Critic co-editor Joe Higham met up with former Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei to discuss the revelations that led to her political downfall, her chances in the Te Tai Tonga Maori electorate, and how she is “absolutely certain” that the National Party will lose this year’s election.Here is the full, unedited version of the interview:
Now that you’ve had some time to reflect on the events of the last couple of months, can you briefly sum up how you feel about that period now, looking back?
Oh, I’m still very sad about what happened. I love my job, I’ve been doing it for a long, long time and I love my party and I still want to work as hard as I can for them. I wish I had better prepared for the attacks on my family, which were becoming completely out of control, but I still think that it was the right thing to do to talk about what life on the benefit is really like and the resulting conversation which, weeks and weeks later, people are still talking about, which is really important. They're talking about what their experiences were, but even more importantly people who haven’t had those experiences are speaking up and wanting change too and that was the whole point.
Do you consider that having relinquished any role in cabinet should a change of government have taken place to have been punishment enough?
Yes, I did actually. When I stood down as co-leader, that was because the attacks on my family were becoming so out of control, but I knew going into my speech that one of the results might be that I wouldn’t be the minister responsible for the change, and I didn’t want that result, but it was a consequence I had to consider. Like I say, I did not anticipate the degree of attack that took place on my family, and that was a real shame.
Especially seeing as your situation wasn’t dissimilar to that of Bill English and John Key, you’ve been treated in a substantially different manner to them and your circumstances at the time were significantly more tough. Is that something angers you or do you just take it in your stride?
From a political point of view I think it can be dealt with. It is unfair that John Key, who registered at another address in order to vote for himself, confesses and says sorry and everyone is fine with it, and I do the same thing to vote for somebody else and am vilified for it. I think the different treatment for substantially the same issues is because I started by challenging the dominant idea that the poor deserve to be punished, and we’ve been living with successive governments that have maintained that attitude that the poor deserve to be punished for their poverty, and that is a much bigger challenge, and so I think I was treated different because that was my fundamental challenge, but also because I don’t belong to the ruling class, so I will be treated differently to how they would treat their own. And that’s one of the consequences…we have a representative democracy, MMP, that deliberately provides for people from different backgrounds and life experiences to represent communities in parliament, but the structure itself is very much geared around those who have, and have always, exercised political power, and I know that; I know that and sometimes in the battles around that you don’t always win.
What do you see the political and public reaction to your revelations about benefit fraud and enrolling to vote in the wrong electorate as revealing about New Zealand society today?
There’s been three waves. The first and the third waves have all been about ‘this is my story too’, showing that what I was doing and what I went through when I was young and on the benefit is what has happened to thousands and thousands of people, and no one is prepared to talk about it because they are so terrified of the consequences, for good reason.
The second wave was, so there was the first wave of ‘I Am Metiria’, where people told their stories, which was an incredible experience to watch happen. The second wave was, the denigration of beneficiaries, that we’re dole-bludgers, that we deserve it, that we’re criminals, that we do wrong and are fundamentally wrong as humans. And then there was the third wave, which was, we are all beneficiaries, this is actually the experience we have. So the public reaction has been quite different, and in stages.
What I think is happening now is that there is a fourth wave, which I guess you’re part of that too with this conversation, which is people looking at what is the situation here? What is the reality? If my story is a common story, across hundreds, if not thousands of people, then what is actually wrong? And how are we prepared to deal with it? And I think that’s what this fourth wave is going to be. Because most of what I’ve been reading in the last week has been, let’s look at the system then. We’re done with the personal story, let’s look at what the system provides, and that’s what’s the most important thing.
We went from 15 percent to 8 percent to 4 percent so the polls are very fickle, especially during election time.
Do you believe that the narrative that you began will bring about change or do you only see that happening as a result of National losing this election?
There will only be significant change to welfare if the Greens are in government and if they have a strong influence over welfare policy. Both National and Labour in the past have contributed to the problem and I know Jacinda and I’ve worked with her and I know she’s committed to ending child poverty and to fairness and justice, but that doesn't mean that without a political push, that Labour as a party will actually make the changes. Because the fundamental changes needed are changing people’s incomes and removing the punitive work first approach to welfare and it was labour who put that work first approach in the welfare leg. I know that [difficult to make out who Metiria mentioned] and Jan Logie have both worked really hard to try and fix that and make changes to the legislation over the last wee while, but unless there is a strong political push for Labour to make fundamental changes to welfare it just won't happen and that’s why I am still campaigning for the Greens, both in Te Tai Tonga and for the party vote because if Labour's primary political partner in government is not the greens there will be not change.
There are some political commentators who say that although your admissions brought you to the edge of the political cliff, it was Jacinda Ardern who ultimately pushed you over the edge, i.e. made you resign, and is now wearing that ‘Helen Clark crown’. What do you have to say to that?
No no no, I don't think that’s true at all. I do think that the Greens getting 15 percent in the Colmar-Brunton poll is what lead to Andrew Little resigning and Jacinda Ardern as Leader. I am really pleased Labour is having a resurgence because on 23 percent there is no way they could lead a government. It’s really good that they are doing better, and all power to them, they cannot do it on their own and they will not make the transformative changes we need in ending poverty and cleaning up the environment if the Greens are not a strong part of the that government. At the moment there’s a big wave of support for labour and that’s good because we do need to change the government, but I think that voters have long memories and they know that Labour needs a strong partner and I think that’s why we’re going to see the Greens vote increase over the next five weeks because of that.
So, if possible, I’d like to ask about your political future. You are of course running in the Te Tai Tonga electorate, so should you win that seat can you commit to representing the electorate for the full parliamentary term?
Yes, yes, absolutely. It would be a real honour to do that. The party vote is of course the most important one because it gets our whole team back into parliament, but if people feel I represent them, and they give me their electorate vote, then yes, absolutely, it would be an amazing thing to be doing.
How do you see that seat going? Are you confident of defeating Rino Tiritakane in Te Tai Tonga come September 23?
I don't know. I don’t know. It’s up to the voters to decide and there are many many Maori, and pakeha, but Maori especially who have seen what has happened to me who have a very similar story to me from our past and who are horrified by what happened and they want people to stand up for them in parliament, and not many MPs do that because when you do it can be really harmful. So I think think there will be lots of Maori voters who want that to come to an end.
What were the reasons for not standing in Dunedin North for a third election?
Oh. Two reasons - the first is that the Greens are running the strongest Maori campaign we ever have and in my 15 years I have really wanted to build that and I have been working alongside others and I really wanted to be a part of that team with Marama Davidson, Jack McDonald, and Teanau Tuiono, and Denise Roche, they’re just an amazing group of people to be working within a maori focussed campaign. I haven’t done this kind of campaign for a long time and I wanted to come back to it, and I also wanted to make room in Dunedin for new talent. I’ve been standing in Dunedin North for sometime, campaigning for the party vote, and I have fantastic support here, but there’s other amazing people who are coming through too. Part of leadership is making room for new talent and this was a chance for me to be able to do that and still campaign for a seat that is quite an amazing place. Does that make sense?
What’s the most important thing that you’ve learned so far in your 15 year spell in Parliament?
[Laughs]...most recently that any chink in your armour is going to cause you harm. Over the whole period, the people who matter the most are the ones that are never heard and there's no point doing this job if you’re not speaking about them and their lives. The whole reason I went into politics in the first place is because, you know, my Dad had suffered really badly from the economic reforms of the ‘80s under Labour and the Welfare reforms under National in the ‘90s, and he died young, he was 48, so just a few months older than i am now. He was living in his van and he had been a working man all of this life but treated by politicians and, well not treated by them...he’d been a working man his whole life and when Labour and National made these decisions about welfare and economics, not once did people like him feature in their decisions. They didn’t exist, they had no voice, no one spoke for them, they were just sacrificed to experiment. When I went into parliament, it was for the purpose of speaking for people like him, so that no decisions were ever going to be made without them being heard. They are the ones that matter, they're the ones that suffer the consequences of political failures. People sometimes don’t even know that they exist so someone has to be there speaking for them and making sure that they are actually present and then when politicians make these terrible decisions that cause so much harm they do so knowing about the people they’re hurting. At least they know that.
What I’ve heard as a response to those comments is that the best way to address those issues is in the position you were in previously as co-leader of the Green Party. What do you say to those criticisms?
Yes. If I had been able to be minister for social development like I had intended, I would’ve been able to fix the system...the best now is that I fight as hard as possible for the Green Party to be a strong part of the next government so that we have the greatest influence over that policy. That may mean that another MP is minister and we have a number who are more than competent for that role. If we don’t hold that ministry, at least we will have strong influence in terms of what happens over welfare, so that's the huge advantage of being the government is that not only do you get to represent your community, but you get to make the policy changes that will affect them and that’s what we’ve been fighting for for so long.
What one thing are you most proud of in your political career so far?
Ummm...oh...ummm...oh…[begins to cry]...
I’m sorry, are you okay?
No no it’s fine, it’s just…
...We can move on if you want to?
No no, it’s fine...it’s probably true, as much as it sounds terrible and I know it does...it probably was delivering that speech at the AGM, because I think one of the things about politics is you, it’s a very, it can be, a very intellectual exercise...it’s all about the ‘game of politics’, understanding and manipulating the political rules to obtain political power and influence, but there is nothing more compelling than telling stories and telling your own story is, i think, the most compelling thing to do, which is why there was such a response. So despite all that I has lead to, you know, personal political cost to me, it is the most important political thing I have done the whole time...there are lots of other really fantastic things that have happened, but that would be the thing...yeah.
And the coverage of this story has travelled internationally too. I mean the Guardian Newspaper is still writing about it.
Yeah that’s right. So the point of doing it is to force the conversation about what life is like, what the system is like, and fixing it and it’s gone to all these different waves around the conversation but it’s still being had, four or five weeks later. And it’s going to be the same all the way to the election...we’ll have to wait and see if this brings about positive change or not, but it wasn’t for want of trying
How optimistic are you about positive change?
I am very optimistic about a change of government. I think it’s absolutely certain now. Poor old Bill [laughs] he would’ve done it twice [laughs].
...Do you see voter fatigue being a big part of this election cycle?
Yes. We tend to go through three term cycles, three or four sometimes, partly because when in government it’s hard to make the structural changes inside your organisation that you need to make the next step up, and you often have to do that in opposition, so it’s hard to change leader if your leader if PM, as we’ve seen, and I think John Key did the right thing for himself standing down, but he certainly didn’t do the right thing for the party. They would’ve been better to choose fresher leadership, I think. If they had done that , I think, yeah…
Who would you have liked to have seen chosen?
Well...none of them! But my advice, for what it’s worth, would’ve been to keep Bill as the second in charge, because he is a stable hand he would’ve been able to manage the stability of the caucus and put a show pony in front, especially because NZ was used to having a showpony, and that’s what they want, and Bill is not that. So either Simon or Paula, would probably have done better, but that’s...I’m glad they didn’t ask me for my advice. I think either of them would’ve done better for this election, at least for a freshen up, in the same way that we’ve seen with Jacinda - even though she was Deputy PM, it wasn’t enough they had to push her right to the front in order to push to get this wave of a sense of momentum, and that’s what National cannot do, and is very hard to do in government.
I don’t want to pre-empt your answer, but aside from the environment or climate change, what do you consider to be the most important issue facing New Zealand today?
Oh I would...well...inequality and climate change are two major issues internationally and here as well. Even the approach to cleaning up our rivers and waterways is actually about climate change mitigation. And in terms of inequality, there are two parts to it. One is ending poverty, income poverty that people suffer, which result in the wealth inequality that we see, and that is really about how the economy is structured, to enable growth and wealth and a reduction in income as a result for the other side. So I think, inequality and poverty are probably the two major issues. We have a country that is on two tracks. A significant section of the population are doing well, and will continue to do well, especially with the economy starting to improve at the moment, but the half that aren’t are doing extremely badly, and the problem with a gap like that, is that those who are doing okay, and are on track to do better are very fearful of what the consequences might be if they fall off that track, and so they tend not to look at the other half, and that’s what inequality does, it creates inequality, it broadens the gap, and what we’re trying to do at the moment is bridge that gap and make different decisions. So I’d still say that inequality and poverty are the major issues here, and quite hidden too.
One of the major consequences of your recent decisions, which has amplified this conversation of inequality, is that some younger people who are treated similarly to how you were may now decide to go into politics, so what advice would you give to those people?
You’ve got to find your motivations and find your passions. I got asked this at an alt-education course a few weeks ago. The kids were doing an exercise, they were only young, about 14-15 years old, on 'what is their why?' Why are they wanting to improve their lives? Why are they wanting to get an education? Not just what sort of a life they want, but why do they want it? And they asked me what my 'why' was, and mine was my daughter and my father. My father for improving the life of...not improving his life but making his life mean something in the future, and making sure hers, was as best as I could possibly create it. So you find your motivation for what you’re trying to do and that was mine, and then you find a passion, the thing that makes you most passionate and excited...I’m quite good at talking [laughs]... and debating and speaking, and this is so if you can find your motivation and passion and join those two together, you’ll be able to make it through I think, but everybody needs help from their friends and their family and...everyone needs somebody who’s going to tell them that they’re going to succeed no matter what. I recently heard that some of my close friends who, when I was first applying for Law School, didn’t believe I’d get through it, but I never knew that. I found out years later.
So you found out afterwards?
Yes! Years and years later. Yeah they were like, “I never thought you'd get through.” But they never, ever, ever said anything that would suggest that they thought I couldn’t do it.
If National remain in government into a fourth term, how optimistic are you in relation to the issue of climate change?
Oh...this is where the connection of climate change and poverty and inequality really make itself known. The consequences if National return are dire, because I think the link between inequality and climate change is greed, and if your government values the consequences of greed then you will see more poverty and more env damage because they are prepared to accept both of those consequences in order for some to do really well. National are certainly that kind of government. They are prepared to accept enormous sacrifice to the environment for the benefit of a few that they know, of their own people, of their own kind. So we need to make sure that the next government at least understands this link, or at least some of them do, because if we don’t deal with greed, we’re not going to be able to solve either the climate change or the poverty issues.
What advice do you have for young New Zealanders who are disillusioned with politics and are considering not voting in the upcoming election?
[Sits forward enthusiastically] It’s your country and if you don’t vote you let somebody else who hates you make the decisions about you for you. I’ve never been very good at doing what I’m told [laughs] ever...and I hate the idea of other people making decisions for me and the vote is just one part of the political authority that every citizen is entitled to exercise but it’s a political act that matters and nobody should ever let somebody else make that decision for you.