The Challenger Challenged: What has been so astonishing about the reaction to Metiria Turei's admission that she lied to Social Welfare is just how few New Zealanders identify with Jean Valjean, the hero of Les Miserables, and how many subscribe to the punitive instincts of his relentless pursuer, Inspector Javert. Over the past 30 years, for a significant number of Kiwis, the definition of "a fair go" has changed dramatically - and not for the better!
IN JUST SIXTY DAYS New Zealanders will choose a government. All elections are, to a greater or lesser extent, an exercise in collective self-definition. Revealed in each ballot box is the number of electors who use their votes as a tool, a shield, and a weapon. If the outpouring of outrage against Metiria Turei this past week is any guide, then the percentage of electors willing to wield their votes as weapons will not be insignificant.
In survey after survey, the value identified by New Zealanders as most reflective of their core identity is the affirmation that every Kiwi is entitled to “a fair go”. But, if the public reaction to Ms Turei’s confession that she lied to the social welfare authorities, rather than see her child go hungry, is any indication, then “a fair go” means different things to different people.
Clearly, a large number of Kiwis believe that “fairness” means accepting that the obligation to respect and obey the laws of the land is both universal and inescapable. In the eyes of these citizens, it is grossly unfair for an individual to derive a benefit from breaking The Law when her fellow citizens, by upholding it, place themselves (and their loved ones’) at a disadvantage. To these people, the Greens’ co-leader is guilty of “stealing” from them, and deserves to be punished. Come 23 September, many of them will use their votes as a lash.
The problem with this idea of fairness is that it separates The Law from its economic, social and political context. Like the Ten Commandments handed down to Moses on Mt Sinai, this approach to The Law has nothing to do with the need – or the greed – of humankind. Those who subscribe to this notion of legal obligation are simply incapable of accepting that a nation’s ever-changing laws are much more likely to reflect the needs of its dominant classes than the immutable insights of a mountain-dwelling God.
The French writer, Anatole France (1844-1924) summed up the absurdity of this “The Law is The Law” position in his famous quip: “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.” And, he might have added: to fail to acquaint the welfare authorities of any material change in their domestic circumstances vis-à-vis the rent!
Absent from the vicious condemnation heaped upon Ms Turei by these partisans of the Law’s “majestic equality”, is any attempt to locate her law-breaking in its historical context. That the right-wing government of the day had made it a matter of official policy to “incentivise” the poor out of welfare and into work by reducing their income by 25 percent, or, in Ms Turei’s own words, to “use poverty as a weapon against its own people”, is simply ignored.
That the law could be used by the wealthy against the poor was certainly not ignored by the people who fled from Great Britain to New Zealand in the Nineteenth Century. Sir John McKenzie, who as Lands Minister in the first Liberal Government, broke up the estates of the great run-holders of the South Island, had seen the way the law had driven thousands of Scottish crofters from their homes to make way for the lairds’ sheep. His determination to turn the tables, by using the law on behalf of the many against the few, caused him not a moment’s embarrassment.
Neither was the first Labour Government the least bit embarrassed to require the then Governor-General, George Vere Arundel Monckton-Arundell, 8th Viscount Galway GCMG, DSO, OBE, to swear-in a Cabinet fairly bristling with law-breakers (including the future Prime Minister, Peter Fraser). Nor did the Labour Leader, Mickey Savage, think it in any “inappropriate” to put a former guest of His Majesty – the erstwhile “young offender” John A. Lee – in charge of a programme to correct the two great afflictions of which he had the most direct personal experience: rack-renting landlords and homelessness.
Until relatively recently, this was the historical context out of which most New Zealanders drew their notion of what it meant to give people “a fair go”. It did not signal a deification of The Law, but an understanding that the statutes written by politicians reflect the needs and interests of those who put them into office. (As well as of those who could, if necessary, remove them!)
Middle Class people harbour few illusions about the class nature of legislation. It’s why so many of them regularly and happily attempt to thwart the IRD in its redistributive mission. It also explains why so many of them are expressing outrage: not only at Ms Turei’s challenging confession; but also at her declared determination to lift the legal consequences of weaponised ballots from beneficiaries’ shoulders.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 25 July 2017.