11 Aug 2017

Metiria Turei 'felt and sounded like so many of us'

5:00 pm on 11 August 2017

Māori and Pacific women who connected with Metiria Turei's message about poverty, life as a beneficiary and the inadequacies of the social welfare system found hope in her as a brown woman in power.

Metiria Turei after announcing she was resigning as Green co-leader.

Metiria Turei after her resignation as Greens co-leader. Photo: RNZ/Rebekah Parsons-King

Mrs Turei stepped down as co-leader of the Greens Party this week, saying the scrutiny on her family had become unbearable since her announcement she committed benefit fraud in the early 1990s.

Some of those women for whom her message resonated told RNZ about how the Green MP was able to connect with the disengaged, why her stepping down was so upsetting, and why the media scrutiny on her life felt so personal.

Starting in the schoolyard

Madeleine de Young recalls the term 'bloody Māoris on the benefit' being thrown around by other children on the playground.

"When people as young as primary school age are saying things like that, and believing things like that, it shows how insidious and how entrenched it is in our society to hold those views towards Māori, or towards any person of colour in this country if they look or appear to be poor and struggling."

Madeleine de Young

Madeleine de Young Photo: Supplied

Ms de Young is an arts producer and one of many Māori women who connected with Mrs Turei and the conversation she opened up about poverty and the welfare system.

"She was someone who I think people of colour and people who have experienced hard times could respond to, because she did feel and sound like so many of us."

She said she was unprepared for how upset she would be by seeing Mrs Turei resign as co-leader of the Green Party.

She had not voted for the Greens before, but said seeing a Māori MP at the top of her party being pursued and destroyed in the media, after disclosing she was a struggling solo mum on the benefit, felt symbolic to her.

"What kind of representative democracy do we want? Do we want it to be representative of the people who live in our country? Or is it an area of work that is limited to the privileged?"

For her and others, Mrs Turei's resignation was personal, emotional and devastating.

"The first thing I thought about was how many people I have tried to convince to vote in my community, in South Auckland. Young people, brown people.

"It's so hard to convince people to vote and participate in democracy in this country when the people who give us the most hope are treated this way. For me it's the system saying: 'You don't have a place at this table'. That is awful."

A voice for the voiceless

"That is what feels so depressing about politics," explains writer, artist and advocate Ema Tavola. She had recently abandoned her support for the Labour party, saying their leadership issues did not give her hope as a Pacific person, but she connected with Mrs Turei as an indigenous woman.

Ema Tavola

Ema Tavola Photo: Supplied

For flight attendant Ashlynn Ale, it felt like Mrs Turei had finally given a voice to the voiceless.

"She represented so many people in New Zealand, people I know personally, that I have grown up with, that live in my neighbourhood, that perhaps before felt disengaged, under-represented, ignored, shunned by the public because they survive on welfare."

Ms Ale said while her parents were not on welfare, she grew up poor, and watching the dialogue on poverty get sidelined had been infuriating.

"The whole point was to point out that people are forced to make what some might consider bad decisions simply because the benefit is not liveable, it's not realistic to survive. We just ignored the whole purpose of her message.

"Which speaks volumes to how New Zealand, the general public, the government feels about, or treats beneficiaries, or those in receipt of social welfare. By silencing her, is silencing those she represented."

As a Māori woman in her twenties, Shilo Kino said Mrs Turei was her voice in government.

"If you look at the government now, if you look at the party leaders, there's not many that I could say understand where I come from. Metiria was someone who had been where many Māori women had been, so she understood a lot of us. For her to be taken out of leadership to where she is now, it's a step back for Māori in general."

'That's what people do ... because that's what they have to do'

Jackie Clark heads the charity The Aunties, which works alongside women's refuges helping to provide support and advocacy for the women there, with many on the benefit finding it increasingly difficult to survive.

She said when Mrs Turei shared her story about living on the benefit, she felt it.

"What she was saying wasn't explosive to anybody that was on the benefit ... It wasn't shocking to me. It was like, yeah, that's what people do, because that's what they have to do ... most of them are terrified shitless."

Jackie Clark from The Aunties charity.

Jackie Clark from The Aunties charity. Photo: Supplied

She went with women to WINZ: "I've got the old white lady syndrome, because suddenly they get treated better because there's an old white lady there. The entire system, particularly if you're young and poor and brown, is racist and it's classist, and it's sure as shit sexist."

Ms Clark said she found the media reaction - particularly from commentators who were mostly white men - sanctimonious and holier-than-thou.

She was particularly dismayed by questions that sought to clarify just how poor, or how much in poverty, Mrs Turei really was all those years ago.

"She was being judged by people who have not got the foggiest idea what that is like. I haven't been through it but I've worked every single day with these women, and I feel it. I feel what is put on them. The shame and the guilt.

"You know, lots of them don't even want to come to a refuge because the stigma is so big. Nobody wants to live on a benefit. Nobody."

She said it was the glee expressed by some journalists following Metiria's resignation that really got her.

"They excoriated her for something that she did 25 years ago, that people do every single day. As if it was a shocking terrible thing. Wake up, New Zealand."

She also questioned why middle-class white men were often the ones chosen to comment on the issue.

"I don't want to hear any 'white guy reckons' because my girls are hurt by this. All those reckons, what they're saying to my girls, the girls hear it very clearly - and they're living in misery and pain."

For Ms Tavola, the details - the flatmates, the electoral roll admission, the disgruntled source approaching media about their version of things at the time - didn't mean anything to her.

She said Mrs Turei was savvy in the way she made the system work for her, and she had good intentions.

"I feel like she's in politics for the right reasons, I'm interested in politics because of why Metiria got into politics. We can all relate to being the only brownie at the table."

The message of struggling to survive as a brown woman has been personal, so too was the way they saw the media treatment of Metiria.

"The media bullying, it's been awful. It's an assault on all of us. Last night when I saw the news, it was painful," she said.

'It's a familiar tale'

Mother, writer and sociology major Leah Damm said it came down to the willingness to believe poor Māori women.

Leah Damm

Leah Damm Photo: Supplied

"Even our closest relatives can't fully fathom some of our circumstances and things that we need to do to keep our children well and healthy. Yet the word of an unnamed relative is enough to have some powerful institutions and journalistic voices decide that Metiria is a liar.

"It's a familiar tale for many women, and too many women experience the exact same cruel scrutiny in WINZ offices. It's a scrutiny that, despite some protestations that the media is non-partisan, is not framed or distributed equally."

Ms Damm said she was worried about what it all meant for anyone else with hopes of entering public office.

"Given the disproportionate numbers of Māori and Pasifika women living in poverty, many bending rules and breaking laws to survive - I wonder what this says to our potential and hopes that one day we can do 'anything'."

Ms Ale agreed, saying Mrs Turei did what poor people are told to do: to better themselves, to not use welfare as a "lifestyle" but as a way to support themselves until they can support themselves through full time work.

"She has done all that and more ... and she still gets treated this way. It's a lesson in contradictions ... We'd rather someone beat their chest about living by the letter of the law, than feed their kids. We'd rather kids go hungry, than feed them."

Ms de Young said she understood that the media was supposed to hold people to account, but questioned the decisions around how things were framed, including what was pursued and what was not.

"What sort of people do we want to have in our parliament and where do we want our country to be? And was chasing a person who was honest and wore her heart on her sleeve, and wanted better for everybody, was that something that we are proud to have achieved? Because that's basically the outcome, we've lost a member of parliament who cared."

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