also go up immediately by $2, from $15.75 to $17.75."

Turei went on to admit defrauding the welfare system when she was a beneficiary. I wonder if she ever paid it back when able to?