Tea with Metiria

Photo by    Clem Onojeghuo    on    Unsplash

Catherine Delahunty has a quiet tea with Metiria. As always, both are surrounded with the aroha and love of the people of whom they have tirelessly advocated for during their political careers for the Green Party. Is fairness in New Zealand mythological? Who will stand with the people with no one on their side?

We were sitting at the food court in Hunters Corner Plaza last Saturday afternoon. I was drinking green tea and Metiria was drinking ordinary tea. People came shyly over to us and spoke to her, two older women, an accountant, the man who made us the tea from the tea stall. They told her they were proud of her and never to be ashamed. She hugged people. It wasn't one of those "excited hugging of a celebrity" moments, it was a respectful moment – warm, sad, and proud.

We had just been at the Otara rally against poverty where Metiria had spoken about the state of the country and why she had told her own story. There was rapturous applause at the rally and many selfies. But sitting in the dim anonymous food court where it was quiet and reflective, we thought about how the hell we had arrived here on the eve of the election. How so much had changed in the past five weeks. 

She ate some sushi, I drank some more tea. A man gave her his card. We agreed that we should never again underestimate the power of the vicious judgement against beneficiaries in this country. This emotion, this actual hate of the "undeserving poor" was not apparent in this plaza of plastic chairs. Instead, there was a welcoming of a politician in a way I had not seen before.

I had not seen Metiria for a couple of weeks. We had both had our heads down campaigning hard for the election. She told me she was enjoying being the candidate for Te Tai Tonga, I told her I was enjoying not being a candidate at all for the first time since 2002. I told Metiria I liked her speech from the rally, especially where she acknowledged the current welfare system which punishes people who try and help their families and whānau, who try and help each other get by. It is against the rules.

Driving back home, I had a think about the hate, the haters, the rules and what its really all about. Does our much lauded sense of fair play only apply to people we know? To the lives of peoples whose life we can imagine? Is fair play only for the deserving and grateful poor? Is there a Queen Victoria crouching inside the kiwi psyche dividing the world between the good and bad poor people? Is that highly selective compassion so wafer thin that only those who appear to be deserving will receive it?

As a former beneficiary advocate in the pre-National Government era, it was still very harsh, it was still deeply problematic. But it was not like the current benefit sanctioning nightmare visited upon those in need. Everyone knows that benefits are not enough to live on and everyone works out how to survive. The rules are irrelevant if you are about to lose the roof over your head, when you can’t put food on the table for your children .Everyone knows that, except people who don’t want to, like the Government, sections of the media and the parts of our population with no imagination.

I looked at Metiria and I saw the toll of the whole saga on her shoulders but also the dignity of her survival. There is no one stronger than wāhine Māori, what does not kill you makes you stronger. There are whole communities of tangata whenua, Pasifika and other cultures who recognise her as their own in a way that they did not feel before. What has happened to Metiria for disclosing her survival strategy while a solo mother is instantly comprehensible to the many who are subjected to interrogation and humiliation for not having any money. What is more disturbing is the bewilderment of comfortable people who cannot conceive of a justification for ever breaking the law. As a law maker for the last eight and a half years, I am only too aware of the flawed nature of legislation and how some of these laws are downright amoral and abusive.

Fair play on the sporting field but not in the welfare system. If you do not believe me, spend some time watching the process in the Work and Income queue. My friend Metiria was tired of pretending that poverty and a broken safety net was just a policy issue. It was and is utterly personal for her, for her whānau. I can see that although she will not be a Minister able to change the system, although the price of this strategy has been high, one part of this leader is at peace because as a Māori wahine she has come home. But should we feel at home in this country where fairness is mythological but so questionable and where desperation is so visible on our streets? Where is our moral compass now? Whatever happens this election, who will stand with the people with no one on their side?