#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.

Why fiscal responsibility is the Bog of Eternal Stench

Labour and the Greens have announced a cornerstone coalition policy for the 2017 general election: a set of Budget Responsibility Rules which will, per the Greens’ website:

… show that the Green Party and the Labour Party will manage the economy responsibly while making the changes people know are needed, like lifting kids out of poverty, cleaning up our rivers, solving the housing crisis, and tackling climate change.

It feels like I’ve been banging my head against this brick wall for a decade. The short version is this:

Labour and the Greens cannot credibly campaign on a foundation of “fiscal responsibility”. It is anathema to genuine progressive politics. It isn’t a vote-winner. It’s a vote-loser.

I’ve heard the defence: but we ARE the fiscally responsible ones! Look at our surpluses in government! Witness our detailed policy costings! BEHOLD OUR GRAPHS!

If empirical evidence worked, we’d already been in government and this conversation wouldn’t be happening, and I know I for one would be happier for it.

Everyone knows this is crap. No one really tries to defend it by saying, “but fiscal responsibility is the most important thing in government”. They say, “but we need people to believe we’re fiscally responsible.” They say, “but the media always ask how much our policies will cost!” They say, “we need to win or we can’t achieve anything, learn to count Stephanie.”

We know we’re selling our souls, but only for the right reasons. The tragedy is, we’re not. Fiscal responsibility is the Bog of Eternal Stench. Once you dip so much as a toe in, it makes everything else you do reek.

Don’t just take my word for it – after all, we’re all rational creatures making objective decisions based on evidence, right? Take it from someone who has the evidence, my favourite American Anat Shenker-Osorio:

Peer-reviewed psychological studies show that money-primed people … become more selfish. They are, for example, much less willing to spend time helping another student pretending to be confused about a task. When an experimenter dropped pencils, money-primed subjects elected to pick up far fewer than their unprimed peers. Also, when asked to set up two chairs for a get to know you chat, those who had money put on their minds placed the chairs farther apart. Money-primed undergrads showed greater preference for being alone.

The results of these experiments should give progressives pause and serve as lessons for how we do our messaging. Talking about money first makes the whole subsequent conversation start in a mean and selfish place — the last thing we want when we’re talking about the common good and our national future. …

Those politicians who actually believe in the institution in which they serve would do far better to speak of what government does for us — and trust that we’re smart enough to know that good things don’t come cheap.

If we prompt New Zealand voters to think about money first, they aren’t going to think about common good, about ensuring their neighbours have a good life too. They’re going to think “actually, getting another block of cheese each week does sound good” and the right’s fourth term is secured. They don’t even have to work for it, because when we explicitly buy into their values, it weakens our own.

It cuts out the heart of our politics. Our critics are absolutely right: Labour and the Greens are not trusted to be good fiscal managers. THAT’S THE POINT. No one wants us to be good fiscal managers – except for the right, who are thrilled that we not only want to play in their playhouse but will obey all the rules they’ve made up to ensure they always win.

It’s like some people watched Mean Girls and thought, “well of course we have to wear pink on Wednesdays and throw out our white gold hoops, how else will we get Regina George to truly respect us?”

Pink is not our colour. Fiscal responsibility is not our strength. The economy is not the most important thing in the world – HE TANGATA, HE TANGATA, HE TANGATA.

We’re meant to be the ones who care about people, and make sure everyone in our communities is taken care of, whether they’re sick, or old, or exploited by a shoddy employer or having a baby or building a life in a new country. These are the areas where we’re strong. These are the values which we must promote – not just because we hold them dearly, but because doing that is the best way to fuck up the other side’s message of greed and self-interest and exploitation of people and our planet.

People want change. They don’t want poverty and housing crises and public services stretched to breaking point. They know these things cost money! But they’ve been told for decades that government must be small, and the private sector runs things better, that the only metric that matters is that sweet surplus. They know it doesn’t feel right, but there doesn’t seem to be another way of doing things, because we keep telling them we agree with it. And they vote for the party they “know” are the better economic managers, because that’s National’s brand, and not all the graphs and spreadsheets we throw at them are going to convince them otherwise.

We’re never going to win while we keep playing in the right’s playhouse and skinny-dipping in the Bog of Fiscally Responsible Stench because we want to smell just like our enemies. We have to be an alternative. Stop talking about the bloody money and start talking about people.

Defending social services and fighting the real enemy

A really interesting article on the government’s proposed changes to child protection legislation at Re-Imagining Social Work, looking specifically at the political context and the especially damaging impacts they could have on Māori families:

The current new and more sophisticated push for public sector privatisation (pushing the market onward to fresh feeding grounds) is premised upon the logic of independent reports, such as Better Public Services, which are, in fact, saturated with political bias.

There is an undertone that public services are failing – particularly for the most vulnerable among us (how particularly sad). In part, this is a spin on one of the oldest privatisation gambits – if you run public services down enough, predictions of failure become self-fulfilling.  Alleged failure is linked to the assertion that we don’t know enough about the drivers of poor outcomes. I wonder what it is that we don’t know, but I am guessing the fact that poverty is directly related to the unfair distribution of wealth and opportunity in our society is something which the Commission would prefer us not to think about. The argument is that social services are expected to solve social problems. If they don’t, social services are at fault.  So … disadvantaged New Zealanders are disadvantaged because of under-performing social services. Are you with me so far?  The answer lies, of course, in innovative flexible capitalism.

There’s been some recent comment on the left about the people who work in this environment. And like I said in Don’t despair, I get the temptation to go for the soft targets – in this case, the people who work on the frontlines. It’s easier to swear at the person on the other end of the phone, giving you the bad news about your allowance or demanding more pointless paperwork, than the convoluted system of politicians and processes and decision-making which got you and them here.

But they aren’t formulating these brutal policies, they aren’t deciding where the funding is spent or cut, they aren’t setting the narratives which enable and encourage a punitive culture instead of a supportive one.

In fact, all we do when we attack the public servants at the coalface is play into the government’s hands and make it only easier for them to review, restructure and privatise our important social services into nonexistence.

Again, like I said in that previous post:

We have to remember that a defining part of being on the left and being progressive and believing in social justice is that we have faith in people. We know people are fundamentally good. We know humans are social animals who form communities and friendships and look out for each other, when they’re not being hammered every day with rightwing narratives about bludgers and self-interest and YOUR taxpayer dollars being wasted on those parasites.

I know that the people working in our public services want to do a good job. They want to ensure people get the support they need. Of course they want kids to eat, of course they want families to have homes.

But when this government decides people needing support don’t have consistent case managers who know their background, they deliberately made it harder for people with complex needs to get all their entitlements. When this government chooses to load people up with debt because they need emergency housing and the only thing available is a hotel – because a previous version of this government decided to sell off our state houses – they make it impossible for people to ever get out of a shitty situation. When this government decides to classify solo parents and people with chronic illnesses as “Jobseekers” regardless of their circumstances, they deliberately prop the door open to errors and mishandling and ridiculous amounts of paperwork.

When this government cuts and cuts and cuts and applies “sinking lid” policies to staff numbers even when there’s an economic crisis going on and more people than ever need to access public services, there is only so much the people on the frontline can do. They are working damned hard often for bloody low pay and they’ve got all the worries about rent and the power bill and school “donations” and getting through the week, same as the rest of us.

Let’s focus our anger where it needs to be: on the government which sets the course, and on the rightwing propaganda which justifies it.

~

No apologies for this one – I was a teen of the 90s and a WWE Smackdown fan during the glorious Vicki Guerrero/LayCool era.

QOTD: Owen Jones on overcoming media bias

At the Guardian:

The left is bitterly accustomed to living with almost farcically hostile media in a country where the press is as much a sophisticated political lobbyist as a means of information. A natural response is to become grouchy, to shake fists angrily, or simply boycott the media altogether. It’s an approach that fires up some of the most dedicated leftwing activists, but it’s a strategic mistake. And both [Sadiq] Khan and Momentum show the left can rebut media hostility – and even thrive.

Go read the whole thing!