Trigger warning for content which includes sexual assault and suicide
New Zealand’s General Election result of 2017 was incredibly close and we actually do not know who has won, just yet. But already my Facebook and Twitter feeds are filled with updates from leftie friends, comrades, and activists declaring “Three more years of poverty, despair and crippling economic insecurity.”
And yeah, I get it; whichever way the ballot box falls, it is hard to grasp why so many people voted again for the National Government which has presided over record levels of homelessness, wealth inequality, and suicide rates. As someone who advocates for those on welfare and for some of our lowest paid workers within the hospitality industry, I see first-hand the impacts of this National government’s values and policies on our poorest citizens. I too, am pretty pissed off that we are quite possibly staring down the barrel of a gun of another three years of a National government.
But … right now, today … this week, I am not feeling defeated or discouraged over this election result, especially given that the last election was a landslide victory to the right. The National party government’s convincing win in 2014 was so complete that at the time it felt utterly crushing for so many of us on the left: “Could be worse”, as they say. It got worse. But now, I am actually – at long last – feeling hopeful again, and I understand that might sound really naive to some of you. But just bear with me and give me a chance to explain why my hope hasn’t been totally annihilated by the 2017 election result, thus far.
This hope I am holding on to comes from everything I’ve been through and survived in the past year, and as such, how I perceive a win: my definition of a victory, both politically and personally in life, has changed drastically over the last few months. I’ve got this new fire burning in my belly which has been ignited by the many injustices my mates and I have survived over the last year.
Defining a win for this election cycle, for me, is about recognising progress and acknowledging where we were as a country only eight weeks ago. Politically, New Zealand was looking at a failing opposition and a guaranteed National government. Personally, only eight weeks ago, I was in Puna Whakataa, a respite community house for people dealing with addiction. I fully recommend you not attempt to drink wine like it is water, it doesn’t end well.
This was sparked by many events. Some are personal and some political including the following: being fired from a job simply for speaking out about the exploitation of new migrant workers within that workplace (shout-out to the National government for shitting all over workers’ rights including through 90 day trials); being sexually assaulted, which left me reeling and feeling broken; my mum finding out she had cancer; and one of my best friends passing away suddenly. Context matters, and my context is: I’ve already survived so much, and it hasn’t killed me; I am still standing.
More than anything, it was being sexually assaulted which led me to using alcohol to numb emotions for which I had no coping skills. I tried to get help through the public mental health system but the waitlists were massive, the hoops and different organisations I had to call felt overwhelming, and it just seemed easier to medicate with booze to temporarily anesthetize my pain. National have woefully underfunded services that support those who have been raped or assaulted, and as Radio New Zealand reports, there are month-long delays.
It isn’t just Rape Crisis supporters who are struggling to keep up with the overwhelming numbers of people who need help. All our mental health service funding has been cut to the bone under the National Government. I spoke to a mental health worker who wanted to remain anonymous, who said to me, “We are dangerously underfunded, understaffed, and our working conditions are appalling. Most of us are on burnout and are looking to leave.” Those of us seeking support are often left to find other ways to cope and manage. Given you are 70% more likely to use drugs and alcohol if you have survived sexual assault and/or rape, falling headlong into addiction isn’t exactly inevitable but it is probable at least, for some of us.
It is safe to say I become part of that 70% statistic and attempted to drink myself to death, until, finally, exhausted, I reached out for help, again. I learnt of a peer support focused addiction and recovery service called Mahi Marumaru which is out in South Auckland, near where I live. It took a few months to get a support worker but I hang in there, and eventually I was connected with a peer worker named Jamie, who has been amazing. She suggested I have a break from everything and go into Puna Whakataa, a short-term respite community for addiction recovery, so I could rest and start healing.
There was absolutely no waitlist for this respite (keeping in mind I already had to wait for months to access a peer support worker), likely because Puna is funded by the south Auckland DHB and The Salvation Army, once again a charity doing the work of what the government should be doing. It was, in part, founded by Peer Support workers who come from lived experience with addiction who realise having to wait for a bed can mean the difference between living or dying.
I spent two weeks there, in which I learned a lot about addiction, myself, and how the best models of addiction and recovery are based on aroha and compassion. I had access to 24/7 counseling and support and for the first time in my life I was being taught the tools I needed to cope with all the pain and trauma I was living with. I walked out of Puna feeling stronger, and as if maybe the possibility really does exist that I could get my life back again.
I have not stopped drinking completely, but I am certainly no longer drinking in the mornings, and I am certainly not drinking everyday; for the first time in a long time I have moments of joy where I feel happy, and where all this hurt does not feel so huge and heavy.
Perhaps, for many people, having to go into respite and needing to admit you have a serious problem with alcohol would not be classified as a “win” in life. But for me, it is a win to be able to say: “I am not drinking in the mornings anymore, I have a bit of hope for my future, and I am slowly but surely gaining my life back”. In fact, being able to say this isn’t just a win for me, but also it is life-affirming: not everyone who becomes addicted to a substance makes it out alive.
I know this because while in Puna, a person who was meant to be admitted to a bed did not make it. They passed away from complications with alcohol before they could even walk through the front door. In this context it feels like a monumental victory right now for me to say “I am getting there. I am still here in this world”.
The knowledge that I can survive so much heartache during a short time has given me a new perspective on my life, and by extension my political awareness, and even how I perceive what a political and social win can, should, and does, look like. It reminds me that whether we have a Labour or National government, it will not change my resolve to fight as long and hard as I can for a gentler and more compassionate country. And by extension communities that are nuanced enough to recognize the impacts of what historical and contemporary racism, sexism, and classism have done to our people.
At the very start of this piece of writing, I pointed out we now have one of the highest suicide rates in the OECD. While politicians bicker about what is or isn’t economically possible when it comes to funding crucial health and support services, people are dying. Between June of this year and last, our suicide statistics rose to a staggering 606 people. This number disproportionately affects our Māori and Pasifika people and our young men. When inequality becomes so overwhelming, so huge and so clearly entrenched within our communities, people’s mental health will always deteriorate. The final, irreversible, and desperate consequence of this deterioration is death by suicide.
I would like to add two more people to this statistic of 606 people: during the lead up to the General Election, two of my friends committed suicide. This year has, truly, been appalling and shattering for myself, my friends, and our extended communities. They were both young women in their early twenties, and both had struggled with mental health issues for a long time. One of these young woman had spent a long time battling the punitive and humiliating WINZ (Work and Income New Zealand) state system, and often told me how WINZ contributed to her despair and depression.
Notably, mental health was a leading campaign issue for most major and minor parties, with Labour leader Jacinda Ardern speaking emotionally about her own experiences losing a friend to suicide and has pledged to a target of zero suicides, and has vouched to, if elected, better fund mental health. Perhaps the most powerful act of solidarity for those suffering with mental health issues, however, came from then co-leader of the Green Party, Metiria Turei, who also, importantly and correctly, connected mental health with welfare and poverty.
In July of this year the Green Party launched their welfare policy which would see all benefits rise by 20% and accompanied by a roll back of the economic sanctions many face if not meeting their obligations under WINZ. Metiria spoke at the policy launch where she admitted she had committed welfare fraud in the early ‘90s as a young solo māori mum. She told everyone she did so as an act of survival to supplement her measly DPB (Dependant Parents Benefit) at the time. Metiria said,
“Like most people who receive a benefit, I was so careful about managing my money.
I’d go to the bank every fortnight on dole day. I’d withdraw all my money, in cash, then split it up into small amounts, wrapped up in rubber bands with little notes about what it was for.
I knew exactly how much I had for our bills, our rent, our food. But whatever way I split it, I still didn’t have enough to get by at the end of the week.”
In response to her confession she was subject to a relentless media beat down. Public benefit-bashing became a bloodsport in which spectators jeered at the sidelines and pundits with no lived experience of welfare threw the hardest and heaviest blows. Writer and activist Giovanni Tiso gave perhaps one of the most powerful rebuttals to the tirade of abuse and condemnation that was flung at Metiria and, by extension, anyone who is or has been on welfare:
“Far too often – while rightly worrying about the continued capacity of journalism to serve its democratic functions in spite of the decline of its business model – we forget that the fourth estate is just that: an estate, that is to say a seat of power, and that this power is implicated in everyday forms of social repression and in entrenching the dominant ideology. This is the ideology that reduces welfare recipients to occasional objects of pity, while systematically depriving them of any agency. Hence the outrage at the revelation that a young woman on the DPB – at a time when Māori unemployment in her age bracket was at near 40 per cent – should dare to be politically active. It is also the ideology that dictates that the lives of beneficiaries must be open to constant surveillance and monitoring, down to the most intimate details of their sexual and affective lives, and including the odious policy of ‘naming the father’.”
To add to what Giovanni so necessarily points out, what was barely noted in our media was that Metiria’s act was one of solidarity after the fact. She had been prompted to speak out about welfare and welfare fraud because she had read a story about a young woman who had taken her life after being accused of welfare fraud. As it turned out the accusation was false, but by the time the truth came out, the realization came too late to save the woman.
Let’s break this all down to its bare bones: Metiria was forced to stand-down because she dared defend the lives of those on welfare and in this case the life of a young woman wrongfully accused of a so called “welfare crime”. A “crime” which she had not even committed and who then, in response, took her own life and became part of our 606 people who have died by suicide, this year.
People are dying because the so-called State safety net no longer aims to catch those in struggle but instead strangles, criminalises and subjugates them. People are dying because there are not enough beds available fast enough in our mental health and addiction and recovery units and houses. And serious trauma survivors like me seem only able to access wrap around care and help, when we become desperate to the point of struggling through life or death situations. We are living in a country that punishes and seeks to further destroy those who are already in immense pain. You need to ask yourself: Is this the kind of country you want to live in?
I know few people who are not affected by suicide, poverty, or growing inequality, and all of these things affect us both on personal and societal levels. Just as recovering from personal tragedy takes many years, even with help and support, recovering and healing as a nation from all of this deep social pain, loss, and heartache will take rebuilding our communities and connecting on much deeper levels with one another.
We have institutionalised political and social systems founded upon the neoliberal belief that by increasing the pain of those in struggle, we can somehow improve their lives through a dose of “tough love”, an oxymoron if ever there was one. The thinking goes that we can bully and coerce the unemployed into finding jobs no matter how shitty, lowly paid, humiliating, and insecure they may be. We can shame and force those with addictions to pledge to abstinence or face criminalisation and social exclusion. We can demand that those in poverty somehow find individualised ways or strategies to crawl and dig their way out of structural poverty.
These approaches are the antithesis of empathy and aroha, the two things I was meet in spades with, inside Puna Whakataa. I believe these two powerful emotions of aroha and empathy could be a remedy to social harm, if turned into action; let us use the verb form of these words.
I believe aroha and empathy should be at the core of our political and social lives. Perhaps then, all of us who are struggling day-to-day with poverty, addiction, or any other hardship, could begin to etch out a decent economic living and a meaningful life filled with love, laughter, and light, instead of disenfranchisement, disconnection, and despair. Writer and activist Moana Jackson writes for e-tangata, “Perhaps amid all the current post-mortems about winning and losing the election, it may be timely to re-imagine what is ‘real’ and to reflect on what kind of a different reality might be created.”
Whatever government we are left with, it will take decades of compassionate mahi at a grassroots level to imagine and create counter-communities of connection and absolute solidarity; communities that cannot be fractured. Author and activist Max Harris writes for The Spinoff,
“But beyond September 23, we cannot let up on putting pressure on politicians to help to create something better. In my view, that “something better” is a politics grounded in care, community, and creativity – a politics underpinned, ultimately, by love. The structures of our politics in their current form don’t accommodate how people are doing politics or want to be done. We need to change that.”
One election, whichever way it may go, does not determine our futures or our lives absolutely. If the last eight weeks have taught me anything, it is that we already have a growing politics of “care, community, and creativity” — we always have, at least at a grassroots level. I experienced this in a community house called Puna Whakataa and our wider addiction and recovery whānau out South. Who treat people like me who have addiction issues as people in need of support and understanding, and not as loser junkies and alcoholics who should be in jail or publicly ridiculed. We all saw this with Metiria Turei speaking out and up for those on welfare and refusing to apologize for committing welfare fraud, in other words refusing to say sorry for just trying to survive and obtain a decent standard of living. It has long been noted: If the law is unjust the law must be broken.
Metiria acted from a place of care and aroha when she so publicly stood with The Welfare Class, and in doing so she ripped wide open the political space for thousands upon thousands of people to tweet, Truth to Power. Under the hashtag #IAmMetiria countless people, in response to her speaking out, told their stories of hardship and cruelty at the hands of WINZ, exposing a failed and brutal system that hurts more than it heals. Metiria also refused to “dob in” any sole mummas who confided in her that they too had committed welfare fraud as an act of survival. Metiria’s refusal to nark on those who trusted her with sensitive information is what I call solidarity.
You can’t break that kind of solidarity. It is absolute.
I’d assume Metiria would rather do jail time then ever break confidence with the women who confided their truths with her. Perhaps, for some, it will be hard to understand this level of loyalty… But, I do. You can’t undo a suicide. You can’t buy back values, principles or morals. Once they are gone. They are gone. After that you have to live with your decisions and choices.
On the back of #IAmMetira, the art and activist movement We Are Beneficiaries, sprang up on Twitter and then on Facebook and eventually even out on the streets. We Are Beneficiaries enlisted the help of artists to draw portraits or images that viscerally reflect the stories and words of those on benefits.
This is exactly how communities that cannot be fractured are born: through the sharing of our common stories, and then the citing of these stories as a form of public and political testimony, which gives shape to our daily lives, and the struggle against being forgotten. In the ardent words of journalist Sarah Kendzior,
“When wealth is passed off as merit, bad luck is seen as bad character. This is how ideologies justify punishing the poor. But poverty is neither a crime nor a character flaw. Stigmatise those who let people die, not those who struggle to live.”
During turbulent times it pays to remember those of us in the Working, Lower and Welfare Classes take out the majority of our population; we are the majority. We are the 99 percent. We are the ones we have been waiting for.
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