What Metiria Turei's benefit-confession gambit teaches us about politics

by Jane Clifton / 11 August, 2017

Metiria Turei at a press conference on August 4. Photo/Getty Images

If Metiria Turei’s gambit teaches us anything, it’s that there’s only a factoid or two between triumph and a drubbing in politics.

Best to wait a while before counting either one’s chickens, or one another’s vultures.

The Greens co-leader piled points onto her party’s poll rating with her polarising confession of having cheated on her benefit in the 1990s while at law school as a solo mother. The lift came at Labour’s expense, reducing the chances of a change of Government, but to the Greens it still felt like a win. Turei had put the undeniable ill-treatment of beneficiaries on the agenda.

Unfortunately, it soon proved she had mischaracterised herself as an archetype of the desperate struggling battler, given she’d had options many beneficiaries don’t, including family accommodation and financial and other support. Inconvenient further details emerged: she’d registered for an election as living at the house of her daughter’s father’s at the time she had said she was flatting and not disclosing the extra rental income.

Cartoon/Chris Slane

Cartoon/Chris Slane

Suddenly, the story became one about her probity, rather than the plight of today’s struggling beneficiaries. Enter Ardern, with a steely-quick decision to rule Turei out of her putative Cabinet, and the Greens’ triumphal motif became a liability. Worse, MPs Kennedy Graham and Dave Clendon had been struggling with the ethics of Turei’s situation and this week said they could no longer serve under her.

At this point, the party was almost out of options. With Turei’s subsequent resignation and retirement, they may have chosen the worst. Early polling suggests the party is already sinking to its bedrock support.

Turei supporters may now be so angry that it gets even worse than that. The party did have, in her benefit stance, a perfectly legitimate and defensible position. Her going suggests an acceptance that the stance rang hollow – which it didn’t. It was just niche-shrinkingly controversial.

That’s three MPs overboard and a lonely leader, James Shaw, who can’t help but look like a spanked puppy.

This is an excerpt of an article that was first published in the August 19, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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