Metiria Turei’s confession last week — that she lied when she was on the DPB in the 1990s so her benefit wouldn't be cut — prompted many people to share their own stories on Twitter, under the hashtag #IamMetiria. We asked one of them to tell her story here. She asked to remain anonymous for her mother’s sake.
Our dad was an alcoholic, a child abuser, a problem gambler and mentally unwell. He could never hold down a job. He was prejudiced and rude to random people as well as ones he knew. He had no friends. As dads go, we joke about how we got a real shit one.
Mum was like a lot of Pacific Islanders who’d come to New Zealand looking for a better life. She worked nightshifts cleaning offices and would arrive home in time to send us all to school. During the day she’d look after my baby brother and make sure he went to playcentre and kindy. She’d get tea ready, do the housework and do voluntary work for the church. She sewed most of our clothes. Once she even made our raincoats. Looking back now I realise she hardly slept.
Dad was rarely around, and when he was, I’d lock the bedroom door. Our doors had the handles taken out but I could open them with forks and butter knives. Drunks can’t work these intricate contraptions very well.
Once, the police knocked on the door late at night and I answered it. There he was, pants around his ankles. Drunk. Post-vomit.
“Hello, little girl. This man says he lives here.”
I lied and shook my head and said I didn’t know who the man was. I remember laughing to myself as I heard him screaming as they put him back into the police car. I never told anyone about that.
When I got to make a wish on my birthday I’d wish he’d leave us alone. When he finally did, we moved to a new suburb where we knew no one. Dad found out where we were and used to hang around the streets. Once I threw a rock at him as if he were a stray dog.
This is how women and children end up on the DPB. Or at least, it’s how we did.
We were always just making ends meet. We’d sit in the lounge cuddling up together on the couch with blankets watching Ready to Roll and the Saturday Night Movie. Our rooms were freezing but there was always a hot water bottle waiting for us in bed. We went to church every Sunday and came home to a special meal, usually a roast chicken.
Mum taught us about social justice, fairness and racism. As kids she took us on the Springbok Tour protest marches and the Homosexual Law Reform Bill marches. During the Springbok Tour, after working through the night, she would join the anti-tour protesters. My daughter was looking at old family photos recently and asked who the skinny man was — and I realised it was a guy from Mum’s church who was dying from Aids and had nowhere to go at Christmas.
The supermarket was a place where we knew to never ask for anything. We rarely had treats. Lollies and Jellytips were bought by kind and generous relations, but never Mum who was always careful with money. Years later I realised my mum never ever bought herself sanitary pads or tampons.
For a while she did work under the table by taking in washing. It was a godsend. I ended up hating ironing. My five-year-old once came home and told me that his teacher had said he was a fibber for saying he didn’t think he’d ever seen me do ironing.
As soon as my youngest brother was old enough, my mum enrolled in tertiary study. She’d take several buses across town, leaving home at 6am. I’d help get the kids to school and then I’d go to school.
Education and excelling at education was always paramount. One year I won a scholarship but had to pay my return airfare overseas so the school told me that I needed to “hide it from my poor mother as she had enough on her plate”.
But I couldn’t lie, and after I told her, Mum went to the loan sharks. She paid my fare in $20 notes.
She stopped talking about how wonderful my school was after that. I used to think she never came to the school prizegivings but she told me years later that she’d hide out the back. I was always going up for prizes and none of the children of her friends or relations were going up so she didn’t want to seem like we were show-offs.
Over the years my mum graduated with three degrees. As a pensioner we thought she’d take a bit of a rest but she headed overseas, solo, to volunteer with children in a developing and impoverished nation. Now she’s nearing 80 and still volunteering in her community most days of the week.
She’s still my biggest superfan and I am hers. We annoy the hell out of each other, but as the eldest child of a sole parent this is kind of par for the course.
Mum’s kids have several degrees. Her walls are covered with our certificates from college through to university. She calls them her masterpieces. Now she gently prods her grandchildren, and they are also academic achievers like their grandma.
All four of her children work and pay taxes. We all volunteer in our communities. We coach sports teams. We raise money for charity. We are law-abiding New Zealanders who give back to our country.
After Metiria Turei spoke out about what she did to survive on the DPB, the howls of outrage from some people took me back to when we were doing the same kind of thing.
I reckon that whatever some people think we’ve taken from this country, we have given back tenfold. To be perfectly honest, people who want us to pay back whatever pittance our mum made doing someone else’s washing, should first go and ask every multimillion-dollar fraudster to pay back what they took.
Start with South Canterbury Finance: I think that $1.6 billion is a bit more than we got paid to do people’s dirty washing.