“That’ll be the Maori in him,” said the (white) grandparents of the two-year-old at the café table next to mine, when he spilt his fluffy. I was speechless, yet unsurprised: we live in a country where such casual racism is endemic, a country where the have-nots are made ‘other’ by the haves. A country where skin colour is a barometer of future success. Welcome to New Zealand, please set your clocks back 30 years.
Haerei Mai New Zealand, where the mainstream media have just hounded the only politician who spoke for the poor, the brown, the possessors of ovaries, into resignation. I’m the mainstream media, sort of, although whenever someone calls me a ‘journalist’ I always correct it to ‘writer’ because I think of journalists as the sort of people who go through other people’s rubbish bins – and as the Merchant Money Man says, I’m certainly not a middle-aged white guy like Hosking, Sainsbury, Gower or Garner, which is probably why I used to be on the DPB when I was at university and am therefore not inclined to throw stones. I struggled with writing this column because I didn’t want to get myself in trouble; which shows what a spineless jellyfish I am, me with nothing to lose, and how brave Metiria is, with everything. Avenge Metiria? Avenge us all, her DPB homies, scraping plates in the kitchen, eating the chips you didn’t finish.
The resignation of Metiria Tureia has highlighted a particularly loathsome school-yard-bully side to the New Zealand psyche. The privileged class attack applied to anyone already on the ground/living in their car/begging in the streets. The way she who says, ‘we must do better’ is quickly finished. We aren’t very nice people, New Zealanders, despite our inadvertently hilarious behaviour involving spaghetti and pineapple pizzas. Metiria’s biggest mistake was not being a drink-driving All Black or a broadcaster who kicked his partner down the stairs but a woman speaking up for the disenfranchised. All this in a country whose finest moment was establishment of the social security act in 1938. The poor might always be with us, but don’t you dare wave a brown finger at the establishment and accuse them of failing them.
During my university days, if I hadn’t had a flatmate who sprung for groceries every now and then my daughter and I would have been much worse off (and did often go hungry), despite enjoying brilliant support from both sets of grandparents, without who’s non-monetary succour I couldn’t have attended classes or worked as waitress in the evenings at Cobb and Co. I got by, in my op shop finery and home-dyed hair. I got by, in a half-life where Easter was a nightmare: everything closed, no money. Holidays were for other people. Every couple of months, an unavoidable expense (like electricity, or a doctors’ bill – if there was an anti-diluvium, archaic disease you’d imagined eradicated in Victorian times, Scarlet fever, for example, then Sophia would get it) meant I’d have to make an appointment to see my case manager at Social Welfare, a gangly bespectacled man on the ginger spectrum, beg for additional funds or a food voucher, and promise it would never ever happen again. Which was a lie.
“Where’s the Daddy?” I was once heckled outside the library, by a bunch of teenagers, pushing a pram containing the light of my life and reason for nights spent awake worrying. Not only stressful, its humiliating, poverty; you are made to feel lesser, on the scrounge, just for trying to provide for yours what everyone else’s children have. Having the audacity to parent without a husband: “You’re the one who left, I’m not going to pay for nappies,” you’re a moustache-riding Jezebel, sucking on the sweet honeyed tit of tax-payer-benevolence, having baby after baby just to pay for your ciggies.
If you’re on a benefit you are criminalised, made morally questionable – judged by the well-housed and well-fed before you even have a chance to defend yourself, or get out of the box they’ve put you in. I’ve no doubt carrying this dark umbrella affected me: I suffered from a monstrous eating disorder and once shaved all my hair off in what in retrospect wasn’t freedom of expression at its finest, but a bout of debilitating depression. Ironically, growing up poor can often make wonderful humans. The children of the poor, if they stay out of jail or a coffin, are resourceful, tolerant and compassionate. Unlike the children of the rich, especially if they work in the media.