Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Don’t let them defeat us

Well, as everyone in New Zealand already knows, Metiria Turei resigned from the co-leadership of the Green Party on Thursday. Apparently she and her family have been subjected to an unbearable invasion of their privacy since she confessed to having claimed more from WINZ than she was supposed to. Apparently, according to various commentators, this is no more than she should have expected, which is a more damning indictment on the state of the New Zealand public’s soul than anything Turei was accusing them of.

The original Dependent Parent Benefit (DPB) which Turei was collecting back in the ’90s was, designedly, not quite enough to live on. There have been all sorts of overhauls to the benefit system since then, but that hasn’t changed. Even so, it’s always been too much for a certain segment of the population to accept, and the National Party has ridden to many election victories on the promise of reducing benefits. The first explanation that springs to my mind is that New Zealanders are a pack of selfish, compassionless pricks, but this is not much more charitable than the attitude I’m trying to criticize. A few might perhaps be motivated by the belief that social welfare cannot be competently managed by government departments, and as a former long-time welfare beneficiary I have to say they’ve got a point; but this can’t account for the contempt and anger that pulses through public discourse whenever the subject reaches the headlines. Nor can it explain why welfare is consistently under-resourced – mere random incompetence would lead to over-funding as often as to under-funding. The real consensus New Zealand attitude must lie somewhere between this creditable theory and my jaundiced initial prejudice.

Actually, I think my initial prejudice is a clue. All I have to suppose is that a lot of people have the same knee-jerk indignant reaction to people getting benefits that I do to people cutting benefits. They see benefits as a form of theft; they see people like me or Turei as lazy bludgers stealing what rightfully belongs to hard-working taxpayers. The questionable assumptions underpinning this framework are too many to go through in depth here. There’s the idea that the number of people who choose not to work increases linearly with the value of the benefit entitlement, which makes for a nice straight line on a whiteboard in an economics classroom but doesn’t have much else going for it. There’s the idea that capitalist systems naturally reward hard work and ability, which is false, and the idea that there’s nothing wrong with inequality in and of itself, which is also false. And there’s the idea that the personal qualities which make someone a productive citizen rather than a parasite – diligence, perseverance, respect, etc. – can only instilled by hardship, not inspired by kindness.

(That is presumably the attitude that the National Party is appealing to with their recently-announced policy of sending teenage criminals to military boot-camps. The evidence – which I imagine National will, if they win the election, magically rediscover right about when they have to start putting their promises into practice – shows clearly that, absent stable positive relationships with caring adults, what boot-camps basically do is turn young criminals into young militarily-trained criminals.)

In Turei’s case of course all the class prejudice is aggravated by her gender, race, and marital status at the time of the offence. New Zealand culture shares with America the image of the “welfare queen”, in Ronald Reagan’s words, who repeatedly gets pregnant outside wedlock so she can collect more money from the government without having to work. Reagan didn’t have to specify outright that he meant African American single mothers; in New Zealand, you don’t have to specify that a “DPB bludger” is a Māori woman. That way, you can leverage racist stereotypes and then affect injured innocence when people call you on it. The bogey of the Bad Māori Mother has caused at least one serious miscarriage of justice in this country, in 2006, when a pair of twin babies were beaten to death and all the evidence pointed to their father but the jury acquitted him for apparently no better reason than that their mother had gone out for the night and entrusted them to his care. (I say “no better reason” because the defence’s alternative theory was that she had swung by the house, nipped in the window, murdered them, climbed out again, and headed off to a nightclub.)

Turei has not left the Green Party, nor is she standing down from Parliament; she’s running for the Te Tai Tonga electorate. I haven’t seen the new Green Party list rankings – obviously, having resigned the co-leadership, she can’t be at #1 any more. But I accept, painfully and reluctantly, that she is not going to be our first Māori Prime Minister now. I’m writing this to explain why, nevertheless, my resolve is stronger than ever to vote Green in September.

I am not here for bromides along the lines of “Yes, it’s a shame, but we don’t live in an ideal world.” Not living in an ideal world is why we need leaders like Turei. I’ve read multiple different analyses of exactly what she’s supposed to have done wrong, but none of them add up to anything but: she confronted New Zealand class prejudice head-on. Apparently she was supposed to do that without suggesting that there might be good reasons why people bend rules designed to starve them until their self-discipline is strong enough to conjure job opportunities out of thin air. I’m all for strategic compromise if it achieves more than direct opposition, but that’s a very situational “if”. Sometimes you have to plant your feet and tell the truth.

But even less time do I have for the opposite error – that voting is pointless because all politicians serve the same wealthy interest groups and “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”. That, I’ve always felt, is a singularly inept metaphor. My carpentry tools could quite easily be used to dismantle my house if I were so inclined. If voting doesn’t make any difference, why have the powerful fought tooth and nail against every extension of the franchise – to the working class, to women, to people of colour? The system may be stacked against us, but you don’t unstack a system by failing to take advantage of what handholds it does afford you. Yes, lobbyists have inveigled themselves into the electoral process – but why did they need to? Why did the New Zealand Right mount their disgraceful hate campaign against Turei this past month, except that they feared she was going to make a difference where it counted? Evidently the wealthy interest groups don’t think all politicians serve them equally.

I’ll freely confess that I didn’t vote in last year’s flag referendum, because neither ballot had any option I wanted. Thing about the flag referendum, though? None of the options had any bearing on homelessness, child poverty, climate change, corporate power, racism against Māori or immigrants, or the possibility of New Zealanders being sent to fight for Donald Trump. (Though, credit where it’s due, even National is shying back from getting involved in this president’s wars.) I didn’t vote because it didn’t matter. When it does matter, voting for the least-worst option is better than not voting.

Yes, parliamentary democracy requires compromise and occasional acceptance of defeat. I’ve got some bad news for you: so does every other political system that's ever been put into practice. I’ll grant, for instance, that no party is likely to eliminate child poverty. But suppose that the Red party’s policies will reduce it by 50% and the Blue party’s policies by only 10%, while the Yellow party’s are likely to increase it by 5%. Is there no difference between the three, just because none of them reach the finish-mark? Do the thousands more children who get lunch and shoes and school books under Red party policies count for nothing?

So here’s my message to my fellow Metiria fans. If this makes you decide not to vote, it strengthens the bullies who pushed her out. If you supported the Greens with Metiria Turei at the helm, support them now with your votes and your voices. Don’t let her sacrifice have been in vain. Show the wealthy and the powerful and their lobbyists how many people in this country do care about the poor and the disadvantaged.

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