Sometimes “The Law Is An Ass”

One of the most persistent cries this week – from even nice, well meaning people – has been, “the law is the law, you’ve got to obey the law.” But sometimes, to quote Charles Dickens, ”the law is an ass”.

The rule of law is important, but not an end in itself. Laws are supposed to serve the people. Not vice versa. Good law empowers everyone. Good law does not oppress anyone.

Laws are a product of society at a snapshot in time, more particularly the dominant sector of that society. There are plenty of laws that are or were designed to protect the interests of that dominant sector at the expense of other sectors of society.

Some laws are good laws. They aim to protect us all, such as the laws to prevent people from deliberately injuring one another. However, even those laws haven’t always protected everyone. It was legal for men to rape their wives in New Zealand until 1985.

There are laws that are probably good laws in some circumstances but which nobody obeys all of the time, such as jaywalking – crossing the road within 20 metres of a fixed crossing, or crossing at a red light. There is no qualifying statement in the legislation that says it is ok to cross if there is no traffic, but most of us do.

And there are some laws that are simply oppressive and unfair and reflect only the prejudices of the dominant sector of society at the time. Laws such as the law that restricted voting rights to Pakeha male property owners, and laws against homosexuality and abortion. Divorce law dictated originally that divorce was only available on the grounds of adultery by the wife, and adultery by the husband if accompanied by certain aggravating circumstances.

As social attitudes change, laws change and attitudes to people who broke past laws also change. In Gore, there is a museum funded by the district council that celebrates the people who broke the prohibition laws in force at the time by illegally brewing whiskey (Hokonui Moonshine); though many women supported prohibition at the time, as a means to control alcohol-fuelled family violence in the absence of laws to protect women and children in the home. This year the government rightly issued an apology to those convicted of homosexual activities, even though they were breaking the law at the time.

It is arguable that change only comes about when enough people break a particularly oppressive law. Witness the lowering of the drinking age and the voting age from 21yrs to 20 to 18yrs, and same-sex marriage. Medical marijuana is on its way to becoming legal because so many people were using it anyway. Decriminalizing cannabis is not far away either for the same reasons.

Not providing a liveable income is a violation of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, the nearest thing we have to a set of global laws, and to which New Zealand is a signatory. Yet in 1991 the government of the day violated the UN Declaration by slashing benefits to below a liveable income and introducing market rents to state houses.

This deliberate violation of a global agreement has yet to be rectified. And that is what Metiria Turei, former Green Party co-leader, was trying to do. We owe Metiria a debt of gratitude for exposing a law that is an ass, a law that dictates that solo parents must agree to live a life of solitary celibacy if they wish to receive even a modicum of support from the government. And for exposing the real lawbreakers – successive governments who refuse to adhere to the UN Declaration and restore benefits to a level that provides a liveable income for those who are not in a position to undertake paid work.

What Metiria did twenty years ago didn’t bother the Law Society. Why should it bother anyone else? If we are not prepared to raise benefits to a liveable level we should expect that people do what it takes to put food on the table and a roof over their heads. And we should refrain from judging them if they do not bare their souls when government officials pry into their private lives.

Most of us would steal food if it were the only way to feed our children. Most of us would lie if it were the only way to keep a roof over our children’s heads. The thing that should be illegal in this case is not what people do to survive, but people not having a liveable income in the first place.

Metiria Turei should be looking forward to taking the Social Development portfolio, not leaving parliament after the elections. It is a travesty that people see fit to ignore the important message she gave, using her own lived experience as an example – too many New Zealanders are living below the poverty line because our benefits are too low. And benefits need to be raised to a liveable level. Metiria would have fought to make it so.

Sadly there are still too many in New Zealand who would be more at home in Victorian England. People who are happy to ignore the UN Declaration of Human Rights. People who think that poverty is a lifestyle choice. People who think that beneficiaries should be grateful for whatever scraps the government of the day chooses to throw them with whatever draconian conditions are attached.

Metiria told us different, but unwilling to accept the message, we shot the messenger. This is New Zealand in 2017, not Victorian England. Metiria may have been hounded out of parliament, but there are others of us who think the way that she does. This conversation is not over.

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