Metiria Turei must have known she was taking a risk when she confessed to benefit fraud at the Green Party conference last weekend. She appears to have underestimated just how great that risk was.
In releasing the Greens' family policy, Turei told a sympathetic audience of party members that she lied to Work and Income about her living circumstances in the early 1990s, when she was a solo mother doing her law degree and raising her young daughter while on the Domestic Purposes Benefit. She had flatmates to help her pay the rent in three of the five flats she lived in over a three-year period but did not tell Winz officials because they would have cut her benefit.
Turei told the story to illustrate, as she put it, that "being on the benefit... made me poor and it made me lie". She wanted to draw attention to the Greens' policy pledge to increase all benefits by 20 per cent and remove penalties for beneficiaries who fail drug tests or do not look for jobs. The party is also promising to increase Working for Families payments and introduce a new top tax rate, theoretically boosting living standards so that in Turei's words, no one will ever have to lie to WINZ to put food on the table again.
As a media strategy, it has failed dismally. Public attention immediately zeroed in on Turei's personal ethics and critics demanded she should pay the money back. Turei replied that she would do so if an investigation found against her. That wasn't enough for Act leader David Seymour, who demanded she should pay it back now.
There is some confusion about the amount involved - the Taxpayers Union has claimed Turei owes $57,000 but this is based on converting her benefit into today's dollars. It seems more likely that she could owe up to $13,000, based on the DPB rate at the time of $83 for a solo parent with one child, and possibly much less if her benefit should have been reduced, not cut off altogether.
Supporters have argued that this is relatively minor offending, comparable to paying a tradesperson for a cash job or being economical with the truth on an insurance claim. Many of us have done it, which doesn't make it right but as - Deputy Prime Minister and former beneficiary Paula Bennett surprisingly suggested - perhaps we should pause before casting the first stone.
Spread over three years however, Turei's lie of omission starts to look less like a one-off act of dishonesty and more like a systematic attempt to rort the system. Letter writers and talkback callers have voiced their anger over what they see as her sense of entitlement to public money - not helped by the fact that taxpayers are providing her with a huge salary today.
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.