Last night’s Close Up and Campbell Live both debated Social Welfare Minister Paula Bennett’s decision to publish details of the benefits received by two women who have gone public with their criticisms of the government’s cuts to the Training Incentive Allowance. There are two issues here: Was it appropriate for a Minister of the Crown to publish personal details relating to the benefits paid to clients of her department without first seeking their permission or informing them of her intention? And did her action amount to a breach of the Privacy Act? Ms Bennett denies having breached the Privacy Act. According to this morning’s Herald, her denial is based on guidelines for ministers and departmental officials laid down by the Privacy Commission. One relates to any “authorisation” for the disclosure given by the individual, including “implicit” authorisation. This is clearly not the situation here. No such authorisation was given.
The other guideline seems to come closer to the mark:
“By releasing a large amount of personal information to the media the individual is taking the risk that unfavourable publicity could result. If the minister releases only information which is relevant to the issues raised by the individual, that person may not be able to claim that any particular harm was caused by the minister’s disclosure rather than by the individual’s own disclosure.”
The important words here are “relevant to the issues raised by the individual”.
Were the amounts currently being received in benefits by the two complainants relevant to their criticism of the Government’s intention to cut the Training Incentive Allowance? The answer to that question can only be ‘yes’ if it demonstrates that the cutting of the allowance will not unreasonably affect them, since their income from benefits is adequate or more than adequate to allow them to continue studying. But it would not be possible to answer that question without knowing everything about the women’s current financial obligations which in turn would necessitate delving into almost every aspect of their personal lives. That, the Minister herself told Mark Sainsbury, was unacceptable: “I don’t know every detail about them and so I shouldn’t.” Yet without the context of that detail, the material she chose to publish was meaningless and probably misleading.
For that reason alone, it should never have been made public. Concentration on whether the Minister breached privacy laws is, however, merely a distraction from the central issue here – abuse of power. Ms Bennett’s constant appeal to her own experience as a beneficiary completely misses the point that she is no longer a beneficiary, that she is now a Minister of the Crown, enjoying considerable influence over the lives of other less fortunate people and living a lifestyle which those people could barely imagine. At the nub of this issue is the imbalance of power between Ms Bennett and the two complainants. Her access to a huge publicity machine alone gives her enormous advantage over her critics. Beyond that, the powerful have an obligation to show restraint in their dealings with the less powerful, on occasion even when they are in the right. Politicians are quite properly expected to have thicker skins than private citizens.
This is in part because the effect of their words and actions on the private citizen will be so much greater than the effect of that citizen’s words on them. When an individual criticises a politician, particularly a Minister of the Crown, it is water off the politician’s back. When a politician, particularly a Minister of the Crown, publicly criticises an individual, the effect can be devastating. Sue Bradford commented on Close Up that Bennett’s handling of this affair reminded her of Rob Muldoon. The comparison was apt. Muldoon abused his power. He did so by dropping the full weight of his prime ministerial office on the head of anyone who criticised him, generally by attacking them personally. He was a bully, someone who uses his advantage in size, strength or power to overcome his opponent. Bennett is in the same mould. Like most bullies, faced with a stronger opponent, Bennett began not merely to back off but to attempt to recast her actions as support for the two women.
She wasn’t “beneficiary bashing” she told Mark Sainsbury. She wasn’t even “having a crack at them”. She “welcomed public debate”. She even admired the women who were “feisty and gutsy and good on them”. She took the same approach with John Campbell. Again accused of branding beneficiaries as “ungrateful bludgers”, she feigned righteous indignation: “I take umbrage on their behalf.” The sheer dishonestly of all of this beggars belief. Closer to the truth was her later observation to Sainsbury that her actions were intended as “a bit of a lesson for what happens if you go out there and put your story.” As Sue Bradford observed, this was and was intended to be “a dangerous message to beneficiaries”. In other words: “Pour encourager les autres!” My personal view is that Bennett is not fit to be a minister. She has neither the intelligence nor the judgement nor, it now seems, the compassionate restraint appropriate to her particular portfolio. That will not of course be the view of the nation’s talk-back callers who, in intellect and thoughtfulness, are her true constituency.