SPECIAL INVESTIGATION: Fraud, class and the media: the Metiria Turei controversy

By   /   August 22, 2017  /   19 Comments

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Research by Associate Professor Lisa Marriot from Victoria University reveals that 5 per cent of welfare recipients are investigated compared to .01 per cent  of taxpayers. Welfare fraud attracts 800-1000 criminal prosecutions a year compared to 60-80 for tax fraud.  Of tax dodgers whose offending reaches about $270,000, 18 per cent will be jailed. Of those welfare fraudsters who have obtained around $70,000, 67 per cent can expect jail time

The venomous barbs which drive controversial political events sometimes draw out the toxicities of society.

Such was evident in the concerted media assault against Metiria Turei.

My own position on this can be stated from the outset. Yes, her past personal dealings with Social Welfare should have been resolved before going public. She should have prepared a political management strategy with her senior advisors.

True, lying about ones living situation to Social Welfare and misleading the electoral authorities about ones voting address is not to be condoned.

However, a sense of proportion and a grasp of history is needed here.

The arrival of neoliberalism in the mid 1980s triggered a breakdown of ethics at every level of society.

The evidence is overwhelming – a rising prison population, thriving gangs, organised crime built upon the drug trade, crooked real estate agents laundering money, corporate tax evasion, law firms assisting clients to commit fraud, corrupt public servants, bribery from senior immigration officials, Ponzi schemes posing as  finance companies – New Zealand has seen it all.

One notable case with contemporary resonance was that of former Auditor General and ACC Chief Executive Jeff Chapman. In 1997 he was convicted on 10 charges of fraudulently using documents totalling $54,594 and sentenced to 18 months in prison. At the time Brian Easton stated `we need to ask how a man already in financial difficulties was promoted to leadership of the Audit Office without anyone noticing ?`.  His own answer to the question was that Chief Executives had too much power because of the 1988 State Sector Act. The checks and balances which had restrained the character deficiencies of previous departmental heads was `substantially reduced` (Listener May 3 1997).

These observations remain pertinent given recent concerns about the competence of Auditor General Martin Matthews.  Formerly, as  head of the Ministry of Transport he overlooked clear evidence of a $725,000 fraud perpetrated by ex-employee Joanne Harrison. She was convicted and sentenced to a three year prison sentence, Matthews was rewarded with the promotion to Auditor General. The controversy is well outlined in Bryce Edwards` column  `Can the Auditor General be trusted to combat corruption in New Zealand? (National Business Review May 22).

The cases of Jeff Chapman and Martin Matthews point to a public service culture which does not adequately scrutinise top –level fraud.

By contrast Metiria Turei`s contraventions have been intensely scrutinised and singled out for vitriolic approbation by politicians, journalists, the commentariat and social media trolls.

Note the double standard- individual cases of beneficiary fraud are viewed more harshly than institutionalised white collar fraud.

This double standard  is also reflected in the legal process.

Tax evaders cost the New Zealand taxpayer more than $1 billion annually while the figure for fraud committed by beneficiaries amounts to approximately $40 million. Yet, the state and judiciary are more lenient on the former than the latter.

Research by Associate Professor Lisa Marriot from Victoria University reveals that 5 per cent of welfare recipients are investigated compared to .01 per cent  of taxpayers. Welfare fraud attracts 800-1000 criminal prosecutions a year compared to 60-80 for tax fraud.  Of tax dodgers whose offending reaches about $270,000, 18 per cent will be jailed. Of those welfare fraudsters who have obtained around $70,000, 67 per cent can expect jail time (the Hui Staff, Newshub  `Research shows state far more lenient on tax evasion than welfare fraud` 23 July).

With these facts in mind let us now consider how Metiria Turei was treated by the mainstream news media.

Attention will focus on high profile media outlets and commentators with the power to set agendas and frame unfolding events.

Senior New Zealand Herald journalist and commentator John Armstrong was particularly vehement. On TVNZ`s website 1 News Now he declared that `the timing of Metiria Turei`s benefit fraud admission stinks- as does her handling of it` (July 19). The viscerality expressed here contrasts with Armstrong`s usual  cool judgement on other political matters. Armstrong`s complaint was that Metiria  Turei  wanted to be in charge of the Social Development portfolio in the event of a Labour –Green  coalition government. She would need to come clean before taking up such a position. This is hardly a scandalous revelation. If Armstrong`s fears did in fact eventuate the new government would, presumably,  have gained the electoral mandate to reform  the Social Development portfolio including WINZ. Turei`s views on such reform have never been a secret ,her political manoevurings were artless perhaps but hardly sinister.

Barry Soper`s opinion piece , outlined on the New Zealand Herald website  after a heated radio interview with the Green`s co-leader, described her  as `the champion of lawbreaking `. Her fellow  co-leader James Shaw was described as a `fellow conspirator` for daring to defend his colleague (25 July).  This kind of language positions the Green leaders as dangerous, reprehensible outsiders who have threatened legal norms. The depiction of Turei as a `champion of law breaking` suggests pure prejudice rather than journalistic insight.

Over at TV 3 Patrick Gower could barely contain himself. She has `ripped off the taxpayer by committing benefit fraud` but `Metira`s biggest rip off is that she is trying to exploit the New Zealand public for political gains` (Newshub 26 July). There are several  connotations or `dogwhistles`  here. Turei`s illegal behaviour has been  systematic and undertaken with malign intent, she is cynically using the New Zealand public (instead of engaging with them on an important social issue).  None of this stands up to scrutiny and even if it did Gower has no interest in debating the matter, character assassination is the primary aim.

The same can be said of Mike Hosking. In a `Mike in a minute` opinion piece he described Turei`s behaviour as `lying and cheating a government department`. She is called a `co-conspirator to those who have come forward and told her they`re ripping off the system just like she did`.  All of them are smeared as `thieves`. (26 July).

From the very beginning of this story the dominant tone and language  of media coverage  and commentary  was, quite simply, this. That woman is beyond the pale, her behaviour  is a moral outrage for ordinary law abiding New Zealanders . She has shown no remorse and must therefore be hounded from office.

These are strong words but after a week of trawling through lots of other material including newspaper editorials, radio  talkback and the  comments section on certain blogs no other conclusion is possible. And, before I conclude this piece, supporters of those two Green MP`s  who deemed Metiria Turei unworthy of the standards necessary for public office should look over the Lombard Finance case featuring former Attorney General Doug Graham* and former Labour Minister Bill Jeffries. Investors were mislead by false statements in a Company prospectus and lost large amounts of money, one might almost say they were ripped off. Yet, the two  former directors offered no formal  apology to investors. Instead, they fought their convictions  through the courts as far as was possible.

It’s high time for a sense of proportion.

 

*An earlier edition incorrectly labeled Doug Graham the Governor General

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19 Comments

  1. Steve King says:

    Excellent piece. The responses were blinkered and lacked perspective, but most sadly, were notable for their viciousness.

    • Observer Tokoroa says:

      The Dark Art of Journalism

      The journalists, children of witches and hangmen, will do anything they can to destroy a person, for even the least of crimes. For they are Sinless. Righteous. Twisted. Worshippers of God and Mammon. Riddled within themselves with the most poisonous of poisons.

      As in, they praise those who do not pay their due Tax. But crush into pulp those mothers who struggle to make ends meet.

      Their names are Gower. Garner, Soper, Espiner, Hosking. They are led by the grimmest of reapers known as Armstrong.

      None of whom have the courage to go out and eyeball the gangs, the obscenely wealthy, or the landlords. Oh no. For journalists are now and always, cowardly shitheads. Lowlife par excellence.

  2. Francesca says:

    I’m glad to see this is getting the analysis it deserves.The whole Metiria saga and how it has been covered will one day serve as a case study illustrating how far NZ ,over 30 years ,had lost its identity as a racially harmonious, egalitarian society, and how the media crafted the story to reinforce neoliberal directives.
    So 30 years of Rogernomics has not delivered what it promised?Prosperity and high living standards.
    Who’s to blame?
    Why, the beneficiaries of course, and the undeserving poor.
    We have been trained to resent taxes(until we need health care or become unemployed)so therefore we hate benficiaries and we applaud all those tradies doing cashie jobs thus avoiding the hated taxes
    We pay our MPs a reasonable amount precisely so they won’t seek money elsewhere, and resort to corruption.Bill was paid more than enough.
    Bill English nevertheless, chose to rort the system, claiming fraudulent housing allowances. Sorry Bill, but paying a lawyer to give you the advice you want doesn’t let you off the hook
    Where were the cries of disgust, the calls to stand down, the howls of the media running as a pack?
    Metiria on the other hand was paid 20% less than enough, and despite that, tweaking the facts in the most piffling manner, managed to get off the DPB in double quick time and made a life for herself, which included trying to make life better for others.
    She’s a freaking National success story for gods sake!
    There is a stark difference between the way Maori media and Pakeha have covered this and its not a good look for our supposed racial harmony
    I hope there is more and more discussion on this topic, because it clearly outlines the fault lines in NZ society.

  3. Michelle says:

    But we have known about this issue for a very long time. Just like we have known Maori people are more likely to be apprehended, charged and end up in prison. And as longs we keep sitting back and doing nothing it will continue to happen. Who are media and who owns the media ?

  4. Mike the Lefty says:

    If you are a white suit you can get away with anything in this country because “you are exercising your judicial rights”
    Anyone else and you are just “ripping off the system” and the media hounds are baying for your execution.

  5. countryboy says:

    Excellent Post @ Dr Wayne.
    It boggles my mind to read how corrupt and bias the MSM is. It shouldn’t by now, but it always does.
    Who are at the foundations of the corruptions they, the MSM minions you mention here, are paid to protect, defend and who’s ideas they promote I wonder?
    Who can we draw a focus on? Where are they? Where do they live? Where do the holiday? Who do they meet with? What are their habits? Where do they shop?
    ‘They’ know these things about us, therefore there must be merit in us knowing those things about them. There needs to be a who’s who page somewhere to enable us to recognise our abusers and point them out to others.
    Metaphor alert.
    Ever notice how cockroaches scatter and run for it when you turn on the kitchen light?

  6. CLEANGREEN says:

    Well done Wayne very thorough; 100%

    We now have a lawless society where some can legally get away with illegal activities while others on lesser crime are heavily penalised.

    The new government must amend the law to penalise the real crooks of white collar crimes in NZ.

  7. Julz says:

    Could we have a reverse panel where we put all these ‘journalists/commentators’ on the panel, and they are questioned about their ethics, behaviour and bias? Are these people ever put through ‘unconscious bias’ ‘ undoing privilege’ workshops? They seem completely unaware of their own double standards.

  8. Danyl Strype says:

    I too was bothered by the political assassination tactics and the obvious double standards, but what really concerns me is the chilling effects this could have on perceptions of who is allowed to be in parliament, and what they are allowed to say. The whole concept of parliamentary privilege – that MPs should be free to say anything they believe is representative of their constituents without naming or condemning their sources – has come under fire. Worse, the response to Metiria has reinforced the vague notion that that becoming an MP requires belonging to some special class of saint, and that political office is not open to mere mortals who may have dissented from the status quo, or made some hard decisions in life.

    The corporate media have been unmasked as anti-democratic defenders of entrenched privilege. Those who wish to “avenge Metiria” would do well to train their sights on this privilege, and get involved in a radical democratization of the whole media system, and particularly its coverage of politics.

  9. Jack Ramaka says:

    Stealing Pinky Bars from the Dairy is a higher priority than Corporate Fraud for the Deep Dark State.

  10. Rich buggar says:

    And yet someone with allegations of an M.P.s crimes is silenced by the media simply because they will not entertain his side of the story.

  11. Marc says:

    “From the very beginning of this story the dominant tone and language of media coverage and commentary was, quite simply, this. That woman is beyond the pale, her behaviour is a moral outrage for ordinary law abiding New Zealanders . She has shown no remorse and must therefore be hounded from office.”

    In short nasty media bias and a witch hunt to the extreme!

    As for the Auditor General and what their Office does or refuses to do, it seems they can more or less pick and choose what to investigate and review. They cannot bother with commoners raising issues with other high offices (e.g. the Ombudsmen, their underfunding and potential to make flawed decisions or taking NO actions). The message is, do not rock the boat, challenge the high office holders, we are the elite club that keep an eye on YOU lot down there:

    https://nzsocialjusticeblog2013.wordpress.com/2016/09/05/the-new-zealand-ombudsman-underfunded-and-compromised-the-auditor-general-sees-no-need-for-action/

    https://nzsocialjusticeblog2013.wordpress.com/2016/07/24/the-new-zealand-ombudsman-fairness-for-all-an-empty-slogan-for-some/

  12. If anything, Metiria’s disclosures clearly illustrated several things;

    1. This was a rorschach test of the New Zealand Establishment psyche. And perhaps a sizeable chunk of the public, if responses during my Green Party door-knocking are to be any indication.

    2. Honesty is not rewarded in politicians. It is used as a blunt instrument to beat them until they are forced from office. No other politicians who values his/her career will ever disclose any wrong-doing on their part. Ever.

    On the other hand, artful duplicity – as shown by our previous Prime Minister – is rewarded with career enhancement; accolades; re-election; and as a cherry-on-top, a Knighthood.

    3. There is good reason why successive Reader’s Digest Polls rate journalists at the same level as politicians, car-salesmen, and prostitutes. (Though the Ratings List is unfair to prostitutes.) It was bad enough when David Cunliffe was smeared by TV3 and the NZ Herald over the Donghua Liu Affair – but the witch-hunt against Ms Turei plumbed new depths of vileness from the mainstream media (with one or two courageous exceptions).

    Never before have I been so ashamed to be a New Zealander when this muck-raking destroyed a woman’s career for something she did twenty-five years ago out of sheer necessity.

    And all for a warped sense of sanctimonious moralism from so-called journos racing to be the first to claim a political ‘scalp’ and label it “Breaking News”.

  13. Ovicula says:

    “True, lying about ones living situation to Social Welfare and misleading the electoral authorities about ones voting address is not to be condoned.”

    Why not? In any case, did she actually lie, or just not tell DSW every time her circumstances changed a little? I condone what Metiria did. She raised her baby. She got away from dependence on a benefit.
    I do not condone a Labour government that had 9 years to increase Ruth Richardson’s benefit levels to something liveable and failed to do so. Being anti-nuclear hid a multitude of sins and I have a feeling that the present Labour lot will use climate change to do the same.
    As for the electoral thing, so bloody what? She did it to vote for a joke candidate, just like anyone who registers in Epsom does.

    • Susan St John says:

      Yes indeed- can we please stop talking about her as doing benefit fraud– disputed overpayments is more accurate. Benefit fraud is when some one gets benefits in multiple names or may be has a fulltime job and gets the benefit.

      If she had a some “over-payment” according to the rule book to survive would we have preferred she went under instead?
      It is one of the ugliest times in NZ politics and any of those self righteous men could have had a mother who did the same to protect then

      • HC says:

        I think the issue is with Metiria not having fulfilled her obligation to report a change of circumstances, which includes the number of persons she may have shared accommodation with. This ‘fraud’ talk is though over the top. Many people struggle to keep up with telling DSW or now WINZ about all their particular weekly or monthly changes, as life on the benefit is not easy. Also, what difference does it make, having someone else move in temporarily as boarder or flatmate, and likely to move on again shortly, when reporting each move may over stress the WINZ staffers with their already high workload?

        It seems we have an incidence where a mountain is being made out of a mole hill, for political purposes.

  14. Priss says:

    +1

    I agree, Frank. Talkinfg to friends and family, I tell them that Metiria’s so called fraud pales besides the billions in deliberate tax evasion. Or “cashie” jobs under the table. Then I hear the excuses start flowing!!

    This was never about morality. It was always about naked hypocrisy and our societal willingness to engage in double standards.

  15. Marc says:

    Sorry, have much more ammo, but cannot divulge, Kiwis lack competence