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PoliticsAugust 4, 2017

Turei was left with little choice, after Labour said let’s not do this


The Green co-leader’s confessions were snowballing, her position becoming untenable. But ultimately the decision seems to have come down to Jacinda Ardern.

’Tis the season for resigning, and there was plenty of speculation Metiria Turei was about to do that when she called a press conference for noon today. Her first words upon addressing the media cleared that up: “I will not be resigning.” But it was a resignation of sorts – a resignation from a hypothetical cabinet of the future. “I will not be seeking a ministerial position in a new Labour-Green government.”

The Greens’ decision to drop what has been subsequently dubbed the “fraud bomb” at the party AGM, during which the co-leader confessed to lying to Winz, was designed to focus attention on issues around welfare and poverty, on attitudes to beneficiaries. It worked, up to a point. That conversation has taken place. They received a bump in the polls. But they clearly didn’t mean it still to be snowballing three weeks later.

Instead of offering a lens through which to view an issue, it had become, in campaigning terms, a running sore: Turei appearing at MSD to answer questions about the historic fraud; questions around her co-habitation with her mother; and, possibly most damagingly, the revelation that she had registered at an address she did not live at deliberately to vote for a friend.

The reason that may be the most damaging is not because of its gravity as an offence. Yes, it was illegal and wrong, but in practical terms, on the scale of dumb things done by 23 year olds, it barely rates. It was damaging because the story is no longer about a young woman struggling to do the best for her child; those who know better than to stand in judgement of a solo parent trying to make ends meet may feel less ready to forgive on questions of electoral fraud.

There is no doubt that some of the salvos launched at Turei were mean-minded and hypocritical. When rifling through the archive for analogous transgressions, there is a very important difference to be drawn between sins committed in political office and historic sins by those who ended up in political office decades later.

James Shaw and Metiria Turei at the press conference. Grab: Green livestream

But Turei is an experienced and smart political veteran, she is no political ingénue; though the story ran longer than most expected, she’d absolutely have expected to face scrutiny and rebuke. She’d have known that among what was at stake was not baubles of office – that’s never been her poison – but a job as minister of social development. “I had my heart set on it”, she said today. She would have poured her heart and brain into it, but that had become untenable, not least because her political allies had deemed it so.

For a resurgent Labour, their immediate fortunes transformed by the elevation of Jacinda Ardern, the Turei stories had become a festering problem, a rain cloud over their new dawn. This morning on RNZ, Jacinda Ardern braved out the Turei question, saying she wasn’t there to talk about the Greens, but that evasion couldn’t hold. She’d have faced a torrent of questions over the weekend about whether Turei could play a role in a Labour-led cabinet.

It was almost immediately confirmed that Turei’s decision was ultimately determined by their senior Memorandum-of-Understanding sibling. Of Labour’s position, Turei acknowledged she needed to “respect their concerns”. And, poignantly: “I am offering this to them.”

But she had jumped before being pushed. Keen, perhaps, to convey something of a ruthless streak, Jacinda Ardern said about one hour later – having revealed the party’s curious new slogan “Let’s Do This” at a media conference bumped back to let the Greens do theirs – that she’d not have put Turei in cabinet in any case. She didn’t have to say that. But Ardern could confidently calculate that the affection for her on the left at this moment is such that sacrificing Minister Turei would not cost much. She could afford a gesture of decisiveness and moderation to the centre-field National voter.

Had Ardern said her piece first, the Labour-Greens MOU would be floating towards the bonfire.

Labour, more than anyone, will be hoping this draws a line under the story. Questions around the details of the historic fraud and the MSD investigation may subside, but frayed edges remain: how can someone unfit to become a minister, opponents will ask, be fit to remain co-leader of the Green Party? Can Turei resign the leadership after the election? Will she remain an MP at all? (Turei said today she expects to remain an MP, but bear in mind she toyed with the idea of quitting after the election disappointment of 2014.) She said today that while she won’t be a minister she will be “doing other work in parliament alongside my Green colleagues”, including rolling out welfare policy – does that mean this is a fudge or a fig leaf?

Turei’s autobiographical gambit triggered an extraordinary few weeks in New Zealand politics. Whatever the criticisms, it brought a groundswell of goodwill, an #IamMetiria outpouring. It won the Greens a record poll result. But that support almost certainly came from Labour, and so had the perverse consequence of toppling the Greens’ electoral partner’s leader. That new leader has now, in effect, toppled their own.

Turei has conceded that talking about her past was “a gamble”. She has personally “paid the price”. But, “I don’t regret telling my story… I don’t regret it and I can’t regret it.” For some she will be forever considered a fraudster, for others a martyr. In the raw political maelstrom of it all, she has triggered a spasm on the left. If the Labour-Green bloc has measurably grown its vote, it may yet prove a masterstroke.

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