Early nineteenth-century Britain was notable for its harsh and cruel punishments for working-class people. There were 200 offences that were punishable by death, for minor stealing offences and for such odd offences as ‘injuring Westminster Bridge’. Since then society has become kinder and more humane and we would rather admire someone living in an inhumane system who stole a loaf of bread to feed their family than consider them a criminal. But something of this punitive mindset has surely survived in some people’s attitude towards beneficiaries and the poorest in society, and in the outcry against Metiria Turei.
Just to say something is against the law is not the end of the argument, you first have to decide whether that law is just and balanced. You would have to argue that people like mathematician and logician Alan Turing, or many other famous people like Arthur C Clarke, were somehow lacking in character because they broke the law at the time, because they lived at a time when practising homosexuality was against the law. But these days we have accepted that they were badly wronged by society. Likewise, are beneficiaries who cheat the system to get by wrong – or is a system that deliberately cut the benefits to just below subsistence level, and has created a culture where the people it’s supposed to help are afraid to turn up to Winz, or denied what they are entitled to, or it’s made so practically difficult for them that they just give up, the far larger wrong?
If you want to call what Metiria did fraud, and rule her out of a ministerial post, then you would have to call for the immediate resignation of Bill English, for his far larger fraud of falsely claiming a housing allowance, and he wasn’t even a struggling beneficiary.
Metiria has been inspiring, because she has brought the issues of homelessness and poverty, and the punitive and cruel culture of Winz, into public debate. As has Jacinda Adern. I must admit I never really rated Jacinda Adern up to now, thinking her a competent politician who knew how to say all the right things, but essentially perhaps lacking in substance. But she undoubtedly connects with people, and sometimes it really is largely about leadership, rightly or wrongly. I know Andrew Little to be a good man, and it was unselfish of him to stand down without any infighting. Jacinda may not be Jeremy Corbyn, but everything she says makes an impression, and when she asked Bill English if he still denied there was a housing crisis, as he had up to only a matter of months ago, he floundered badly and had no answer. National has tried to keep the housing crisis, homelessness and poverty hidden, and up to now have made a reasonable job of lulling the electorate into thinking they cared. Metiria and Jacinda have got something National hasn’t, which is honesty, and if they can keep these issues to the fore it may make a huge difference.
But of course no-one is more honest than Hone. Of the parties on the left Mana’s policies are the most pure, and it will be Mana’s job in a new parliament to push policy further to the left, in line with the worldwide growing disaffection with neoliberalism.