New Zealand is viewed internationally for its progressive politics and tolerant climate, yet the tone of public debate in the run-up to the country's parliamentary elections are leading some to question just how deeply that tolerance really runs.
Metiria Turei, the leader of the centre-left Green Party, comes from a less privileged background than much of the country's political elite — she is Maori, female and a single mother.
Yet after Turei admitted misleading the social welfare department more than 20 years ago, when she was a single parent trying to take care of her daughter while attending law school, she was subjected to extreme scrutiny by media and pundits.
Finally, Turei resigned from her post as Green Party co-leader on Wednesday, citing "unbearable" attacks on her family and damage to the party.
The intense public outcry about her confession, says fellow Green Party member and MP candidate Golriz Ghahraman, has been disproportionate compared with how more privileged, white, male politicians have been treated in the wake of similar revelations in the past.
Ghahraman tells TRT World that the incident helped Kiwis admit the fact that "actually things aren't all OK here."
New Zealand Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei has recently admitted to committing benefit fraud 25 years ago as a single parent, when she lied to Work and Income. What do you think of her admission?
GOLRIZ GHAHRAMAN: Well her admission was related to a social welfare package that we were also releasing on the same day. New Zealand suffers from very high rates of child poverty and our homelessness rates are now at the top of the OECD without a national action plan. She was highlighting the fact that social welfare benefits aren't enough for people to live on…
She was a single mom 25 years ago and she was just starting to study law at university, so she was trying to live on a benefit while she was also studying full-time and taking care of her child. What she admitted to is that sometimes she would have someone stay at her house and pay some minimal amount of rent, something like 20 [New Zealand] dollars for the room that was there, just from time to time. And she hadn't declared that to Work and Income. Because that was just that extra bit that she needed to support herself and her child.
Turei was severely criticised by other politicians and the media, and has ended up resigning from her post as co-leader of the Green Party. Do you think who she was made a difference in how she was treated? Does race, gender and class play into this?
GG: Yeah, absolutely. Things like social welfare, and poverty in general, they disproportionately affect women, and they disproportionately affect people of colour in New Zealand. Our indigenous people, the Maori, in particular. Metiria is within the cross-section of those groups. The way that the system dehumanises poor people, people of colour, Maori and women as well, in order to treat them so poorly, played a part in this too. I definitely think that.
New Zealand is generally viewed as a progressive and open-minded country. What does the way Turei has been treated by media pundits — compared to how current PM Bill English was treated over "creative accounting," for instance — show about the reality to such perceptions?
GG: I think it really highlights that we've come a little far away from what we believe, and [what] I still believe, are Kiwi values. Things like equality and fairness, which are values I have benefited from. My family came here as refugees, and we didn't have anything. We were supported back in 1990; the policies were changed to slash social welfare support in the early 1990s, after that, and that's what Metiria suffered under. Our culture has changed a bit [since the shift towards neoliberal economic policy by both main parties] and that's highlighted by the way that Bill English and his much bigger take of public money was treated, compared to how Metiria was treated. We need to go back to our good old Kiwi values, I think.
The New Zealand media was remarkably forgiving of former prime minister John Key, despite his faux pas and allegations of sexual harassment, for instance. Do you think there are double standards for different politicians?
GG: Yeah, for sure. And I think to some extent Metiria was taking responsibility in this way and also saying that the system needs to be changed to help so many people that are actually suffering meant that she got attacked in a way that … politicians kind of laugh off the things that they've done — whether it's the allegations of sexual harassment that John Key faced, whether it's Bill English and his tak[ing] of [taxpayer money that] he wasn't entitled to in housing allowance. Both Bill English and John Key, of course, also registered at electorates that they weren't living at, which is something Metiria has also been accused of, and really viciously attacked for. I think part of that was she was taking responsibility for it but also saying that the system is, to some extent, to blame — rightly to blame, and it needs to be changed. So she was attacked.
Turei has said she doesn't regret coming forward about her past, saying it has opened up debate about welfare in New Zealand. What do you think about social injustices and inequalities in New Zealand, and how a better balance may be struck? In the longer term, do you think she has helped to change the broader debate?
GG: Yeah, I think it was very frustrating for New Zealanders who are actually suffering the effects of nine years of policies that have slashed public spending, that have sold off our state houses, that have caused the homelessness that we're facing, when politicians stand up and say that we're living with "a rockstar economy."
People are really suffering and this [incident] actually spoke to that — for the first time they could hear someone admit that actually things aren't all OK here. That conversation is so essential.
And she hasn't apologised because the point was that people, good, honest people, shouldn't be put in a place where they have to make these kind of choices. Nobody wants to make a choice between feeding their child, having a home or lying to authorities.
You are from an ethnic minority and running for your first stint in parliament. Does this whole episode make you wonder about how you might one day be treated by the media?
GG: I've been treated well, relatively, by the media, but online the attacks that I get range from anything between being a woman, being a youngish woman, being a migrant or a refugee, being a Middle Easterner, being Muslim — even though no one has asked me if I am! So I've already faced all of that. It has been difficult at times, but actually i think it hardens your resolve to stand up and keep doing it, because otherwise everybody else is being silenced too.