PoliticsAugust 9, 2017

The sins of Metiria, Bill and John: sense-checking the fact checkers


The transgressions of Metiria Turei are similar to the transgressions of Bill English and John Key. Or are they? The Herald has fact checked; now Simon Wilson has sense-checked the facts.

As we know, Metiria Turei lied to Work and Income about her flatmates to prevent her benefit being cut, because, she says, she needed the money to feed her child. Bill English, when he was finance minister, claimed a housing allowance for his Wellington home by pretending that he really lived in Southland. Turei has further admitted enrolling in Mt Albert despite not living there. John Key enrolled to vote in the Helensville electorate although he never lived there.

The Herald has helpfully compared the sins of the three. It concludes that English did not break the law and that Key was “close but no cigar”, whatever that means in this context. Turei, on the other hand, has confessed to breaking the law.

The Herald ‘s summary of the facts is invaluable. But what does the comparison really tell us – and not tell us?

The case of Bill English

Here’s what Bill English did. As an opposition MP before the end of 2008 and then as a cabinet minister he lived in Wellington. His wife had her medical practice there and his kids went to school there. But he told Parliamentary Services he lived in Dipton, in Southland, which allowed him to claim an accommodation allowance of $24,000 a year. When he became minister, he was eligible for more generous help, provided he did not own the home he lived in. English’s home was owned by a family trust – his own family trust. This allowed him to claim $900 a week “rental” (that’s $46,800 a year), plus other costs.

When he was found out, he eventually repaid $32,000, without admitting any guilt, because, he said, it was “a bad look”. He denied he had broken the law and the auditor general agreed. She appears to have been particularly persuaded by the fact he had relied on legal advice that his position was tenable.

Break that down. English used lawyers to arrange his affairs so that he could legally claim tens of thousands of dollars from the state, based on the factually wrong declaration that he lived in one place when really he lived in another. He did this while he was a minister of the crown, continuing the practice he had begun while he was an opposition MP.

This situation was judged by parliament to be so egregiously wrong that after the English affair was over, the rules were changed. He couldn’t do it now.

Conclusion? The Herald says “English did claim allowances he should not have been given because of an indirect interest in his family trust, but was cleared of personal and deliberate wrongdoing based on the rules at the time.”

Here are some other conclusions.

  1. Bill English must have known that he and his family did not live in Southland. But the system allowed him to pretend that they did, and he took advantage of that.
  2. He got away with it by arguing that his lawyers had told him it was OK.
  3. When he was found out, the system continued to protect him.

In those three things lie the true differences between what Bill English and Metiria Turei did. First, Turei gamed the system because, she says, she felt she needed to for the sake of her child. English simply saw an opportunity to make money and took it.

Second, Turei didn’t get any help from lawyers: she was a beneficiary on her own. Poor people take their chances: you steal a loaf of bread and hope you don’t get caught. Rich people, however, employ people to tell them where to find the free bread.

Sanctimonious commentators will decry the very idea this might be true. Every judge and lawyer I have ever talked to about this knows perfectly well that it is.

Third, Turei could have got away with it if she had kept quiet, but once she outed herself, there was nowhere to hide. There is an especially fierce place in hell for benefit fraudsters. English, on the other hand, concealed his duplicity until it was no longer possible, and was rewarded by a system that declared him unwise but not unfit to govern.

English was pilloried for this at the time. But it was 2009; he wasn’t facing an election and he stuck it out.

The case of John Key

John Key enrolled to vote in the Helensville electorate in 2002, which he sought to represent. He owned a house there but he did not, then or ever, live in it. Key, like English, had legal advice telling him he could do this. He says he originally intended the house to be a weekend home, and that the Electoral Commission told him he could do it.

As the Herald implies though doesn’t actually say, this looks like a clear breach of the Electoral Act. Further, it’s different from the situation of students living away from home, because the law allows them to remain enrolled at a place they regard as home, provided they have previously lived there. Key didn’t qualify under that provision. [This has been updated since first published.]

Metiria Turei appears to have committed the same offence, but there’s an important difference between the two overlooked by the Herald. Key submitted his enrolment form when he was a serious candidate for parliament. Turei submitted hers when she was a candidate for the joke McGillicuddy Serious Party (for whom she got 150 votes). That is, Turei’s sin clearly belongs in the category of youthful indiscretion. Key’s sin was the foundation declaration he made when he started his parliamentary career.

The Herald concludes that the accusations against Key are “close, but not quite a cigar”. Key was widely condemned for it at the time, but he laughed it off.

The case of Metiria Turei

Metiria Turei’s sins are that she lied to Winz to stop her benefit being cut; she lied about where she lived in order to vote in another electorate; and she has not shown contrition. That last one, say many of her critics, is the worst.

Would it have been better if she had contacted the authorities, paid back the money, and then announced that she had done so? She could have said, “I’m sorry, I lied to feed my child, I feel terrible about it but I do not think I had much of a choice. I have paid the money back. And one of the core reasons I am in politics today is to do what I can to prevent other people from having to take such desperate measures.”

That’s what the political enemies of Turei and the Greens say she should have done. They’re probably right: she and her party could have been smarter about this. That would have made it easier for their friends to stand with her – it would have made it easier for Jacinda Ardern to find something positive to say. But it wouldn’t make much difference to the staunchest critics. They want to tear Turei down, and if it’s not one thing it will be another.

Read more of The Spinoff’s coverage of the suddenly very interesting Election 2017

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