Matt McCarten on politics

Matt McCarten is a Herald on Sunday political columnist

Matt McCarten: Sam goes hungry because no one fights for him

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A Winz office window was smashed. Photo / APN
A Winz office window was smashed. Photo / APN

I've spent most of this week in bed sick, so had the rare opportunity to listen to hours of radio talkback while lying semi-comatose.

Most of us live in an insular world of our own families, our work and our own interests.

The news about other people is what we hear manufactured through our mass media in sometimes sensational soundbites. Rarely does it impact on our lives directly, so it's relegated to background noise.

Talkback land is different. Real people call with uncensored opinions. It can be rough and banal. Much of it is interesting. At times I felt like I was in a bar or a party somewhere. Most politicians, senior bureaucrats and business leaders have no idea how their bad decisions affect others.

Mid-afternoon on RadioLive I caught up with Sam, a "first-time caller" from Kaikohe. Sam told us he'd smashed the windows of his local Work and Income office with a hammer after the staff refused to give him a food parcel.

He has been trespassed from the Winz office.

Sam is a 58-year-old invalid beneficiary. He was run over 20 years ago in a car accident. He lost an eye, an arm and a leg. Since then he's spent his life in a wheelchair.

He raised his daughter as a sole parent while working in his own takeaway business. He owns his home.

Sam said he didn't drink, take drugs or smoke. But after paying his fixed living costs, including his mortgage and insurances, there was virtually nothing left for food.

A week ago he had no money for food or petrol. Previously, budgeters had told Sam to go to Winz as he didn't have enough to live on. So he was forced into setting out on a 4km journey in his electric wheelchair.

He took his bank account details and his budget to request an emergency food voucher. When he got there the first staffer wouldn't even look at the figures and flatly turned him down. Another staffer agreed that no one could live on Sam's budget but, as they had given him help twice before, and he wasn't any different from anybody else, they weren't allowed to help him.

Sam left humiliated. Only someone who has had the misfortune to rely on Winz can truly understand that.

He took the trip home again and starved for several days. Then a light went off. He made a pact with himself that he wouldn't eat again until he died or this Government changed its policies so no other person would have to go through what he has had to.

To bring attention to his cause he wheeled back into town with a hammer. He smashed two windows of the Winz office before it opened. He hadn't lost his temper. It was a political act.

The radio host asked if he was sorry. It kind of missed the point.

When Sam was asked if he had any empathy for the Winz staff, he wryly mentioned that they looked well-fed and comfortable.

The Minister for Social Development, Paula Bennett, revels in her power over the poor. She preens when she's criticised.

When interviewed about Sam, the best she could come up with was that violence was not acceptable.

Most politicians see what they do as a bit of a game. But political ideals can be the greatest calling where an individual is prepared to die to protect them.

Sam Kuha has unintentionally taken the Gandhi path of the peaceful hunger strike.

I don't believe for a minute that Sam isn't serious about taking his hunger strike to finality - it's now almost two weeks old.

The wife of the US president, Michelle Obama, said earlier this month that people like her (and Bennett) who through good fortune rose above their humble beginnings should always remember that they didn't do it alone. They had an obligation to not raise the drawbridge behind them.

How fitting that a starving invalid in a wheelchair is pitted against a well-coiffed, plump Cabinet minister. Who represents the real "bludgers", as Bennett seems to think they are, in our society?


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- Herald on Sunday

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