Metiria Turei’s post-speech treatment and subsequent resignation reveals the level of opprobrium now reserved for the poorest in our society, writes Chris Ford.
I remember as a nine-year-old in 1979 listening to Kermit the Frog (of The Muppet Show and Sesame Street fame) singing the beautiful song It’s Not Easy Being Green. Of course, Kermit was making metaphorical reference to his amphibian colour. But in 2017, that song took on a more literal meaning for me as an ordinary Green Party member struggling to comprehend the rollercoaster nature of an election campaign for the party.
Firstly, a bit of a background is in order. I joined the Green Party in August 2013 after many years as a member of the Alliance Party and, before that, the NewLabour Party (NLP). For those who may need reminding, the Green Party was a constituent party of the Alliance from 1991 until 1998 when it decided to go it alone. I had, during my years in both the NewLabour and Alliance parties, held a number of activist roles and had stood as a parliamentary candidate for the NLP in 1990 and then the Alliance in 2005.
My joining the Greens came about because, sadly, the Alliance’s support had declined since the acrimonious post-2001 split with the supporters of former leader Jim Anderton. Essentially, the split left the Alliance (which is still a legally registered party but didn’t field any candidates in 2017) a shell of its former shelf and consequently often referred to in the past tense by both media and public alike. Hence, I entered the Greens full of hope that it would, at least, eventually replace the Alliance as the main left-of-centre force restraining a still relatively centrist-looking Labour Party.
What also impressed me about the Greens was their dual commitment to social justice and environmental issues. I strongly supported the party’s stances on disability issues and also their defence and foreign policies. I also liked their pledges to deal decisively to child poverty, dirty rivers and climate change, simultaneously. After all, the party’s Green Charter contains the four inter-related principles of ecological wisdom, social responsibility, appropriate decision-making and non-violence. In other words, (to paraphrase a line from the party’s first and soon ill-fated 2017 campaign slogan) healthy planet and healthy people go together.
All this appealed to me when I joined in 2013. Only months after joining, I got approached by now former MP Mojo Mathers to stand as a Green candidate at the 2014 election – something which I did – and proudly flew the green standard as a list-only candidate that year.
In early 2017, I decided not to stand this time due to work commitments. I had initially planned to do more but, as will be revealed, my political morale got knocked around during the year too. One of the key reasons was an exceptionally brave speech given in a hall on a winter Sunday afternoon in Auckland. Back then, little did I, and everyone, know that that speech would trigger a hair-raising election campaign for the Greens. But as we now know, after a rocky journey, the story has a happy ending. But more on that shortly.
Mending the safety net
On Sunday, July 16, then co-leader Metiria Turei gave her ‘Mending the Safety Net’ speech before an audience of Green supporters in Auckland. On that day, I sat at home in front of a screen linked to the Green Party Facebook page and clapped every word that she uttered. It was a speech that I, and many others on the left, had been yearning to hear for years. Ever since the fourth National Government’s benefit cuts of 1991, the welfare state had come under sustained assault. While the Labour-led governments of the 2000s had made some minor repairs to the system, they were nothing compared to what was actually needed. Benefit rates had not kept pace with inflation and punitive sanctions and the unjust withholding of entitlements by Work and Income (WINZ) had become commonplace. The outcomes of two decades of neo-liberal welfare policies had become all too evident to those of us who walked or wheeled the streets of our main centres.
The Green Party’s previous attempts to publicly convey that – of all the parliamentary parties – it had a mission to begin the restoration of the welfare state, had ended in failure. Countless party campaigns had all largely passed by the mainstream media. To combat that apathy, Metiria bravely opted to tell the story of how she had deliberately failed to advise WINZ’s predecessor, the Department of Social Welfare, about additional boarders she had taken in while a single mother supporting her then baby daughter in the early 1990s.
The initial reaction to Metiria’s speech within the party was largely welcoming and positive. Yes, there were a few members who questioned her motives, as Metiria herself admitted publicly. Yet, for me, her honesty and, above all, courage to take on the issue of not just child poverty but, in fact, of poverty across the board, was one that made my heart sing.
Personally, as a long-time advocate for social justice, it seemed that in the wake of Metiria’s speech my choice to join the Greens had finally been vindicated. I say this because at one point earlier this year, I considered resigning from the party following caucus’s decision to agree to a set of Budget Responsibility Rules (BRR) with Labour. The BRR rules were introduced in order to project the message that a future Labour-Greens government would be fiscally responsible. Some on the left of the party – myself included – had questioned this
Nonetheless, I conveyed my feelings internally during the early winter months and was assured by then Green Party parliamentary chief-of-staff and former Cabinet minister Deborah Morris-Travers on Facebook that there would soon be policy announced that would find favour with me and others. That desire was answered by the Mending the Safety Net policy, the announcement of which formed the main component of Metiria’s address. This policy promised benefit increases, the end of all excessive benefit sanctions and a fundamental reform of the way WINZ operates. Furthermore, all of these initiatives were to be funded through a more genuinely progressive tax system. It seemed that the Green Party had made the correct call on social policy and, for me, that was incentive enough to stay in the party.
After the speech, the right-wing media commentariat swung into action, consistent vilifying Metiria. She expected this and stated as much. Initially, though, the speech received a positive response, particularly from people who had been subjected to the vagaries of our welfare system. Further evidence that the speech had reached its target audience – the poorest in our communities and also those who supported a fairer welfare system – was seen in the record numbers who expressed their support for the Greens in post-speech opinion polls.
In the wake of her address, I and many other Green activists spent some of our time online responding to the social media attacks made by people against her and, in true Green style, positively promoting the case for progressive welfare reform. In my view, it was a real pacifist-style digital battle fought with keyboard and touchpad to convince people that Metiria had made the admissions simply to highlight a serious issue – that of growing poverty in our country.
Yet, by early August, some weeks after the speech, the viciousness continued unabated. It made its way not just directly to Metiria, who expected it, but to members of her family/whanau as well. Inevitably, the stress on her whanau took its toll and despite every intention of staying, she resigned the co-leadership on August 9. I and many other party members and supporters mourned her resignation from the co-leadership. For example, I didn’t sleep very well the night she resigned. After all, Metiria (alongside Russel Norman) had done a superb job in co-leading the Greens to their best-ever election results in 2011 and 2014, respectively.
But none of this counted with many New Zealanders – and even, sadly, with some of the Green Party’s most senior MPs, Kennedy Graham and David Clendon, who acted disloyally in calling for Metiria’s resignation days before she actually stood down. Their un-Green actions saw them rightly removed from the party list and, with that, they forfeited any chance of returning to Parliament at the election.
At this juncture, I began wondering why a politician who had confessed all was being so pilloried by large sections of the public. I noticed the media frenzy against her came predominantly from the right of the political spectrum. Yet, notwithstanding this, I puzzled as to why more New Zealanders weren’t rewarding an honest admission from a politician, especially when countless surveys tell us that politicians are only marginally more trusted than used car salespeople. Metiria decided not to disclose her situation simply to protect the best interests of her child. I thought that New Zealanders were becoming increasingly concerned about child poverty – but perhaps I and others were wrong. So why didn’t the post-speech polling momentum continue? Why the obvious dichotomy?
Now, I realise that the vast majority of New Zealanders wouldn’t support what Metiria had said, or the essence of the party’s message. It seemed that almost three decades of incessant anti-welfare propaganda had slowly turned more people away from supporting the notion of cradle-to-grave welfare and towards the idea that any assistance should be miserly and conditional at best. At the very least, I thought many people would give Metiria some credit, even if they didn’t agree with her actions, for belated honesty. But no, many have come to believe that any act of welfare fraud (even if committed to prevent starvation) is akin to murder and can never be excused. Sadly, Metiria’s post-speech treatment and subsequent resignation revealed the level of opprobrium now reserved for the poorest in our society.
Subsequently, post-resignation, support for the Greens plummeted with one poll, following the accession of Jacinda Ardern to the Labour leadership, showing the party below the MMP threshold of five percent. As we now know, Ardern breathed new life into that party while James Shaw bravely stood as man alone at the helm of the good ship Green Party, as the fortunes of the main centre-left parties began to reverse.
Nervously, but excitedly, I turned on my television to see Winston announce his leftwards turn. I let out a huge ‘yes!’ when he did so.
As these events transpired, I began to think about whether I should go further than just doing battle online by carrying out some phone canvassing for the Greens. On the one hand, I wanted to talk to as many people as I could, to hammer home the message that the party was committed to changing the government and fighting both poverty and climate change. Conversely, I had grave reservations about doing this, fearing the negative reactions from some people on the phones. For this reason, I decided to wait out the storm and see what happened before joining the campaign in a more active way.
As these morale-sapping thoughts ran through my mind, I acknowledged I wouldn’t have had the same freedom to choose my level of campaigning activity had I been a candidate this time around. Thus, as a tumultuous August gave way to September, I also thought of the many Green candidates who were going out on cold winter nights and weekends to door-knock and attend countless election forums. I recognised they and the many dedicated campaign teams didn’t have the luxury of determining their own campaigning activity when the going got tough and their morale was tested. Every Green candidate and campaign team just got out there and did what had to be done, even in the most trying of electoral conditions. Some activists saw the campaign turmoil as a great motivator for them.
All of this thinking made me feel guilty. But before defeatist thoughts could completely take hold, the polls began to turn for the Greens and the wider centre-left bloc. For this reason, I heard a clarion call inside my head to go forth again. This I did in early September by doing a couple of stints of leafleting outside campus-area polling booths in Dunedin. By this time the tide was turning, with polls increasingly showing the Labour-Greens bloc leading the National-led right bloc. The Greens were also back over the five percent winning line, too, following the launch of some key environmental and youth-friendly policies. I could see evidence of this returning tide just through the positive reactions of the many new-minted student voters as they headed into the booths. They lifted my spirits. Consequently I began to vigorously engage again, online and in person with friends, to persuade as many as possible to vote Green.
Admittedly, re-adjusting my electoral expectations helped, too, in that I began to accept that we would be returned diminished but not decimated – and possibly as part of a Labour-Green government. Under James Shaw and the campaign team’s leadership, the party’s thousands of activists and volunteers collectively reached the end of the campaign rollercoaster ride safely – albeit a bit more freaked out by the experience. On election day, all the nervousness of the campaign resulted in me missing the Greens’ Dunedin election celebrations because of a migraine. As the results rolled in on television, I became despondent given that National were the largest party and New Zealand First would have the final say. At this point, I simply feared a repeat of 1996 when NZ First coalesced with National. Not again, I thought.
How wrong I was. Fast-forward to October 19. Nervously, but excitedly, I turned on my television to see Winston announce his leftwards turn. I let out a huge ‘yes!’ when he did so. Afterwards, I celebrated by watching YouTube ’80s music videos and drinking beer instead – and in the process happily avoided watching Mike Hosking, et al, on TV. Simultaneously, I kept one eye on my mobile phone screen for news from the Green Party conclave (or, more accurately, special general meeting of delegates) which, mid-evening, endorsed a confidence-and-supply deal with Labour.
In concluding that deal, the Greens experienced a happy ending to the most rollercoaster campaign the party had ever experienced. I can honestly say that it wasn’t easy being Green at times this year, given the multiple pressures faced by the party, particularly post-Metiria’s speech. Nonetheless, I took great satisfaction from seeing the recognition of her sacrifice in the confidence-and-supply agreement, which foreshadows changes to the welfare system that will, hopefully, make it easier for our poorest citizens to live again. I want to see the Greens working together with Labour and New Zealand First to help repair our broken planet and to put human values back into the heart of government again. That is the least I and many others are hoping for, as the party begins this first journey into Government.
Chris Ford is a Dunedin-based freelance writer, Green Party member and 2014 election candidate who has written this recollection in a personal capacity. Chris specialises in writing on political, social, economic and disability issues.