Brian Edwards Media

Why Paula Bennett Is Not Fit To Be A Minister

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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.

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50 Comments:

  1. One is reminded of Sarah Palin in so many ways.

  2. I’m very sure it was Annette King who used the Muldoon ‘bully’ example, not Sue Bradford.

    • I’m very sure it was Annette King who used the Muldoon ‘bully’ example, not Sue Bradford.

      You may well be right. I thought both had said it. It remains true nonetheless.

  3. Congratulations Brian. I believe we have a mirroring of what Thatcher gave to Britain. The electorate has delivered a government with a leader who does not appear to have the wit, experience or grounding to understand what Paula Bennett has done. He does not seem to have any notion of what is decent behaviour or protocol. And so, as in Britain, we have a rotten underbelly freely expressing itself (viz Herald Viewpoint columns).

    • Congratulations Brian. I believe we have a mirroring of what Thatcher gave to Britain.

      The Herald’s true colours always show through in the end. Interesting too how their impartial coverage of the child discipline legislation seems to be veering unerringly towards the populist ‘no’ vote.

  4. Brian

    “the powerful have an obligation to show restraint in their dealings with the less powerful”

    You sum it all up perfectly

  5. Thanks Brian for your analysis

    To me the actions of the Minister demonstrated the grisly underbelly of the “pappy state”.

    The Key sanctioned abuse of power was certainly served up as a “lesson” for other dissenters.

    The minister created reactive fodder for talk back fame and took the spotlight off the corporate criminals.

    The aim/effect of training incentive allowance cuts will be that women remain academically stunted amd their abilities confined to the domestic sphere

    • Thanks Brian for your analysis

      Yes. One could perhaps forgive an inexperienced minister for such an appalling lapse. But it is less easy to accept the Prime Minister giving his seal of approval to that lapse.

  6. Brian – if all these two ladies had done was complain about the droping of the support benefit, then I would agree (that no information should be reliased)
    BUT they had a lot of information on the Trademe forum page and a facebook page. Here they listed various aspects of their income and expenditure. One of them also has had a business startup loan (about $9k) which was used to get a car (which was written off – the car, dont know wbaout the loan). One of them also gives information that indicates very strongly that she has a partner living (or was living) with her while she was getting the benefit. The one on $700+ a week inplied that her income was somewhat under $500 a week.
    In the light of all this I think that not only did Bennet have a right, but also a duty, to release the correct information. I dont think Bennet said anything about the previous loan (for a business that hasnt gone anywhere) or anything about the live in partner. All bennet has done is correct the income details.

    Now also – I know there maybe reasons – but one of these women gets close to $50k a year (and like everyone else we all talk of pre tax pay or salary). The other one gets about $35K.
    School teachers and policemen get about the same starting salary as that – and thats the $35k one.
    They manage to pay their bills, do study and in many cases look after the children. It would be bloody hard, but they do it.

    These women get the benefit TO BRING UP THEIR KIDS, TO BE PARENTS, especially in the light of the fact that there is only 1 adult. It is not the aim of welfare to divert them from this function – it why the benefit exists.

    • Brian – if all these two ladies had done was complain about the droping of the support benefit, then I would agree (that no information should be reliased)

      That’s all very interesting, Barry, but the issue of imbalance of power remains. You may have seen on last night’s news that these women have been villified from one end of the country to the other. Bennett even had the good grace to regret the effect her revelations had caused. As it turned out, my comment that when a minister attacked a private individual the effect could be devastating, was entirely correct.

  7. Brian – just released in the Herald (which I know you are reluctant to read so Ill copy it below)

    “The single mother who is taking Paula Bennett to the Privacy Commission for releasing her income details has had her income disclosed publicly before – by Labour in 2007 and by herself on a Trade Me message board last week.”

    Yes – My Benson Pope (remember him?) announced her details as an example of how successful the benefit system was. Bloody oath it is – at $1000 a week!!

    I think we will find out next week that she is a labour party member – how bad can it get!!

    Dear Phil seems to have put his foot in it again. He seems to be very good at finding silly things to do. Actually as it seems to be everything labour is doing at the moment goes bad, that Im starting to think that this endless list of mistakes hes making is an internally setup thing.

    • Brian – just released in the Herald (which I know you are reluctant to read so Ill copy it below)

      I read the Herald from cover to cover every morning, Barry. It’s the masochist in me. But you’ve engaged in a bit of selective editing here. First, Natasha Fullerdid not release all the details of her benefits and allowances on Trade Me. Second, the Benson Pope release was with her agreement, so no issue of breach of privacy arose.

      You also appear to have missed the front page story in the same paper which says: Ms Bennett stopped short of apologising to the Invercargill mother of three for releasing the details, but she did apologise for the public reaction it had prompted. The two mothers have faced concerted and often vitriolic criticism on internet sites and talkback radio over the amounts they received.

      “I think it has been an absolutely horrific debate,” the minister said.

      If she had a brain in her head or any real concern for these women, to whom, as her clients, she has a duty of care, she’d have anticipated this response and not breached their privacy.

      Sadly, talk-back radio and most internet blog sites cater for the lowest common denominator in public debate.

  8. Oh dear – its looking more and more like Bennett is a welfare hero…

    Have alook at these Brian – the risk of going public starts to come home to roost….

    http://big-news.blogspot.com/2009/07/claims-that-fuller-was-getting-winz.html

    and

    http://big-news.blogspot.com/2009/07/is-this-evidence-that-715-beneficiary.html

    I often wonder why people have never learn the meaning of that old saying “when you find yourself in a hole, stop digging!” trouble is this stuff is all historical and its too late to hide it.

    • Oh dear – its looking more and more like Bennett is a welfare hero…

      That’s pretty vile stuff all right and much of it from people too gutless to put their names to their opinions. But it’s also the response than Bennett either expected or should have expected when she released the file infomation about the two women. I don’t want someone so indifferent to the damage her actions may cause in Cabinet.

  9. I agree. A very good analysis. The problem is you’ve got a bunch of fascist, reactionary, middle-class, right wing, ‘libertarianz’ types, who have personalised the whole situation. They are the ones who choose to focus on the ‘$715’, rather than the wider implication, which is that the right to privacy has been breached. Many people would have looked at that payment in black and white terms, an amount, a value, a quantity, a number, and used it to measure their own level of worth and entitlement. Many would have simply gone: ‘geez, I don’t earn that much, and I work for my money, that’s not fair’. The scathing and sanctimonious diatribe over on The Herald website stems from this resentment at having to pay taxes and support the ‘bludgers’ in society, ‘bludgers’ who they feel, unjustly get more money than they do.

    These people automatically assume they are superior because they are not reliant on welfare, anyone earning above and beyond what they bring in must have their payment cut down to more accurately reflect the ‘worth’ society places on these people, which isn’t much. The whole point of this issue is that Paula Bennet disclosed private informing in order to vilify and silence these women from speaking out against a Government decision that was going to see them lose out on something they felt entitled to. As so many other people have been saying, the money these women receive is irrelevant. $715 a week is slightly more than I earn working a 37.5-40 hour-a-week job, but I am still able to get past petty jealousy and realise that Bennett’s actions were unconscionable. The only reason people are voicing their support for what she has done so readily and freely, is out of spite, because ‘Joe-public’ view these women as second class citizens, unworthy of the money they receive, and clearly answerable to the general public because of where their income comes from. It is funny how the middle-class Right scream bloody murder when someone is trying to meddle in their business, but when it involves the rights of those they perceive to be ‘second class citizens’, it’s just a free for all.

    • I agree. A very good analysis.

      Yes, and the point cannot be overlooked that what these two women are trying to do is get off the benefit, not stay on it.

  10. The information had to be correct to balance the picture. Right? One received $715 pw with TAXPAYERS Money. Right? Must be accurate when dealing with taxpayers money. Er no. When an absent father contributes then the sum is deducted from the amount that the taxpayer pays. And so on.
    Bottom line is: NO release unless permission given.

  11. First, Natasha Fuller did not release all the details of her benefits and allowances on Trade Me

    No but she did release some. Anyone can find out the base benefit, but she has disclosed what her disability allowance is, her accommodation supplement – even her cell phone number. Plus a few other things she probably shouldn’t have.

  12. Paula Bennett has since admitted that she did not take any legal advice. So here’s some now:

    http://15lambtonquay.blogspot.com/2009/07/ministers-disclosure-of-benefit.html

    The Minister should have sought such advice before she acted. But she did not, and later she will pay the price. No amount of talkback ranting or blog cheerleading can override the law.

  13. Brian, you said “One could perhaps forgive an inexperienced minister for such an appalling lapse. But it is less easy to accept the Prime Minister giving his seal of approval to that lapse.”
    Key can’t see that though because he too falls into the category of “inexperienced”. It’s going to be a long time until 2011.

    • Brian, you said “One could perhaps forgive an inexperienced minister for such an appalling lapse.

      It’s relative, isn’t it. Key is the Prime Minister. He’s supposed to have better judgement than his ministers and certainly more judgement than a political novice like Bennett.

  14. A few points here:

    1) I get sick of all these people harping on about Paula Bennett’s rags to riches story, and those right-wingers being all over it. Of course, now think differently of her when I find out that she was able get herself a house with a Housing Corp loan when she was 19. And also the fact that she was able to work her two jobs with generous pay rates under the national awards system, and penal rates as well for working weekends. Also, the DPB was more generous in 1989 than it is now. I bet you anything that the biggest struggle that Paula Bennett had was getting her child’s father to have her during the weekends, or finding a babysitter. (same with the other kiwi battler, former solo mother, Judy Kirk, who also got herself a Housing Corp home loan).

    2) I really hate it when people compare this to Muldoonism. There is now way that Muldoon would have stooped *this* low. He might have been a very nasty piece of work, but, having grown up during the Great Depression among more severe hardship than some buxom westie ever hope to have done, he had more of a social concience in his little finger than in every PM afterwards, Even Helen Clark. He might have played hard, but he only attacked those who could fight back (most of the time anyway).

    3) People attacking the money that these women get should ask why their wages are lower than a DPB mother? Wages are still shockingly low in this country, and have been growing very very slowly for the past 15 years or so. I am getting sick of this attitude that life must be a constant struggle, where you slog your guts out for 40 hours a week, and then have no money after the bills are paid.

    4) Also, I think people who critisize these 2 women need to be asked. Would you rather these women live in their cars our out on the street in a cardboard box?

    • A few points here:

      I think it’s true that Muldoon had a genuine concern for ordinary people. But it’s also true that he had a bullying personality. Mind you, his bullying was generally reserved for journalists, who should have been able to stand up to it, but weren’t.

  15. “But it’s also true that he had a bullying personality.”

    I not denying that, I am just saying that he would never have kicked around regular New Zealanders like his successors tended to make a habit of.

  16. 16

    just another student

    Nice to read some good discussion on the topic rather than the “bene bashing” everywhere else.

    Can I point out that the $715 quoted, is not only offset by child support payments, but also inclusive of allowances and tax credits that every other New Zealand citizen is entitled to if they are on a low income. The base benefit of $272pw is the only difference.

    But then middle NZ would not have been so outraged if it had been put that way would they, and public discussion would not have been swayed away from the real issue, access to tertiary education, in order to never again require government assistance.

    • Wow – finally blogs that do not ‘bene bash’.

      Nice to read some good discussion on the topic rather than the “bene bashing” everywhere else.

      Careful Trudy and Just Another Student, you’re in danger of bringing facts, common sense and compassion into this debate!

  17. Wow – finally blogs that do not ‘bene bash’.

    All those ‘bene bashing’ blogs and messageboard vitriol was giving me a headache and heartache because it was taking the light (surely the idea behind the Minister’s orchestration of her breach of privacy) off the issue at hand … that removing access to TIA for those eligible beneficiaries to undertake HIGHER LEVEL EDUCATION has severely impacted on their present and future lives.

    You might be interested in reading the following links:-

    http://www.handup.co.nz/WORKING%20FOR%20FAMILIES%20TAX%20CREDITS.pdf

    http://www.handup.co.nz/COMPARASION%20OF%20WAGED%20(family)%20AND%20DPB%20(sole%20parent)%20INCOME.pdf

    (sorry I don’t know how to do a tiny url.)

    On the messageboard I have also posted an explanation how we see the breach of privacy has played out.

  18. Hi BE, that would be a worry wouldn’t it!

    Those 3 things have been very absent the past week. It is our aim to bring them back to the discussion.

    I did however enjoy Tapu Misa’s article in todays herald. It seemed to include all 3.

    P.S We have added a few more facts to the site today, if anyone is interested, including an interesting comparison of state assistance for both beneficiaries and those on low incomes.

    • Hi BE, that would be a worry wouldn’t it!

      Glad you mentioned Tapu. She is an oasis of sanity amid the desert of newspaper columnists.

  19. BE if you were doing the interview would you not have asked these two dear ladies what sort of income they were on. As one of them has been in the news prior and been paraded around by Labour before would a bit of “background” checking have been a good idea (particularly as the herald has been caught out the week before).
    Would you not have questioned why the taxpayer should fund teacher training for someone who suffers such appalling health that she cant clean houses.
    You could quite easily argue that the Herald did not do its basic job properly so it needed to be corrected.
    Taking away your bias BE I would be interested in your analysis on Labours trotting out of this, the publics reaction and how polarizing it has been, why NZers live so far in the distant past and we have Muldoon/Shiply/Richardson trotted out.
    I am waiting for Barry Soper to ask them what side they were on during “the springbok tour”.

    • BE if you were doing the interview would you not have asked these two dear ladies what sort of income they were on.

      MY bias!?

  20. Someone who chews chuddy in Parliament and litters lollies papers everywhere needs correction.

  21. David, if they were complaining about living on a benefit maybe. That was not the issue, the issue was and still is, access to support that has been proven to get people off government assistance permanently, that support is called TIA.

    MSD’s own research has shown that TIA achieved its objectives.

  22. David, for your information regarding the issue at hand … at no time did the women say anything like “the benefit is not enough to live on”, as this seems to have been the motivation for the Minister to release their personal, individual financial details. The two women simply commented that WITHOUT the TIA they would not be able to find the extra money in their benefit to fund the shortfall they will have.

    Therefore, YOUR QUESTION to Brian of, “…if you were doing the interview would you not have asked these two dear ladies what sort of income they were on.” IS IRRELEVANT as it is not, nor has it ever been, pertinant to the issue.

  23. They were bemoaning the cut of extra funds so why is it not pertinent how much they are getting ?
    How is one to make a judgement with only half the info, clearly wasnt much of a story when you are missing out on 28 a week when you are recieving 715.

    • They were bemoaning the cut of extra funds so why is it not pertinent how much they are getting ?

      Relevant because the amount they were getting has been cut!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  24. Trudy, with all due respect it is entirely relevent and the consumers of news have decided so in overwhelming numbers and on both sides of the debate.
    BE, let me re-phrase. As a former journalist would you not have asked for the total income so you could give the cut of funds some relevence. As a PR person and you were advising Labour would you have any advice for them trotting out someone on this income, maybe find someone on a lower income.
    Its quite clever but the debate is now should Miss Bennett have done what she has done therefore taking the focus away from a lady on 715 pw complaining about a cut in TIA. Hence I think labour again royally stuffed up on this one. Wouldnt have happened with H1 and H2 running the show.

    • Trudy, with all due respect it is entirely relevent…

      David, you have to get yourself out of this partisan thinking, this team mentality. This has nothing to do with Labour or National. It isn’t an issue of who started it. The question is quite simple: should a minister of the crown use her position to reveal private information about one of her clients. Answer: No. The damage that has now been done to these women, both much less powerful than the minister, is simply immense. Get your mind out of party politics and start thinking. By the way, I was a media advisor to Helen Clark and her cabinet. I now have no connection with the Labour Party of any sort.

  25. Bennett exemplified the ethos of the Key boys gang with her misogynist act towards two vulnerable women and six children. The floodgates of misogyny were just waiting for the chance to beat up women and their children on the DPB.The DPB needs to be renamed and called the WDM – Womb Donating Martyrs salary.Every human has come from the womb of a woman. Women enact the greatest production on earth but are excluded and devalued for this gift.The price tag on womens loins is hatred.

  26. I don’t believe people yet understand. The TIA is NOT a normal part of the benefit, it is an ADDITIONAL entitlement available only under certain and specific circumstances.

    The TIA, which covers a SHORTFALL in funding, that is not covered in a Student Loan, aids beneficiaries undertake higher level training, is no longer able to be accessed for studying at Level 4 and above on the NZQA Framework.

    I would rather a small additional amount of money be paid to eligible beneficiaries who are motivated to upskill to get themselves off the benefit and into productive, paid employment or career in the short term (and positively add to the tax take) than have them stay on a benefit in the long term.

    The Government must look either at reinstating the TIA or seriously and immediately look into an afffordable alternative, such as extending the Student Loan for beneficiaries, or making the TIA recoverable, etc.

    BTW – I have the REAL and TRUE figures and know that Ms Bennett completely misrepresented the ‘income’ of, in particular, Natasha. Each beneficiary has unique and individual circumstances so none can be compared to another.

    Let’s move on and find an afforable way for motivated and eligible beneficiaries to upskill, move into paid employment and give their families a positive future.

    • I don’t believe people yet understand. The TIA is NOT a normal part of the benefit, it is an ADDITIONAL entitlement available only under certain and specific circumstances.

      Well reasoned and helpful comment.

  27. I will add to Trudy’s comment and state (along with the assertion that this comment IS covered by the non consent on the handup website, sorry BE but I do feel it necessary) that I am actually one of many who HAS been assisted by TIA. In November this year I will have completed a management degree, with an accounting major.

    As a parent this would NOT have been possible, without the assistance of TIA. Without TIA childcare, transport and other expenses could only have been covered by removing food from my children’s mouths. I also have rather a large student loan from course fees.

    I understand fully just how difficult it is to study at this level as a sole parent, which is why I firmly believe that anyone doing it, and is highly motivated to make the huge sacrifices needed to be successful, is doing it in order to improve their lives and remove their reliance on government assistance. A “foundation course” will not achieve this goal, only tertiary education will.

  28. BE, How about answering the questions I put to you rather than accuse me of being a partisan herder with limited mental capacity :-).
    As a journalist would you have asked the question before heading to the presses ? With that level of income would you have found someone else to illustrate your points ?
    I am genuinly interested as a practitioner of the “dark arts” how you would have approached things.
    I dont think Labour are being particularly smart media wise the way they are approaching things at the moment, National up until two weeks ago have been even worse.

    • BE, How about answering the questions I put to you rather than accuse me of being a partisan herder with limited mental capacity :-).

      “Practitioner of the dark arts”? I really haven’t the slightest idea what you’re talking about, David?

  29. Touche and appreciated. I am no national fan but I quite like JK and think he is good for NZ as was HC for her first two terms.
    I think labour need to come to terms that HC has gone and they need to fill the void, its not business as usual. Mallard should be in no guiding position as he is too blunt, HC used him particularly well where as now he is all over the place, watch him in parliament and it makes you cringe with his pedantic points of order, on the blogs he just fires off in all directions expecting to score and hits nothing. We have David Parker who states on Red Alert that genesis is losing customers because of some obscure power scheme when any idiot knows it was the directors fees debacle last year and Parker was energy minister. Goff calling for benefits for property speculators, the trip around the heartland to re-connect which turns out to be taxpayer funded. Its just debacle after disaster and quite frankly embarassing. Twyford claiming liabaries are going to be flogged off (to whom is anones guess)
    I am looking forward to Hughs, Arden, Hipkins, Curran et al to take over from these deadbeats who swept to power under Helens petticoats. Carter, Mallard, Cosgrove, Parker, King, Street. You have to wonder if they were promoted because they were loyal not talented. Labour need to be careful they dont repeat the errors of Labour in the UK during Thatchers reign and appeal to a dead and dieing voter base, preaching to the converted aint that bright.
    JK has out smarted them and they havent realised it yet.
    I enjoy your blog its refreshing even if you are a bloody wowser at times

    • Touche and appreciated. I am no national fan but I quite like JK and think he is good for NZ as was HC for her first two terms.

      Thanks, David. Keep the comments coming.

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