Turei sacrifices ambitions while Ardern seeks rejuvenation

Greens co-leader Metiria Turei speaks to media after announcing she will not seek a ministerial position in a Labour-Green government. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

At the end of a long week in politics, the position of the two major parties on the left has almost flipped. With Metiria Turei ruling out a Cabinet position and Jacinda Ardern relaunching Labour’s campaign, a U-turn in the polls may be on the way. Sam Sachdeva reports.

So close, yet so far away.

With the Beehive visible over her shoulder, Metiria Turei announced she would not take up a ministerial role in a Labour-Green government.

“I have been building a movement for compassionate welfare and for ending poverty in New Zealand, and I’ve been doing that work for more than 20 years.

“That work is more important than any one person,” she said.

While the Greens co-leader ignored calls for her to resign as an MP, her announcement showed how the decision to reveal her past mistakes had curdled into something more toxic than she had anticipated.

Speaking at the party’s annual conference in mid-July, she revealed a new welfare policy by revealing she had not told WINZ about some of her flatmates while living as a solo mother on the benefit.

The speech sparked a wave of support from others who had been in similar situations, using the hashtag #IamMetiria - a development Turei said she was still proud of.

“What’s it opened up most is stories by beneficiaries past and present about what their life is really like...I don’t regret that, that is the conversation we need to be having.”

Yet as she acknowledged, that conversation also came at a cost: critics attacked her for committing fraud and misleading the public, while the Ministry of Social Development contacted her about her admission.

“Change always comes at a price, and I knew that when I first told my story, and today that price has been paid.”

Initially, the Greens stood steadfast by Turei’s position, praising her candour and suggesting the public would appreciate her willingness to speak out about the rotten state of the system.

The party’s MPs seemed vindicated by One News-Colmar Brunton poll last Sunday, showing the Greens had leapt up to 15 per cent: co-leader James Shaw shared a GIF online proclaiming, “We got momentum baby!”

Pressure on from Labour

That triumphalism seemed to ignore the fact the party’s rise had come at the expense of Labour - their necessary partner in any government.

Before stepping down as leader, Andrew Little cited the fallout from Turei’s confession - and the oxygen it had consumed within the media - as one of the reasons for Labour’s slump in the polls.

There was already unease amongst some Labour MPs about the memorandum of understanding with the Greens and its effect on them, with Stuart Nash suggesting the parties would “go in different ways” as the election came closer.

The controversy was given new momentum by a Newshub story on Thursday night, revealing Turei had registered at an address where she did not live in order to vote for a friend, and that she had lived with her mother while on the benefit.

The new facts were not in and of themselves devastating, but the perception of more fraud and more information being withheld from the public was undoubtedly damaging.

Labour’s new deputy leader Kelvin Davis didn’t hold back the next morning, telling Newstalk ZB the issue was hurting the Greens and possibly his own party.

"If you're going to open up your personal life like that as a politician you've got to be upfront with everything, not just be selective."

That concern was made explicit when Labour officials told their Green counterparts Ardern would not have supported Turei holding a ministerial role - a position the Labour leader confirmed later at the campaign “relaunch”.

Turei insisted the decision was hers alone, but acknowledged: “I’m offering this to them because I understand their position.”

Some on the left have already attacked Ardern’s decision as a betrayal, but she and her team will have calculated it was necessary to reassure centrist voters considering a return to Labour.

Issue not extinguished

So where does this leave Labour and the Greens?

Turei’s announcement will dampen down criticism and calls for her resignation, but the issue is far from extinguished.

With discussions still underway with MSD officials over her benefit fraud, the question of whether she will face criminal charges - and whether they could force her to resign - is still up in the air.

If the Greens do become part of the next government, having a co-leader sitting on the outside of Cabinet looking in will be a difficult position, not least for Turei.

She insisted she felt comfortable in her position as co-leader, but the Greens membership may well take a look at their options when the next conference rolls around.

In the short term, Labour seems set to reclaim some of the voters who have looked left to the Greens.

If (and it is a big if) Ardern starts to steer the party back towards its level of support under Helen Clark, Turei and co may have more significant reason to be worried.

The Greens’ ascent into double figures since 2008 has come on the back of Labour falling below 30 per cent - a return to the days when the party polled just over the five per cent threshold, while unlikely, would put some of its shining stars like Chloe Swarbrick and Golriz Ghahraman at risk.

But in the short term, the biggest loss has been suffered by Turei herself.

“I had my heart set” on being Social Development Minister, she said, but now she will have to settle for a smaller role in a government that could reform what she sees as a broken system.

As for Labour, it’s onwards and upwards: Ardern’s ascent has come with a new campaign slogan, “Let’s Do This”.

An improvement on “A fresh approach”, certainly, but as National’s Steven Joyce noted, it seems a motto aimed more at motivating those within the party than the voting public.

With new announcements on infrastructure and the environment next week, along with the hiring of Clark’s former press secretary Mike Munro, Ardern and her team will be hoping both they and the Greens can clean the slate and clear the way for a viable left-wing government after September 23.