Sunday, August 13, 2017

Karl du Fresne: Greens pay the price for one woman's hubris


This was going to be a Turei-free column. Honest. But how can anyone ignore what has been arguably the most tumultuous fortnight in politics since 1984?

My colleague Tom Scott had a cartoon in Wednesday’s paper in which a priest asked a boy: “What has Metiria Turei’s admission of benefit fraud and the Green Party’s subsequent meltdown taught us?”

The boy’s answer: “Never admit to making a mistake even 25 years later.”

That’s a legitimate interpretation of what happened, but my take on it is slightly different.

I think most people are prepared to forgive politicians for things they did when they were a lot younger and prone to bad judgments. But I don’t think it was Turei’s admission of benefit fraud that turned people against her.

What repelled many people was the air of sanctimony that accompanied her confession, as if she had done something noble and virtuous.

People noted that she made this declaration a few weeks out from the election. She said she did it to start a conversation about welfare, but it looked like a calculated play for votes: a dog-whistle. Turei may have been hoping to tap into that same tranche of disenchanted young non-voters that came out behind Jeremy Corbyn in Britain and Bernie Sanders in the United States.

The tactic seemed to work, initially at least. The Left was desperate for a hero – remember, this was before Jacinda Ardern stepped up – and Turei seemed to fit the part. For a few days she bathed in the warm glow of the Left’s adulation.

But then things started to fall apart. A backlash started to build, one that was spontaneous and broad-based rather than orchestrated by Turei’s political foes. You could see it building on social media, on talkback radio and in letters to the editor.

By the time Turei was summoned to an interview with WINZ investigators, she was looking decidedly less cocky. She had also changed her tune. From being airily non-committal at first about whether she would repay the taxpayers’ money she had illegally pocketed, it was now: “I’m very clear that I will certainly be repaying any over-payment.”

But things were to get messier yet. Turei didn’t seem to grasp that lifting the lid on something from her past would only encourage reporters to go digging around for other things that might be interesting.

Once that happened, she ceased to be in control of where things were going. That should be Media 101 for politicians.

Sure enough, other facts began to emerge: first a wrong address on the electoral roll and then the rather inconvenient fact that the father of her child was listed as living at the same property – a bad look when she had claimed the DPB. It even turned out her mother had been one of her flatmates while she was defrauding Work and Income by not revealing income from other people in the house.

The cumulative effect was that Turei was soon looking less like a heroic crusader and more like someone who had sneakily gamed the system for her own benefit.

The public was entitled to wonder what else might be in her past. But more crucially, it was entitled to form a judgment about her character.

Then came what seemed a climactic meltdown, when two respected senior Green MPs decided they could no longer, in conscience, share the same party ticket with her.

That exposed a nasty side of the Greens that the public hadn’t previously glimpsed. The recriminations were vicious until co-leader James Shaw pulled back from a vow to expel the two.

Shaw said he changed his mind after getting some sleep. I suspect the truth is that he realised how bad it looked for the Greens – who want everyone to think of them as a kind, gentle party that eschews bitchy politics – to be indulging in vengeful Stalinist bloodletting.

But by then it was too late. The damage was done.

And now Turei herself has gone, amid a nauseating display of self-pity and self-justification. “I wish I hadn’t had to do this,” she whimpered to a sympathetic John Campbell.

Well, she started it, and she should suck it up.

There’s irony on a Shakespearean scale in the fact that just when the Greens had high hopes of finally getting their feet under the cabinet table, the party has been brought crashing down by one woman’s hubris. But it’s great for the clean-nosed Ardern, who is now reaping a bountiful harvest of disenchanted Green voters. 

Karl du Fresne blogs at karldufresne.blogspot.co.nz. First published in the Dominion Post.

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