Editorial: Commendable openness

09:38, Aug 31 2009

When the chattering classes start slavering about the actions of a cabinet minister, it is a brave politician who is prepared to fight her corner. Social Development Minister Paula Bennett is such a politician.

Like the prime minister, she sometimes operates on gut instinct. It is risky. But it often works.

This week, as Ms Bennett was being roundly condemned by political opponents and others for releasing the income details of two beneficiaries who dared criticise the Government, the minister stood her ground. Good on her.

Many New Zealanders believe she has done nothing wrong in breaching what they see as a politically correct convention that critics may take pot shots at the Government, and ministers won't fight back. Not Ms Bennett.

Some history. For about a week, she tolerated public criticism from Natasha Fuller and Jennifer Johnston, whose cases Labour MPs cited in Parliament. Both on welfare benefits, which their taxpaying neighbours and others are legally obliged to fund, the mothers are upset that the Government has stopped the training incentive allowance for solo parents undertaking tertiary-level study.

Ms Bennett's frustration eventually got the better of her. She decided to release how much each is receiving from the state, arguing that their original story was incomplete.


The wrath of the Left descended; Green list MP Sue Bradford was apopleptic and Labour list MP Charles Chauvel is helping Ms Fuller complain to Privacy Commissioner Marie Shroff. Mrs Shroff, however, will have to take account of the personal information both women themselves volunteered when arguing why the allowance should be reinstated.

The mothers have had a sharp lesson in democracy, where claim is almost always met with counter-claim, sometimes brutally.

In this particular case, public opinion seems largely with the minister. Parents in paid employment know just how hard it is to make ends meet on incomes near or below the $715 net a week Ms Fuller is reportedly receiving.

She and Ms Johnston say they have been publicly humiliated since Ms Bennett made fuller details of their income public. Criticism of their bid to get yet more money from taxpayers, however, probably reflects Kiwi battlers' dismay at the women's apparent sense of entitlement when in-work parents are hurting and fear for their jobs.

For its part, Labour's indignation is laughable. Most, if not all, of its former ministers practised the dark art of "briefing" political journalists about individuals in the headlines if they felt the full story wasn't being told. Think Helen Clark and former police commissioner Peter Doone. Think former immigration minister Lianne Dalziel and the deportation of a Sri Lankan asylum-seeker.

Ms Bennett has been commendably open, increasingly unusual in this privacy-ridden democracy. In the same spirit, we encourage her to release details of the taxpayer assistance she received while on the DPB. After all, it has been a good investment.

The Dominion Post