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Speech: Turei - Mending the Safety Net

Mending the Safety Net – Metiria Turei’s speech to the Green Party 2017 AGM

Taku kuru pounamu e! Tīhei mauriora!

I te tuatahi ka mihi au ki te mana whenua o te rohe nei; Ngāti Whātua ki Ōrakei, tēnā koutou.

Kei aku nui, kei aku rahi, e te ti, e te ta, tēnā koutou katoa.

Tēnā koutou kua ikapahi nei ki te hāpai ake ki te kaupapa o tēnei hui.

Kia ora koutou katoa.

To our party members and our supporters – welcome, thank you for being here.

I am thrilled to be standing here before you on what is the last day of our last AGM before we change the government!

This is my ninth time speaking at a Green Party AGM as Co-leader and I couldn’t be more grateful for the support and the love you’ve shown me over the years.

Today, I want to talk about an issue that I believe is the true test of us as a Party, and of who we are as a country.

Our response to this challenge will define us in government.

It is also an issue that is very personal to me, it is why I have persisted, to be in a position to fix it – so that we, as a Party, can fix it.

I have talked to you before about my time on the DPB. I was a single mum, raising my beautiful girl Piupiu while doing my law degree, and I was on the benefit.

I had a great case worker at what we now call WINZ, who treated me with respect.

I had the training incentive allowance as a grant to help me pay my fees and childcare. I had great support from my family and my baby’s dad, and his family too.

Like most people who receive a benefit, I was so careful about managing my money.

I’d go to the bank every fortnight on dole day. I’d withdraw all my money, in cash, then split it up into small amounts, wrapped up in rubber bands with little notes about what it was for.

I knew exactly how much I had for our bills, our rent, our food. But whatever way I split it, I still didn’t have enough to get by at the end of the week.

What I have never told you before is the lie I had to tell to keep my financial life under control.

I was one of those women, who you hear people complain about on talkback radio.

Because despite all the help I was getting, I could not afford to live, study and keep my baby well without keeping a secret from WINZ.

Like many families who rely on a benefit, Piu and I moved around a lot when she was little.

We lived in five different flats with various people.

In three of those flats, I had extra flatmates, who paid rent, but I didn’t tell WINZ. I didn’t dare.

I knew that if I told the truth about how many people were living in the house my benefit would be cut.

And I knew that my baby and I could not get by on what was left.

This is what being on the benefit did to me – it made me poor and it made me lie.

It was a stressful, terrifying experience.

At any moment, WINZ could have caught me and cut off my benefit.

They could have charged me with fraud and made me a criminal as well.

I got through it, of course, as you can see.

Not everyone does.

We know at least one woman committed suicide after being accused of fraud and chased by WINZ for a debt.

That fraud never happened, the debt was not owed. But by then it was far too late.

In another public case, a woman known only as Kathryn, was trying to recover from the death of a child at the hands of her violent partner, and was hounded, persecuted and eventually jailed by WINZ.

She did everything she could to improve her life and yet at every turn she was punished by the welfare system set up to help her get by.

There is something deeply, deeply wrong with our welfare system and how we treat the families who depend on it.

It drives people to violence against others and themselves. It keeps children in filthy campground cabins until they sicken, it tortures and harasses women grieving for their lost babies.

It makes ordinary, good people, like myself, like Kathryn, suffer because they do their best to survive.

I know that by sharing my own story here today, I am opening myself up to criticism. It may hurt me personally and may hurt us as a party.

But I also know that if I don’t talk about what life is really like for beneficiaries, if the Green Party doesn’t, then who will?

The safety net is torn. More and more people are falling through.

And we all see it, in cold damp homes, in our schools, in our hospitals.

And in our streets. Two people have died in this city in the last two weeks, homeless and cold, dying on the streets.

Over 200,000 children live in poverty just because their parents don't have enough money for the basics.

Child poverty costs NZ billions of dollars a year in health, education and life course costs, mental illness, chronic lung infections, and especially in winter, child deaths.

We are going to mend the broken safety net and put the money where it is needed most and used best - in the hands of poor families.

Today I am announcing what will be the most fundamental changes to our welfare system in more than 30 years.

We will not be a government that uses poverty as a weapon against its own people.

No working person will struggle to pay the rent.

No beneficiary will live below the poverty line.

This is how we are going to do it.

First, every single beneficiary will have their benefit increased by 20%, the first universal increase in benefits in over 30 years.

Everyone who receives a benefit, Jobseekers, Sole Parent Support, Supported living or a Student Allowance, is going to have more money in their back pocket.

More money to pay the rent, more money to put food on the table, more money to pay the power bill for 350,000 New Zealanders and their children.

And it’s going to get us that much closer to becoming the decent, compassionate country we can be.

Secondly, if you are on a benefit and working, we will make it pay.

We will create one abatement rate for all benefits so beneficiaries can work longer and for better money.

Right now, if you’re on a benefit but you can work a few hours a week, you’re actually punished financially for it.

That’s just cruel. We’re going to change that. Working is good and no one should be punished for it.

We know that many families bounce between welfare and work. They are harassed while on a benefit to get a job but end up in insecure poorly paid work. If they can't go back to a benefit, they end up living in cars – and still going to work every day.

So thirdly, we will raise the minimum wage to $17.75 an hour next year and increase it to 66% of the average wage by 2020.

New Zealanders deserve decent pay for a decent days work.

Working for Families is also part of the social safety net.

Nine years of National has ripped the guts out of it.

We’re going to put the heart back into it.

We will create a real Childrens Payment out of the in work tax credit for all low income families with kids. We will fix the abatement rates and tie increases to inflation.

With these four solutions 350,000 families with 179,000 kids will be lifted out of poverty.

These kids will wake up in a bed, not the backseat of a car, they’ll go to school with bellies full of breakfast and a lunchbox full of lunch, they will spend their weekends playing sports not in hospital with bronchitis.

And to make sure everyone gets and gives their fair share, we are going to help pay for this with a new top tax rate of 40% for all of us who earn over $150,000.

Those of us on high incomes benefit from a fair, equitable country. If we earn more we should pay more.

We know that the first solution to poverty is more money. And that’s why better benefits, fair WFF and a decent minimum wage are our first priorities.

But we need more change than that.

We also need a cultural shift, from the ninth floor of the Beehive, all the way to the door of your local WINZ office.

There’s no way you can know how intrusive, how denigrating it is, to apply and receive a benefit, unless you’ve had to do it.

How fearful you are that you might do or say something wrong and have your benefit cut.

The sanctions that New Zealanders on benefits face are discriminatory at best. At their worst, they can be lethal.

No beneficiary should have to live with the threat of losing the money the need for the rent.

So, the Green Party in government will immediately remove all financial sanctions and obligations that treat beneficiaries as criminals and second-class citizens.

That includes the sexist, punitive section 70A, which cuts women’s benefits if they can’t or won’t name the father of their child.

But also, the constant demands to prove you still have a disability, piles of job application rejections, having to get budget advice over and over because your winter power bill is too high, risking half your benefit if you miss your appointment because your child is sick.

And it includes the intrusive interrogation of a sole parent trying to find a life partner.

Under this government, sole parents, mostly women, are forced to reveal the most intimate details of their lives – who she’s sleeping with and how many times a week, under the threat of losing the money her and her kids rely on to pay the rent.

In my books, that’s discrimination. It’s persecution. And it’s wrong.

Women will no longer be threatened by WINZ simply because they are trying to form a loving relationship that benefits them and their children.

A good government, a decent government, does not use the threat of poverty as a weapon against the poor. Not now, not ever – and under a Green Government, never again!

As I said to you earlier, today’s announcement is very personal to me. I’ve thought a lot about what I was going to say.

Nobody wants to be defined by a lie. Nobody – whether you’re a politician or a solo mum.

We want to be defined by our truths. And the truth is, everyone needs enough to get by on. For themselves and for their kids.

We are a respectful country. We all value dignity, and decency.

Yes! So let's mend the holes that have been torn open in the social safety net.

The time for excuses is over. Together, we’re going to do it.

The only political party that can be trusted to do it in government is the Green Party.

And that is why I am here. We will not be deterred.

Sixty-eight days until Election Day.

It is time to get the Greens into the Government.


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