The dev­il­ish sys­tem made her do it

The Southland Times - - COMMENT&OPINION -

So should we hum a few bars from Les Mis­er­ables as back­drop to Me­tiria Turei’s ac­knowl­edge­ment of ben­e­fit fraud?

A young solo mother study­ing for her law de­gree, she lied about flat­mates’ con­tri­bu­tion to her rent bill.

If the Greens co-leader is be­ing hon­est with her­self and with us then her cir­cum­stances were akin to the book’s young solo mother Fan­tine; forced by an un­com­pas­sion­ate world to de­base her own val­ues. She calls it ‘‘the lie I had to tell’’. The key words there aren’t so much ‘‘the lie’’ as the ‘‘had to’’.

Some will liken this to that most child­ish and in­ad­e­quate of de­fences, the devil made me do it.

Yet as Turei de­scribes the cruel in­ad­e­qua­cies of the sys­tem around her, it would take a stony heart to judge her harshly in per­sonal or po­lit­i­cal terms.

Trou­ble is, without a fairly de­tailed ex­am­i­na­tion of what her life­style re­ally was, what the rules and sup­port sys­tems of the day re­ally were, and how well in­formed she was about them, then how can we judge whether she re­ally had to lie to keep her­self and her child fed, housed, healthy?

Turei ac­knowl­edges that she had the train­ing in­cen­tive al­lowance to help her pay her fees and child­care.

And that the baby’s dad and their re­spec­tive fam­i­lies stepped up to help.

But she says no mat­ter how she bud­geted for food, rent and other bills, it all wasn’t enough to get by at the end of the week.

There’s an abun­dance of peo­ple are ready to project their own as­sump­tions about ei­ther the ac­cu­racy or the in­ac­cu­racy of this ac­count.

But we need some­thing more nu­tri­tious than an ar­gu­ment about plau­si­bil­ity.

Whether, and in what mea­sure, Turei de­serves re­proach and pros­e­cu­tion, sym­pa­thy-but-a-bill, or for­give­ness and ad­mi­ra­tion, all de­pend on de­tails we don’t have.

It’s the na­ture of our times that not only the moral­ity of the is­sue is up for dis­cus­sion, but also a belt­way de­bate about the po­lit­i­cal wis­dom of the dis­clo­sure.

This could be seen as an act of per­sonal con­science kick­ing in le­git­i­mately. Or as tac­tics, pure and sim­ple, im­pelled more by a sense of tim­ing than any­thing else, as the party tries to draw at­ten­tion to its fam­i­lies pack­age.

Oth­er­wise, what else is there to dis­cuss in the Greens’ $1.4 bil­lion plan to beef up Work­ing for Fam­i­lies. And to in­crease all ben­e­fit pay­ments 20 per cent, strip out the obli­ga­tions and sanc­tions on those who fail drug tests or moth­ers who won’t name the fa­ther for their child?

Against that lit­tle lot, the ques­tion of whether Turei should be pros­e­cuted is by any mea­sure a lesser ques­tion.

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