Speaking to Jessica Mutch, Ms Turei said she was facing significant hardship when she claimed extra welfare money.
“I had a tiny little baby. My job was to take care of her 100 per cent. She had nobody else. She had me to rely on, and that was my job. And I had to be the best mum I could for this little baby,” she said.
“I also knew that the only way out of welfare was to get an education. I have no school degrees. So I had to get a degree, and I had to get a good one so that I knew we would be independent and okay for the rest of our lives. I had to do it as quickly as I could, so I went to law school. And it was incredibly hard work, but my two priorities were taking care of her and getting my degree as quickly as possible.”
The government has confirmed a WINZ investigation into the matter is under way.
Ms Turei says she is unsure how much money is at the centre of the investigation but she believed it would be between 20 and 50 dollars a week, possibly over a three year period but she had lived in five different flats during that period.
“They were the choices I had. I took care of my baby, I got my degree, we got out of welfare. I think I made the right decision at the time.”
She said she is willing to co-operate with authorities and will pay all money owed back.
She decided to tell her story after hearing a story of a solo mother committing suicide after being incorrectly accused by WINZ of fraud.
Absolutely, and I think what we want in government is people who understand what real life is like. And I’ve told my story this week, and the response– you know there’s been lots of criticism, but there has been overwhelming support for having spoken out about what it’s really like to live on a benefit. Beneficiaries are fighting back. They’re telling their own stories. They’re supporting each other. They’re saying, ‘We can have a more compassionate system that takes better care of us and our kids,’ and that’s what we want. That’s what I want to create.
As minister, though, would you prosecute people who committed fraud?
I would change the system so that it is much less likely and certainly never necessary for anyone to tell lies to WINZ or to commit fraud. We do that first, and we change the culture. We make sure people are getting liveable incomes so they don’t have to do work under the table or any of those things. And then, if there’s major issues, we can deal with that. But we have to fix the system that has been so badly damaged.
What message does it send, though, if you as minister didn’t listen to the rules?
People will criticise me, and some people won’t think that I’m suitable for the role. I understand that. But the most important thing is that nobody is in a situation where they have to make these kinds of choices that I have to make. And I have heard, this whole week, people telling stories in public and to me personally about it. You’ve just had a conversation about suicide. The reason that led me to tell my story was because a solo mother committed suicide after getting a letter from WINZ saying that she was guilty of fraud. And that was proven to be wrong, but her kids are still suffering for that. Her family is still suffering. This is not an intellectual exercise about the budget or about the rules. It’s about people’s lives, and we have to do something about it.
But given that, you are still trying to be a minister in the next government. Does that affect your credibility and your suitability for that job?
No, I think what it means is that we would have a minister who knows what it’s like, a minister who’s prepared to be upfront about what it’s really like and who wants to fix it. And I’m asking the country – please help me and the poverty that drives people to this despair. Some of them are committing crimes because they don’t have enough money. Some people are committing suicide because they don’t have enough to survive on. They are in despair, and we can fix it, but we have to change the government first.
What about the timing of this announcement? We’re nine weeks out from an election. Why wait till now if it wasn’t to clear the deck so you can be a minister?
It had nothing to do with that. I was reading about the women who had been jailed and the woman who had committed suicide. And I thought, ‘Somebody has got to crack this open.’ No, we have not had a proper conversation about how damaged the welfare system is and how it drives people to despair and what that means for their families, and we have to, because unless we do, we will not fix it. So I want to fix it. I do not want anyone to be in that situation.
But you’ve had 15 years to have this conversation.
Yeah, I have. And nobody ever wants to confess their wrongdoing. Nobody ever does.
So why now?
Because it creates this conversation about the broken system we have, the damaged system we have and the drive to fix it. People have got to understand that children’s lives are impacted every day from a system that keeps their families in poverty. Their parents are under terrible stress that drives them to do terrible things, and we have to stop that. And we can. The thing is we can stop it if we change the government and we have people there who understand what it’s like and who are driven to fix the system.
Do you feel, though, that your story, sharing your personal story, has overshadowed the policy that you announced on Sunday, perhaps not giving you as much airtime on it as you would have if you hadn’t said that?
No, I think the first thing to do was to talk about the stories and the reality of living on a benefit so people understand, and that’s what’s happened. There has been a huge social media response, but also, I’m getting a huge number of emails and talking to people on the street, actually, as I’ve been travelling around. I met a woman this week on my way south. Her flatmate is a young mother on the benefit with a little baby who’s studying and who did exactly what I was doing when I was 23.
So what’s your advice to her, then?
I’m never going to condemn her for making the choices that she made.
But doesn’t that make it really hard for you to take on a ministerial position?
No, it actually means that a new minister of social development will fix the system so she doesn’t have to do that, because it gives her decent income.
What happens in a fraud case, though? Because what happens if there’s a fraud case and they call the social development minister as a witness? Doesn’t this put you in a really difficult position?
It may well. It may well in the future. And there’ll be an investigation, and I will pay the money, as I’ve said I will do.
So update us on that. Where are you at with that?
Well, as I understand it from Anne Tolley, her public comments, there is an investigation under way, and they’ll get hold of me when they need to speak with me when they’ve looked at it.
Have they contacted you?
Not yet, but I am expecting them to do so. But look, the thing is—
But I want to just get these details first. In terms of the amount, what are we talking about here?
I really, genuinely don’t have any idea.
You must have done a back-of-the-envelope calculation, though.
It’ll be something like between $20 and $50 a week, depending on—
For three years?
Well, it depends. I don’t even know the period of time, because it was three flats over the five flats that I was living in.
We’re talking about under $10,000, though?
Well, I really don’t know. And I won’t know until WINZ does the investigation and looks at the overpayment. They’ve talked to me, and I’ve given them the information I’ve got.
Because the taxpayer union have said $57,000.
I know, I know. But that’s them, and they do their thing. Whatever the amount is, of course I will pay it. And I will talk with them and work with them on the investigation. But my point here, the reason why I went public with this – at enormous risk, and I understand that – is because there’s just no reason why we should have a system that forces that on anybody. And the fact is it still is. There are still people who are doing what I did because they have no choice, and I can fix that if we can change the government.
Looking at you now, this has obviously had a big impact on you. Has it been something that has been weighing on your mind over the last 15 years? Have you thought about it? You’ve delivered nine other leader’s speeches. Did you think about it during that time?
No. I mean, I’ve talked quite a lot about my life on the benefit, and when I have, I think about what it was like then.
So what was it like then? Tell us about what kind of decisions you were having to make.
Well, it was just… You know, I had a tiny little baby. My job was to take care of her 100%. She had nobody else. She had me to rely on, and that was my job. And I had to be the best mum I could for this little baby. I also knew that the only way out of welfare was to get an education. I have no school degrees. So I had to get a degree, and I had to get a good one so that I knew we would be independent and okay for the rest of our lives. I had to do it as quickly as I could, so I went to law school. And it was incredibly hard work, but my two priorities were taking care of her and getting my degree as quickly as possible.
How poor were you?
As poor as anybody is when you’re in that situation.
What kind of choices were you having to make? Was it nappies or food on the table you’re talking about?
It’s all of those things you are talking about. Child care, the cost of study, the cost of getting to study and getting baby to child care, the rent, the power, the phone, food, doctor’s visits, clothing. I mean, you know, it’s just life, life costs. And people are making very difficult decisions when they have an income that keeps them below the poverty line. Remember, this was just after the 1991 cuts. Benefits were cut. They were taken to the point where they were the lowest possible to survive on, and then they were cut 25%. So there was a whole generation of women just like me who had babies then and were reliant on the benefit who were just living in the most terrible poverty and making really hard decisions. They are telling me their stories. Their kids – I’m meeting their kids as I travel around, and they are saying, ‘My mum was on a benefit. I’m 25 now. I’ve got this job and I’m doing this stuff, but thank you for speaking out on behalf of my mum because she was in the same situation.’
Critics are saying that you shared this information because it gives you currency when you’re campaigning.
I know, I know.
What do you say to that, then, if that’s not the case?
My job is to serve the people who need a representative that understands their life. That’s what I do for a living. The people who need me most, to serve their interests most, are those who are the most poor. They’re the 20,000 Aucklanders who are homeless. They’re the people who are smoking synthetic drugs and dying on the street because they have no other options. They’re the solo mums who are having to do under-the-table jobs to keep their heads above water. I have a duty to them to do everything I can to change the system. This is my best chance in 15 years to fix it, so I have to put everything into it.
It is your best chance, as you say, and you also talked about it being a huge political risk.
How much did you weigh this up, and a week on, where do you think you stand now with it?
I knew the risk I was taking with the investigation. I knew that there would be severe criticism. I had no idea there would be the level of support. Like, that has been completely overwhelming. In terms of would I do it again? Yes. Yes, I would say this again, and I would create this conversation, and I would take this again because for the first time in two decades, we are having a deep conversation in this country about poverty-
With Paula Bennett as well. What did you make of her comments on this?
Well, she is taking her political position. I mean-
Were you surprised at the way she probably took a slightly more softer approach than perhaps on another topic?
She knows what it’s like to live on a benefit. She has her own story and her own life. I mean, I’m not going to judge her for that. I judge her for what she did as minister, because what she did when she was minister is she made it worse. Much, much worse.
Do you regret doing what you did? Do you feel embarrassed about it?
I know that the right political response is to say yes, but it would be wrong for me to do so. I’m not going to condemn anyone who is making the same decisions now that I had to make then, and so, no, I don’t.
You would do it again?
They were the choices I had. I took care of my baby, I got my degree, we got out of welfare. I think I made the right decision at the time.
Has your political gamble paid off, do you think?
I don’t know. There are still many more consequences to come, I’m sure. And there is still a long conversation to be had with the country about what this means for me personally, but, most importantly, how we fix a broken welfare system that has been so badly damaged, that we have this severe poverty, that we have suicide as a result of it. I mean, this is a suicide case that led to this. We have homelessness at record-high levels. This is the result of a safety net that has been torn to shreds that we have to fix.
If this admission takes a ministerial portfolio off the table for you, will it still have been worth it?
Yes. If I can make the change to the system, if we can get into government and fix it, yeah, it’s a sacrifice. That’s a fair sacrifice.
We’ll have to leave it there. Thank you very much for your time this morning. Really appreciate it.