Metiria Turei's admission of her past benefit rort is turning into one of the most polarised political debates of the year. Turei has now told the story to an international audience via the Guardian website - see: I told a lie to claim benefits. Now I am an MP and I want to tell you why.

There seems to be a fairly basic divide: Turei is to be praised and admired, or roundly condemned. But, actually, it's probably more complex than this, and there are lots of interesting and important issues raised by the whole debate.

The backlash against Turei

The strongest and most interesting condemnation of Metiria Turei's welfare fraud is made by TVNZ columnist, John Armstrong, who hits out at those "bestowing accolades she simply does not deserve" - see his must-read analysis: The timing of Metiria Turei's benefit fraud admission stinks - as does her handling of it.

He explains why he thinks Turei's supporters "rushed to her side in lemming-like solidarity" with two theories: "First, they share Turei's deep distaste of the welfare "reform" agenda pursued currently by National and previously by Labour. Second, they feared that Turei's admission to welfare fraud was to invite her being crushed under the weight of public opinion devoid of any sympathy for those on a benefit."

Much of Armstrong's condemnation of Turei revolves around him questioning her authenticity and motives: "She endeavoured to turn her breach of the law into a launching pad for her party's welfare policy. That is audacious. It is also the height of arrogance. It is also to enter very dangerous territory. It implies you are above the law. It says it is okay to break the law in order to try and change it."

And he has an alternative explanation for why Turei decided to go public: "Turei has made little secret of her ambition to be in charge of the Social Development portfolio in a Labour-Greens coalition government. Were she to become Social Development minister following September's election and had she not disclosed her misleading of Work and Income, the Social Development ministry's operational arm, the prime minister (whoever that might yet turn out to be) would have no choice but to sack her were those indiscretions to have become public. Her honesty would be refreshing were the timing not just a few weeks out from an election. That stinks - as does the manner in which she has handled the matter."

Armstrong believes that ultimately the ploy will not serve her cause well: "the exposure of Turei's flouting of the law will further alienate low-income families in which both parents work long hours and who consequently cannot abide welfare cheats. Those voters are already deserting the centre-left. Turei's holier-than-thou disposition is hardly going to attract them back."

Yesterday's New Zealand Herald editorial is also highly critical, saying that her tactic seems to have "failed dismally", as it has produced significant anger about her dishonesty - see: Greens co-leader Metiria Turei's big mistake.

Here's the newspaper's main point: "There is also considerable public anger over her selective and self-serving morality. Turei has effectively argued that she had a moral right to rip off the system because she had to feed her baby. She is wrong because hardship doesn't give anyone the right to break the law. Her example encourages others to do the same and is unfair on those who struggle through legally. It is a particularly bad look coming from a party leader on a base salary of $173,000 a year."

Today's Dominion Post editorial is mainly about the police investigation of Todd Barclay, but also concludes that Turei needs to be investigated: "Politicians must never be seen to be privileged above others before the law. And that is why, as it happens, the authorities should hold Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei to account for her admission of benefit fraud. If Work and Income don't require her to repay the money, it could leave the impression that it is softer on the MP than on other beneficiaries" - see: Politics and a tale of two police investigations.

Unsurprising, there is also plenty of hard-line condemnation from those on the more conservative right. Christine Rankin (the former Conservative Party politician and head of Work and Income) has labelled Turei as "absolutely disgraceful" and called for her prosecution - see: Former WINZ boss Christine Rankin calls Metiria Turei 'absolute disgrace'.

And Jordan Williams' lobby group has calculated how much they think Turei needs to pay back - see Newswire's Taxpayers' Union to invoice Metiria Turei at least $57K for money 'she owes taxpayers'. This has pushed The Spinoff to respond with: An invoice to the Taxpayers Union on behalf of annoyed New Zealanders.

Sympathetic responses to Turei

The response from most of Metiria Turei's political rivals has actually been very restrained - there have been few strong condemnations from politicians. And in fact, deputy prime minister Paula Bennett - also a former DPB recipient - has been reported as refusing to condemn Turei, saying she was not "interested in sitting here and throwing stones". Bennett has also judiciously admitted that "I've never led a perfect life, but I certainly never deliberately misled them or took money that I shouldn't of" - see Dan Satherley's Paula Bennett says she never 'deliberately' misled WINZ.

The above article also reports the praise of law professor Andrew Geddis, who says "She's being honest about the situation she found herself in, and the last thing you can accuse her of is hypocrisy". He also says "By being open and honest about it, it allows the Greens to address that up front and to say if this is the consequence we're finding in New Zealand, we should do something about it... I just really can't see the police wanting to spend their time chasing this sort of thing up."

Leftwing blogger No Right Turn has given full support to Turei's justifications: "well, wouldn't you to help your kids survive? And if not, you're a sorry excuse for a human being. People deliberately and consciously setting out to rip off the system out of greed is one thing; desperate people who are just trying to get by in the face of a system designed to grind you down rather than support you is quite another" - see: Standing on their principles.

As for Turei's motives, these are positively explained by political journalist Stacey Kirk: "So why reveal this now after 15 years of being in Parliament? Because it boosts the policy, because the Greens are in a unique position where they're perhaps the closest to Government they've ever been and it's time to make a bold play, and because they see a time to lay some stakes in the ground. It's also likely that the Greens have seen the success of the campaign for medicinal cannabis from late union stalwart Helen Kelly, who also vocally admitted her criminal culpability by openly smoking marijuana in the late stages of an aggressive form of cancer. She received little but sympathy for her plight, and if Turei can be held as an example of a beneficiary who broke the law to make life better for her child, it could help shut down inevitable criticisms that others will intentionally seek to rip off a system that carries virtually no consequences" - see: Metiria Turei makes a risky admission, politically and legally.

Expressions of solidarity

Others are coming forward with their own confessions of welfare rorts - the most interesting is Russell Brown's admission of being broke in 1991 and "for months, maybe even a year, I didn't declare, or under-declared, my sporadic income", which led him to eventually make repayments of $5 a week, which have only recently paid off the amount owing - see: On benefit fraud.

Talkback callers and newspaper letter writers might be expressing hostility towards Turei, but on social media there's been an outbreak of solidarity, with people tweeting about their own experiences of hardship and difficulties with the social welfare system. And they've been using the hashtag of #IamMetiria - see Breanna Barraclough's report, 'I am Metiria': Beneficiaries share struggles with WINZ (http://bit.ly/2uKNOLs).

The above link also includes a video of The Project presenter Kanoa Lloyd speaking emotionally about her own family's situation. She asserts: "People need help, and they need support. And they do not need to be shamed or judged because believe me, that shame and judgement is built into that system just fine". See also, The Project's Kanoa Lloyd brings her own story to the benefit debate.

In contrast, the same night on TVNZ's Seven Sharp - Tim Wilson condemned Turei, saying "It's completely wrong, and she's got to pay that back" - see the four-minute video, A look back at politicians who have had problems telling the truth.

Advertisement

Shades of grey

The best accounts of the Turei scandal are actually from those who are undecided or more nuanced in their view of the situation. Victoria University law academic Mamari Stephen has blogged her very interesting thoughts - see: #IAmAmbivalent.

She complains about the black-and-white narratives, portraying Turei as either a "good beneficiary" or a "bad beneficiary". She explains: "Beneficiaries are neither saints nor sinners. I resent any narrative that forces me to pick imaginary sides. Bugger off and leave me with my shades of grey and lack of certainty, please. Further, we are turning the welfare debate yet again into competing salvos of personal stories that are deeply affecting and get us nowhere along the road to working out good solutions or even critiquing the Green Party's policies in any depth."

Her bigger point seems to be that the concept of "the personal is political" isn't always the best approach to advancing our understanding of big problems. We should be wary of the exploitation of personal stories, and the partisan way that we receive these: "Many of the people congratulating Metiria for her honesty and candidness no doubt also criticised John Key for using his 'being raised in a state house' narrative in the political arena, or Paula Bennett's 'struggling solo mother' narrative being used for similarly political ends."

Tim Watkin also provides a particularly nuanced account, in which he also complains the response "seems to have split, rather predictably, along ideological lines. Saint or sinner, criminal or victim. But it's just not that simple" - see: Turei's confession: What's good for the goose...

He admits to finding Turei's confession to be troubling, and suggests that there might be some hypocrisy from the Greens and Turei, especially since they have campaigned so strongly on political integrity and honesty: "Through many calls for higher standards in politics, Turei stayed silent. When in 2014 she was being touted as a minister in a Labour-led government, it was often said she would likely take a "social policy" portfolio. But she stayed silent. As is often said in politics, it's not the crime it's the cover-up. Was it OK for her to head into that election, openly saying she wanted to be in cabinet, without telling voters she had perhaps committed a fraud? What if this had come up when she was a minister?"

Nonetheless, the Turei confession has prompted some necessary debates and discussion about the bigger issues. For Fran O'Sullivan, the bigger issue is "the national sport of rorting the system", and she draws attention to the fact that "Inland Revenue estimate the 'hidden economy' - this used to be pejoratively known as the 'black economy' - could be worth $6 billion to $9b in lost taxes each year" - see: Rorting the system a multi-sport. She therefore suggests that petty welfare rorts are relatively small fare.

For others, it shows that we need a bigger conversation about the welfare system. John Edens has a particularly good feature, New Zealand's welfare system is no longer a functioning system, experts claim.

He quotes University of Waikato senior psychology lecturer Dr Ottilie Stolte, who is researching in this field, and says "Throughout the research I don't know of a single case where I have heard of somebody relying on welfare who has been able to survive just on that... It's pretty much the norm now that they are either doing under the table work or illegal activities, lying or not quite telling the truth. The grey economy. Or they are eating $1 loaves of bread. Or they are relying on charities for food." See also Shabnam Dastgheib's Solo mothers say they understand reasons for benefit fraud after Turei bombshell.

And for more on Turei's own family experience of poverty and welfare, see Stacey Kirk's For mum and dad: Metiria Turei set to unveil welfare policy '15 years in the making'.

Finally, although he's a bit more serious than usual, Raybon Kan asks some amusing questions in his column today - see: Sticking it to The Man - aka who dares Winz.