Metiria Turei won't say whether one of the flatmates she failed to tell Work and Income about was a boyfriend - saying the state has no right to investigate a woman's intimate personal life.
Prime Minister Bill English today accused Turei of effectively "advocating breaking the law", after she said she couldn't condemn people who lie to authorities when under severe financial stress.
Turei will meet with fraud investigators next week, after her bombshell admission earlier this month that while at law school as a solo mother she didn't tell Work and Income how many flatmates she lived with, because her benefit would be cut.
In a sit-down interview with the Herald, Turei said she couldn't condemn people who were faced with hard choices because of financial hardship.
Asked if it was acceptable for a small business owner on the brink to avoid tax, Turei said she couldn't comment on individual cases but wanted to fix the system so people weren't in poverty.
"That person might be entitled to Working For Families. And if they are, I want to fix Working For Families so it is worth more to those families who need it.
"We have a system that leaves people with too few choices. That the only choices are bad ones. Not to pay the rent, not to pay the power bill, not to have enough food for your kids. Or, lie to WINZ and keep a secret."
Turei was on a benefit from 1993 until late 1998. She started law school in 1995. In her speech to the Green Party conference earlier this month, she said she failed to tell WINZ about flatmates during her time living in three different flats.
She has said she will pay the money back, and will meet the agency's investigate unit next week. However, she will not say whether one of the flatmates she did not tell WINZ about was a boyfriend.
"I don't believe it is right for the state to investigate a woman's intimate personal life. And if I respond to your question and defend myself I am validating that, and I don't believe that is right. I won't do it for myself - despite the fact I could defend myself - because I don't believe any other woman would be subject to the same."
Asked if living with a partner without disclosing that to WINZ was more serious than failing to tell the agency about flatmates, Turei said it was treated differently by the agency.
"And one of the things that I will do if I get the chance is to fix that system so a woman's personal life is not subject to questions by WINZ, by MSD. We have seen a lot of that directed at solo mums.
"We have got stories of people from WINZ or investigation units going through women's laundry looking for men's underpants. Of people being spied on - photographs being taken of people who go in and out of their house."
Currently a person stops being eligible for sole parent support if they are in a relationship.
Green Party policy is for a person on a sole parent support benefit to lose eligibility when they marry or enter a civil union, or when they are judged to be in a de facto relationship under the Property (Relationships) Act. That legislation covers couples in a de facto relationship for at least three years.
Turei said assigning case workers to everybody on a benefit and creating a less punitive system would mean women would be more likely to tell WINZ when they started living with a partner.
She said that the need to care for her baby and not her political beliefs led her to lie to Work and Income. Turei campaigned for the McGillicuddy Serious Party while receiving her benefit, and was a part of a theatre group.
"None of us had any money. I think that's the thing - people on benefits are entitled to a life as well. They need the financial resources so they can pay the rent and put food on the table, they need a pathway out of welfare.
"But they also need to engage in the world, to be able to be with family, to have friends, to do other things, be politically engaged if that is what they choose. We shouldn't have a benefit system that locks people out of their community."
Turei said she didn't have a rough idea of how much she could owe. She had not taken legal advice before or after her admission, and had not considered how any possible investigation or charges would affect her Parliamentary career.
Labour leader Andrew Little would not rule out a Cabinet place for Turei if the two parties formed the next Government, but said he did not condone breaking the law. Asked if it was helpful to have the focus on Turei so close to an election, Little said voters still cared about the same issues, including housing affordability, health and education.
"All sorts of MPs do all sorts of weird things. In the end, we are all separate parties, we have our own campaigns."
Bill English today said it was wrong for Turei or any other politician to "essentially advocate breaking the law".
"Of course people make mistakes - they inadvertently break the law, they do it under pressure," he said. "It is the job of the police and then the justice system to take account of those circumstances, because life is a bit messy, it's not always black and white.
"But Ms Turei just seems to be getting a bit disconnected from the normal assumptions we make that people should keep the law and if they don't like the law they set out to change it."
Turei said she expected a negative reaction to her admission, but not the outpouring of support and thanks, including from people who had been in similar circumstances. She said the Green Party caucus understood why she made her admission to "break open this story".
"Not everybody in my party is going to agree 100 per cent, I understand that. But the Greens have said, 'we will speak truth to power.'
"Poverty is a political issue. We solve it by ending poverty, by changing the system that drives people into such despair. We need to have a national conversation...and that's been started."