#IamMetiria is changing our politics and it’s about damn time

Metiria Turei’s admission of misleading Work and Income when she was a solo mum may not change the result of the election, but must be a pivotal moment in the 2017 general election and NZ political conversation. The condemnations (almost exclusively from older male commentators) were swift, either trying to drive a wedge between beneficiaries and “the rest of us”, or clutching pearls at the idea a politician, speaking at a political policy launch, was making a political statement in an election year god forbid. The surge of support, from a huge range of New Zealanders (and in the media, particularly younger/female commentators) was amazing. (The latest Colmar Brunton which came out after this post was 99% drafted also seem to show it was a political winner.)

Just over the weekend, three op eds on Stuff illustrated how important this debate is – try as the detractors may to turn it into a black-and-white, “she broke the law she’s a bad person pay no attention to the bad person” situation. Grant Shimmin writing in the Timaru Herald smashed the idea that “working people” will reject Metiria’s statements:

I’m not Metiria Turei because I’ve not experienced the deprivations she has. But when she feels moved to promise a Government she is part of will not be one “that uses poverty as a weapon against its own people”, #IAmMetiria. That should cover all Governments, period.

Michele A’Court, in a piece co-written with Jeremy Elwood, made the realities crystal clear:

In 2017, when we hear the stories about kids going to school without lunch after they’ve left the house without breakfast, we mutter: “A good mother would do anything to make sure her children were fed.” And ignore the fact that no-one – no-one at all – survives on a benefit without some combination of help from foodbanks, charities, the kindness of family, friends and strangers, and lying to WINZ.

We ask where the fathers are. Sometimes the fathers are one or more of these things: violent, dangerous, hiding, unknown, unwell, dead, addicted, not interested.

When we hear about NZ’s high rate of child abuse, we say, “A good mother would do anything to protect her children.” And overlook the fact that often the most dangerous thing a woman can do is attempt escape. And even while we’re asking that question, we stop funding safe houses.

Alison Mau describes it as the Springbok Tour for this generation.

I think it goes even further. Because it doesn’t completely make sense, the way Turei’s critics have banged away at their “the law is the law!” drums.

As a nation we got over the current Prime Minister rorting us for $32,000 of housing allowances he wasn’t entitled to. The ACT Party survives despite seemingly every MP they’ve fielded showing up with a criminal record or some light-hearted rorting of parliamentary allowances. Todd Barclay’s back, for God’s sake.

So what did Metiria Turei really do wrong?

She survived.

Young Māori solo mums are not meant to survive, much less thrive, much less become political leaders a few hundred party votes from being Deputy PM. The system isn’t designed that way, not thirty years post-Ruthanasia. It’s meant to do the bare bones, look good – a hand up, not a hand out! – but still entrench inequality and ensure there are always people desperate enough to compete for insecure jobs and keep wages down, profits up.

Women like Metiria Turei are meant to be cogs in the machine, not staunch, outspoken leaders threatening to upturn the whole system by exposing the truth of it. Not threats to the powers that be.

Then #IamMetiria showed just how many of us there are out there – kids raised on the benefit, whose mums and dads struggled, scraped, lied or jumped through loopholes to raise us – who, when we succeeded, when we got our degrees or built careers or started businesses, did not forget where we came from.

This week it’s become more and more apparent how uncomfortable some are with even acknowledging the status quo – the established fact (hell, the intended consequence) that benefits are not enough to live on, and the current policy direction and operation of Work and Income makes it difficult for people to access the help they need.

The “analysis” and reasons why Turei’s comments are political poison range from “ew, beneficiaries, we Normal People can’t sympathize with them yuck” or “actually, talking about how difficult life is for poor people only appeals to liberal Twitter echo chamber craft beer glitter beards”. In short: nothing to see here. No one cares.

It is vitally necessary to convince us that the issue is not that the system is broken and what people have to do to survive and to provide for their families. Because that is an argument they will absolutely lose.

Peel away the bad Inspector Javert impressions* and the pseudointellectual chin-stroking about whether a politician being political is bad politics, and the worldview being presented by Metiria Turei’s critics is really, really not good.

This is about whether a mother should feed her child. Even if it means breaking the rules. Even if breaking the rules means she can go on to be successful, and independent, and by far a better contributor to her community and our country than anyone who’s hissing at her now.

The decision is whether following the rules is more important than a child’s life.

That’s it.

And we all know where the vast majority of people are going to fall on that question.

That’s why the detractors will scream “NO, IT’S ABOUT INTEGRITY!!!” or “SHE’S PLAYING POLITICS!!!” because they really, really do not want a proper debate about whether robotically obeying unjust laws is the ethical thing to do when children are going hungry.

This doesn’t just apply to benefit systems and parenting decisions. Look at the reaction in Australia when Sally McManus (queen) stated that she wouldn’t damn workers who downed tools when someone had been killed on the job at a construction site. Different issue, same theme: oh god, what happens when the peasants realise that all the rules we’ve invented to constrain their lives and cement our power are actually just bullshit?

We all know that some things are more important that following the rules. Doing *good* trumps doing what’s *approved*, every time. Our history and culture are full of righteous lawbreakers, starting with Jesus, moving through Nelson Mandela and conscientious objectors and suffragettes to classic children’s literature:

During the 1951 waterfront lockout it was illegal to provide food to the workers’ families. How does that feel to us in 2017? How many of us would do what Metiria’s critics assert is the right thing to do – let kids go hungry because their parents are in an industrial dispute, no matter which side of that dispute you were on?

How did almost the entire nation respond to Helen Kelly and so many other Kiwis who came out over the past few years to talk bout their decisions to take medicinal cannabis, despite the law, because it was the only thing relieving their pain?

The backlash against Turei hasn’t been insignificant. Even some allies have felt the need to tut-tut about “condoning lawbreaking” even though of course they understand why she did what she did.

But this is a self-defeating response. There is an opportunity, right now, to redefine how politics works: how we talk about social welfare and community good and the role of the state in ensuring everyone lives a decent life in this amazing country of ours.

All it takes is framing the debate differently. Not engaging with the arguments about political point-scoring or the importance of The Rule Of Law (a concept the powers that be find indispensable when their position is threatened but rather optional if they can make a buck).

Our values are humanitarian values. Equality. Universalism. Social justice. People’s lives being more important than the rules made by the powerful to keep themselves in power. The argument is so easy to make, and so easy to win. But we have to fight for it.

Metiria Turei is, and there are so many people – people who were not feeling inspired this election, people who desperately want a change of government but didn’t know who to vote for – standing with her. Together we can change the conversation. We can make politics about people, not money. We can assert, as hasn’t been asserted for decades, that government’s job is taking care of people, and politicians are servants of the community, and it is good and fair and just that we all pay taxes so the state can take care of the basics that ensure everyone lives a good life.

It is the right thing to do. And it’s the only way we’re going to win.

I admit I’ve been watching a loooooooot of Person of Interest lately.

~

*But let’s also be serious, Valjean is a sexual-abuse-enabling dickhead and Javert gets all the cool songs.

I don’t want to lift children out of poverty

I’ve been thinking more about how we frame our messages this election year, and I’ve realised something pretty significant.

I don’t want to lift children out of poverty.

Because poverty isn’t a hole in the ground, which a few errant kids fell into by accident. Why weren’t they watching where they were going? Can’t they just get themselves out again?

Where did that hole even come from? It’s been there forever. Hell, we put up signs to warn people – “Stay in school!” “Don’t do drugs!” “This way to the free CV-writing seminar!”

If some kids are going to be reckless and fall into the poverty hole, why should my taxpayer dollars pay for a rope to get them out?

It’s not my hole. I was smart enough to stay out of it. My parents don’t live anywhere near that hole. Why should stupid kids who jumped in get a free hand up? They’ll just jumping in again, because we haven’t made them face the consequences of their actions.

I don’t want to lift children out of poverty, because they’re not in there alone. Of course we don’t really blame them for being in the hole. But their parents? They’re adults. They should have known better. Why on earth were they wandering around a hole, with kids no less?

Some of them even have more children in the hole. We can’t reward that kind of irresponsible behaviour!

What if poverty wasn’t a hole in the ground?

What if we talked about poverty as violence. Not inevitable. Not accidental. A deliberate act, committed by human beings who hurt others for their own gain.

What if we talked about poverty as a scam. Greedy con artists stacking the deck in their own favour and stealing everyone else’s cards.

In either case, it’s a choice they’ve made, to profit and rule by robbig other people of options. Offering nothing but starvation wages and windowless garages to live in.

What if we talked about poverty as a wall. Something built by people – CEOs, rightwing politicians, the 1% – to trap everyone else and deny us freedom to live our lives.

What if we said: those people demolished the things we built together – state housing, social welfare, health, education – and used the rubble to block our path.

What if we said: we’re going to tear that wall down, all of us, together.

(What if we realised there isn’t one wall, there are multiple walls, and some people have more than one standing in their way, and we have a moral duty to destroy every single one of them, not just the ones that affect us personally?)

I don’t want to lift children out of poverty. Because I will not treat the deliberately-created, wilfully-engineered exploitation of other human beings as a natural phenomenon. A blameless boo-boo. An opportunity for abstract debate about whether the role of government is to throw a rope down or tell them to pull themselves out of the mess they got themselves into.

I want us to disarm the people who are hurting children by forcing them and their families to be poor. I want us to expose the fraud. I want us to break down the walls of poverty which have been constructed so a greedy few can hoard the profits of others’ labour.

We cannot offer solutions without naming the problem. But we’ve got it all backwards.

The problem isn’t poverty. It’s greed.

The villains aren’t the stupid people who jumped down the poverty hole. It’s the greedy. The rich. The neoliberal mad scientists who created poverty in a lab and sent it out on a dark and stormy night to menace innocent villagers.

The solution isn’t lifting children out of poverty. It’s tearing poverty down.

The right don’t want to have this conversation. They are very happy for us to keep talking about poverty as an abstract phenomenon. They love how much time we spend trying to nail them down to one specific, simple, objective measurement of poverty. They want us to keep saying poverty is a hole, so they can keep saying that it’s not the government’s job to give people free rope to climb out of it.

So let’s stop playing their game.

Heartless government

A few stories of recent weeks which show exactly what kind of government we have.

Last August, Emma-Lita Bourne died of pneumonia because the state house her family lived in was cold and damp. Soesa Tovo died after being admitted to hospital with heart and lung problems and pnuemonia. His house was so cold and damp they had to wipe down the ceiling every morning.

The response from Minister of Housing Nick Smith?

“People dying in winter of pneumonia and other illnesses is not new.”

Because people who expect state houses to not be so cold they kill people are clearly confused about the concept of mortality.

Marnia Heke and her children are living in their car because they can’t find stable accommodation. She doesn’t want to go to a motel for a night because it’ll get the kids’ hopes up.

The response from WINZ?

“We have told her that the Ministry would help her to cover the financial cost of temporary accommodation. We wouldn’t be paying for all of the accommodation as it would be reasonable to expect her to contribute.”

Because when a woman and her three kids are sleeping in their car what’s really important is making sure we spend the absolute minimum amount required to put a roof over their heads.

Peter Talley is given a knighthood for “services to business”. His business involves locking out workers, paying women less because they’re women, and trying to force workers to sign individual employment agreements which deny them the right to hold workplace meetings, criticise Peter Talley and his mates publicly, or deny their boss access to their entire medical history.

The response from the Deputy Prime Minister?

“It’s a big complicated business and I’m sure there’s been things go wrong over time, but I think the contribution he has made over the years has been beneficial.”

Because systematically, repeatedly exploiting your workers is just a boo-boo.

This is heartless government. A government that literally does not care about people. Not about providing warm safe housing (it might cost too much). Not about making sure they can come home every day after work (it might cost too much). Not about protecting workers’ right to freedom of speech and forming unions (it would definitely cost too much).

New Zealand is surely a better country than this.

Healthy, safe housing is a basic human right

[Content note: death of a child]

The Greens have been calling for a “Warrant of Fitness” on all rental properties for a while, and the need for one has been highlighted with the tragic death of a toddler in Auckland:

The damp and cold conditions in a state house may have contributed to a toddler’s death, a coroner has found.

Two-year-old Emma-Lita Bourne died after a brain haemorrhage while in Auckland Starship Hospital last August.

She had been brought into the hospital after showing symptoms of fever, which turned out to be a form of pneumonia.

Brandt Shortland concluded the pneumonia was a contributing factor in her death and that the Housing New Zealand house in Otara where her family lived in may have been partly to blame for her ill-health.

The home was described as very cold, with leaking ceilings, little natural light and no carpet.

The family had requested a transfer to a better house and were on the waiting list at the time of the death.

Housing New Zealand gave them a heater, but they were unable to use it due to the amount it added to their power bills, the coroner said.

We have a political discourse that loves to wave the flag of personal responsibility. If Emma-Lita Bourne had died as a result of child abuse, you wouldn’t be able to move for commentators making grand proclamations about the responsibilities that come with receiving government support, or the duties of parents regarding children in their care. We’d know exactly who to blame.

But when a small child gets sick and dies because the house she lived in was damp and cold and her parents couldn’t afford to keep the heaters on we don’t talk about the duty of housing providers – public or private – to maintain healthy, safe properties.

Yet that’s what it is. A basic duty to ensure the thing you provide is fit for purpose. A rental warrant of fitness is no different to imposing basic hygiene standards on restaurants or health and safety requirements on employers (though our government may need a refresher on those, too.)

And the other side of it that we don’t talk about is the duty of government to ensure all its people have a basic, decent standard of living. It’s nothing but heartless to put a family in a cold dark house and then tell them to fix the problem with a heater they can’t afford to run.

We need a rental warrant of fitness. And we need a proper social safety net which provides all families with enough support to keep their kids healthy and warm. It’s not rocket science, and it’s not communism by stealth: it’s called caring for each other. So no child has to die for want of a warm home.

2014 in review – weetbix and elections

I started Boots Theory on 1 February this year, and since then it’s seen nearly 71 posts (72 now!), 5,000 visitors, and 7,500 pageviews. Not a bad start for a year which got pretty busy offline!

But what really staggered me was finding out that over at The Standard, I somehow managed to post the most-read article of the entire year!

The cost of a bowl of Weet-Bix (reposted at Boots Theory here) took a look at one of those really corrosive memes in NZ politics – the idea that poverty isn’t real because “a bowl of Weet-Bix and milk” is cheap.

The financial breakdown isn’t perfect. Commenters pointed out that I didn’t include some aspects of the Working for Families scheme which beneficiary parents might be able to get, for example. But a big part of the problem of poverty in NZ is how difficult it is for beneficiaries to know, much less get, their full entitlements. Navigating our social welfare system is downright nightmarish for many people, and the fact that WINZ’s website doesn’t even mention you might be entitled to a Family Tax Credit illustrates that.

I also got the tenth-most-read post on The Standard, on Three more years of National in government, and I’m going to give myself half-marks for contributions to the ninth-most-read post, announcing the election of Andrew Little as Labour leader.

On that high note, onwards into 2015!