John Armstrong: The timing of Metiria Turei's benefit fraud admission stinks - as does her handling of it

Don't be hoodwinked by the humbug being uttered by those fool enough to be making excuses for Metiria Turei, the long-time Green MP and now it turns out an even longer-time-ago benefit cheat.

Metiria Turei has confessed that she lied to social services 19 years ago in a bid to keep her benefit while a single mum. Source: 1 NEWS

Source: 1 NEWS

Those heaping praise on her for what they deem to be exceptional courage in confessing that she deliberately indulged in welfare fraud back in the 1990s are bestowing accolades she simply does not deserve.

Turei confessed she sub-let her home and lied to Work and Income, as a single mum claiming benefits Source: 1 NEWS

Those who have rushed to her side in lemming-like solidarity have done so largely for two reasons. First, they share Turei's deep distaste of the welfare "reform" agenda pursued currently by National and previously by Labour. Second, they feared that Turei's admission to welfare fraud was to invite her being crushed under the weight of public opinion devoid of any sympathy for those on a benefit.

Those standing alongside the Greens' co-leader might like to ponder another possible motive for her coming clean about her past — one which has little to do with the debate surrounding benefit policy and social deprivation.

Turei has made little secret of her ambition to be in charge of the Social Development portfolio in a Labour-Greens coalition government.

Were she to become Social Development minister following September's election and had she not disclosed her misleading of Work and Income, the Social Development ministry's operational arm, the prime minister (whoever that might yet turn out to be) would have no choice but to sack her were those indiscretions to have become public.

Her honesty would be refreshing were the timing not just a few weeks out from an election. That stinks - as does the manner in which she has handled the matter.

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It is difficult to reach a fair conclusion when it comes to casting moral judgment on her behaviour. The question of whether Work and Income should conduct an investigation into Turei's history as a beneficiary would likely strike the same problem.

That problem is that there are many questions, but few answers. They have been swallowed by the passage of time.

Turei has volunteered little information.

She has said she and her child lived in five different flats with various people while she completed her law degree. In three of those flats, she had extra flatmates who paid rent. She did not inform Work and Income for fear of her benefit being cut.

Her obvious reluctance to provide more detail is nothing short of a disgrace. It is also very telling.

In the absence of more detail — most crucially how much money she received to which she was not entitled — it is incumbent on her as an MP to put things right — at least as much as can be done so.

The Green Party co-leader's admission was part of a launch of the Green's welfare policy launch. Source: 1 NEWS

She should have fessed up a lot earlier, apologised and paid back her best estimate of how much she owed to Work and Income.

Most people would regard that as the minimum she could have done and - even as late as last weekend - what she should have done.

To be fair to her, what she did during her time on the domestic purposes benefit cannot be undone. Moreover, everyone has done things they later regret.

There is sympathy for her past plight and respect for her efforts in pulling herself out of it. That is why other MPs from other parties have been very careful not to be seen to be knocking her.

The absence of outcry from political quarters, however, assists her case that she was the victim of a harsh welfare regime.

The Green's co-leader confessed she lied to WINZ while receiving a benefit to provide for her child. Source: Breakfast

Blaming the system for her cheating of the system enables her to absolve herself of all responsibility for her misleading the system.

It allows her to play the martyr. But she is doing so in a manner which cuts right across another responsibility — that as an MP she set the best example possible.

Saying that she will only pay the money back if Work and Income demands it hardly fulfils that obligation.

She has ignored the politics of gesture. That can reap big dividends. In refusing to make the right gesture, she has foregone an opportunity to redeem herself.

That shows extremely poor political judgement on her part. But it gets worse.

She endeavoured to turn her breach of the law into a launching pad for her party's welfare policy. That is audacious. It is also the height of arrogance. It is also to enter very dangerous territory. It implies you are above the law. It says it is okay to break the law in order to try and change it.

In that light, the politics almost fade into insignificance. But not quite.

First, the exposure of Turei's flouting of the law will further alienate low-income families in which both parents work long hours and who consequently cannot abide welfare cheats.

Those voters are already deserting the centre-left. Turei's holier-than-thou disposition is hardly going to attract them back.

Secondly, the huge emphasis Turei is giving to the Greens' social justice priorities is not only pitting her party in direct competition with Labour. It is also pushing her party's essential point of difference — its promotion of environmental matters — into the shadows.

It is hard to imagine how someone with Turei's political experience could be employing an election strategy as flawed as the one she is running.

It is becoming even harder to understand why her colleagues are still giving her such free rein to keep doing so.