6 Dec 2017

For richer, not for poorer

From Eyewitness, 3:30 pm on 6 December 2017

At the age of 20, Huia Welton got married. Nothing too unusual in that, you might think. But there were a few things about this wedding that made it a little different. For a start, she hardly knew her groom.

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Huia Welton dances at her wedding with her new husband.

Huia Welton dances at her wedding. Photo: Fairfax Media New Zealand Ltd

It was 2000 and Huia was a second-year student at Massey University in Palmerston North. She was active in student politics and keen to have her say about the things that mattered to her. One of those things was student fees and parental means-testing on eligibility for student allowances. But a loophole that became a cause celebre and the focus of many student protests meant that if you got married, you got money.

Huia felt the best way to make her protest heard was by getting hitched in what were widely known as ‘mock weddings’ - but not to the person she loved. Because for her, there was a second injustice at play.

“I came out (as a lesbian) when I was 16. The issue of not being able to marry the person that I loved was a really big deal for me.”

A little backstory; since the late 1980’s, big changes had been taking place in tertiary education.  Under the 1989 Education Act, the Labour Government introduced a standard tertiary fee of 10% of course costs (around $1200) and swapped out the old grants scheme for the flasher sounding student allowances. Allowances were a universal entitlement; if you studied fulltime at tertiary level, you qualified.

When National replaced Labour as the government in late 1990, funding for universities was reduced and the standard fee abolished. Universities were allowed to set their own fees and made up the funding shortfall by charging students more.

Lockwood Smith.

Lockwood Smith. Photo: NZ GOVERNMENT

National’s then education minister Dr Lockwood Smith also introduced means testing on allowances for students under 25. If your folks had a combined income of $27,872 or above, your allowance was progressively reduced. If they made more than $50,000, you got nothing.

If students didn’t have enough work to live off, they could borrow their living costs through the 1992 Student Loan Scheme, which you could also use to pay your now increased university fees. At the time, these loans were interest bearing for all students

So if you were under 25, your parents made more than $50,000 per annum but couldn’t afford to pay you an allowance, your only real option was to take out a loan.

Or get married.

“If you were deemed to be financially independent of your parents then you were entitled to an allowance” explains Huia.

“And one of the criteria (for independence) was that you were married.”

Huia felt there was an intersection between what she saw as an unfairness on one hand, an inequality on the other and an undeniable element of ridiculousness about it all.

“It seemed so crazy to me that just having a piece of paper gave you the ability to tick that box.”

“You could marry someone that you didn’t even know but I couldn’t marry someone that I loved.”

So students across the country did it. They got married.

I know, because I was one of them. Some were in real relationships and planning on getting married anyway; some were friends looking to help each other out – that was my deal.

And some, as Huia Welton says, married virtual strangers with nothing in common but a desire to avoid a mountain of debt. Most got married quietly but some did it very publicly to demonstrate their disdain. One couple even did it on TV.

I got married in 1994 and Shortland Street’s infamous student allowance marriage storyline screened a year later. But to this day, all anyone ever says to me when I tell them I got married for money is “you mean like Nick and Rachel on Shortland Street?

Rachel McKenna and Nick Harrison on their wedding day. Rachel is in a white wedding dress. Nick wears a tuxedo.

Rachel McKenna and Nick Harrison on their wedding day. Photo: South Pacific Pictures Ltd.

Maxine Fleming is the producer for our longest running TV soap but in 1995, she was part of the storylining team who dreamed up the idea. She thought the story had legs, but never guessed it would be so memorable.

“It was the combination of the fact that it was socially relevant” laughs Maxine “but it was also the unlikely coupling of Rachel McKenna and Nick Harrison. You couldn’t pick two more unlikely characters to get married!”

A portrait of Karl Burnett.

Karl Burnett. Photo: South Pacific Pictures Ltd.

Angela Bloomfield acted the role of Rachel McKenna while her best mate Nick Harrison was played by Karl Burnett. Both characters were studying at university and neither qualified for a student allowance. Getting married was all Rachel’s idea. Her dad was a surgeon and she didn’t need the money but wanted to do it to show solidarity with her peers and advance her career in student politics. Nick said yes to get more money.

“Nick was always bumbling around, coming up with stupid ideas to get money” remembers Karl Burnett. “He was a bit like me in that regard.”

Maxine remembers her team as being all baby boomer kids with educations that had cost them nothing and says they were all concerned at a free market, Rogernomics approach being applied to education. This story was their form of protest.

“You could see where it was going to go, too, and of course, it has gone to exactly that place. My kids, for example, went through uni and now have $30-40,000 loans to pay off.”

"It seemed outrageous to us and unfair."

Karl Burnett had a friend who really did get married for an allowance.

A portrait of Shortland Street producer Maxine Fleming.

Shortland Street producer Maxine Fleming. Photo: South Pacific Pictures Ltd.

“I remember thinking that it was a bit risky and wouldn’t you get caught?”

Common mistake. Student allowance marriages were not illegal. In fact, they were completely ka pai.

“All that’s required for marriage is that you consent to it, and that you utter the appropriate words," says Otago University Law Professor Mark Henaghan. "There’s not much more to it than that."

So those of us who married for an allowance were behaving lawfully?

“Absolutely, 100% lawfully. The State has never enquired as to why people get married.

"If they’re getting married so they can get a benefit that’s absolutely fine."

"The motive is irrelevant.”

Like education, marriage in this country had also been changing. No fault divorce became the law, marital rape became a crime and the rights of de facto and eventually, same-sex relationships began to be recognised. In short, marriage changed from being at the centre of society to just another option and one that fewer people took up or maybe took so seriously.

A portrait of Otago University law professor Mark Henaghan.

Otago University law professor Mark Henaghan. Photo: Otago University.

So Huia Welton’s marriage of convenience (or Nick and Rachel’s, or mine) were maybe not as odd as all that. Her intended needed the money as much as she did and held similar convictions to her about equality and fairness. At least, she thinks he did.

“I didn’t know him very well! He was a friend of a friend who responded to an ad that we ran in student media.”

Huia had planned a big media splash to make her protest heard and not that many of the men she knew were willing to be a part of it.

“We were pretty desperate, to be honest.”

Huia and her husband were married twice; once quietly - and legally - at a registry office, then loudly and publicly in a mock wedding on the Massey campus. Surrounded by a dozen bridesmaids and as hundreds of students watched, Huia had some mixed emotions.

“It just seemed so unfair that it was so easy to marry someone that I didn’t love - that I didn’t even really know - but I couldn’t marry someone that I actually truly did love.

“I actually felt quite sad.”

The marriage loophole was eventually closed in 2005 when new eligibility rules around relationships were introduced. In his 2013 valedictory speech to Parliament Lockwood Smith admitted he thought introducing means testing on allowances hadn’t been fair. In 2009 the National Government lowered the age threshold to 24.

Huia and her husband eventually amicably divorced, as did me and my wife and, I imagine, most people in our situation. But it’s impossible to know, just as it‘s impossible to know how many students took advantage of the marriage loophole. Similarly, it would be tough to work out how much debt students avoided by getting married for money.

But one way of measuring the impact of changes to both marriage and education might be to look at where we are now as a society, especially as some prominent student politicians back then are now actual politicians in parliament.

Legislation is coming to make tertiary study cheaper and eventually free. The new Labour Government announced increases in payments to both living cost loans and student allowances but nothing about extending eligibility. As it stands, the Ministry of Education says the government's expectation is that families in a position to do so, should "support children in tertiary education into their mid-twenties".

Both Finance Minister Grant Robertson and Justice Minister Andrew Little were student presidents through the mock wedding era and both protested against the loss of universal allowances yet neither would be interviewed for this story.  

Grant Robertson declined while Andrew Little's press secretary did not respond to the request. On the NZ Labour Party website, Andrew Little's profile says during his time as a student politician, he "marched for better access to affordable education."

The Civil Union Act was passed in 2004, followed by the Marriage Amendment Act in 2013 allowing same-sex couples to wed.

New Zealand now is not the same country it was in 1992, 1995 or even in 2000.

Huia Welton holds her infant son.

Huia Welton and son. Photo: Fairfax Media New Zealand Ltd

So it seems Huia Welton had a pretty well-polished crystal ball when she took a stand on both those issues in one simple, if high profile, ceremony.  Maybe she, her husband, me and my wife, and everyone (even Nick and Rachel) who got married for an allowance played our part in making change.

I mean, who knows how things come about or who makes them happen?

Is it you or is it me?