Tim Murphy is co-editor of Newsroom. He writes about politics, foreign affairs, Auckland, and media. Twitter: @tmurphynz
An encounter with a taxi driver at a service station brought Greens co-leader Metiria Turei to tears at her party’s big Auckland campaign launch event last night.
Turei choked up as she related how the driver, Les, drove onto a Christchurch forecourt, saw her filling up and promptly drove off before changing his mind, driving back and deciding to confront her over her admission to historical benefit fraud.
Why, he asked, had she made that confession. Why had she told her story now and not before?
“He was really suspicious that it was nothing more than a political ploy and it was manipulation,” Turei told about 370 people at the Mt Eden War Memorial Hall.
“I said to him,” she started, but was briefly overcome with emotion and had to gather herself, voice cracking: “I said that for 15 years I’ve been in this job, 15 years we’ve been talking about the poverty our country faces. We’ve been talking about child poverty, kids going to school hungry. We’ve had research paper after research paper, Members’ bills, government bills, proposals, campaigns and rallies.
“And, nothing has changed. In. All. That. Time.
“It has got worse since I started, After all this time of trying to make these changes and all the things we’ve tried to do, we’ve not been able to make that change.
“The only thing I have left to offer is my story about my life and my baby’s life. Maybe by offering my story to the country then maybe we have a chance to make things change.”
Turei told the crowd: “Les, bless him, he was fantastic. He was, like, ‘That makes sense to me. You should tell more people that’.”
She must have told her ‘story’ scores of times since first confessing at the Greens annual convention to failing to tell welfare officials when she was on the domestic purposes benefit after having her daughter that she had had flatmates who helped pay the rent.
If ever a political career or a political campaign is defined by one story, this is it. It was the emotional touchpoint at the launch, overwhelming co-leader James Shaw’s speech on the party’s five policy commitments for this campaign.
Turei’s admission came two weeks ago as she launched the Greens welfare and families package, one in which all benefits would be lifted by 20 percent and government agencies would be ordered not to penalise recipients for failing to follow rules. She revealed her benefit history to draw the spotlight to the struggle of the poor and it has burned brightly upon her ever since.
It was a big strategic gamble and has resulted in political blowback against Turei. She will meet Work and Income officials tomorrow as they investigate the over-payment and calculate what she must pay back.
It was also a big political marker for the Greens and has preceded record poll results, one giving the party 15 percent of the party vote and another 13 percent – up from its 11 percent result at the 2014 election.
It has plainly been an emotional trial for Turei, but among friends at the Greens’ Auckland event she went onto the stage to a standing ovation and was similarly acclaimed when she finished speaking.
“I really wanted to thank you for having my back,” she told them at one point.
“What we have seen since I told my story and launched our Mending the Safety Net policy is this country having a deep, broad, sometimes unbelievable conversation about what poverty looks like in this country and what it means and what we will do to fix and end it.
“And so it started because I told my story but it continued because you have told yours. You have told your stories on blogs and on Twitter and Facebook. And all these stories together make a movement for change and movement to fix and solve poverty. A lot of us have a lot of privilege and power and it’s our job to speak for those who don’t have a voice and that’s what we are going to take into the election.
“I’m incredibly proud to be part of this movement to do it.”
Turei claims the increased benefits, changes to Working for Families and associated measures would see 350,000 people lifted from poverty.The moves to stop welfare agencies penalising beneficiaries for failing to abide by behavioural rules or having new life partners would stop poverty being used as a weapon by the state against people. “No longer will we put up with a culture where people are punished because they need help from the state.”
Before finishing, she warned the crowd: “It’s going to get tough, whānau, over the next little while. There’s going to be a lot of distractions, lots going on, a lot of political game playing. I just want you to put your time, energy and advocacy into how amazing this country could be with a change of government.”
Shaw claimed a Green groundswell is building, citing a crowd of 200 in Palmerston North at the start of his and Turei’s Great Together tour on Tuesday as unprecedented.
He said the campaign against poverty symbolised by Turei’s story was something the party had to do. “We can and we must. It’s the right thing to do. No more tinkering around the edges, a little bit here and a little bit there and seeing what we can get away with. We know how much it costs and it’s not even much in the grand scheme of things.
“We bring the boldness. We are not interested in grey managerialism. That’s dominated our politics for the last 70 years. We aim to be bold. We aim to misbehave. We aim to do the right thing.”