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The scandal behind the scandal

TALKING POLITICS BY GORDON CAMPBELL
Last updated 07:34 05/04/2012

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OPINION: Few people would have predicted the Accident Compensation Corporation would be engulfed by a scandal over the security of emails related to its core business, or by the ACC Minister offering assistance to a party insider seeking compensation.

More glaring problems exist.

For years, the nitpicking way that the ACC commonly responds to many victims of accidents has been controversial – not to mention the way it routinely argues that the incapacity in question was really caused by an underlying process of ageing and degeneration, and was not by the accident mentioned in the claim.

Miserliness is not the source of ACC's current troubles, though.

Instead, the scandal hogging the headlines last week concerned who had leaked an email and who had instigated a meeting last December related to the leaking of confidential information about ACC clients.

There was speculation about who stood to benefit from this lapse of security.

With each passing day, this convoluted tale became murkier.

One of the conspiracy theories hinted at by Labour MPs Trevor Mallard and Andrew Little has resulted in both MPs and Radio New Zealand being threatened by ACC Minister Judith Collins with legal action for defamation.

Meanwhile, there must be hundreds of ACC claimants around the country wondering why the media has never shown anything like the same investigative zeal in pursuing the grievances they have felt about their treatment by ACC.

Very few ACC claimants, it seems safe to suppose, are in the same circumstances as Bronwyn Pullar, the woman at the centre of the current furore.

She has reportedly received a $1 million insurance payout and was seeking an ACC benefit as well, as her compensation for the one bicycle accident.

Even though Ms Pullar may have genuine grievances and valid entitlements, she seems an unusual case to be awakening the media's sudden concern about whether ACC is functioning properly.

Of course, the current scandal, while highly diverting as political drama, has little to do with the day-to-day workings of a state organisation whose decisions impinge on the lives of thousands of citizens in need.

Clearly, ACC today is not the same kind of organisation – and is not following through on the same trade-offs – as that envisaged by Sir Owen Woodhouse in the early 1970s, and for which the public gave away its right to sue for negligence.

The public continues to be short-changed by ACC, and the main reason that failure has not erupted into political scandal before is that both major parties have supported the quiet erosion of the scheme's original vision.

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At the very least, the current scandal suggests that ACC victims who have powerful friends – and politically embarrassing information in their hands – will get sensitive treatment and private meetings with top officials.

We should all be so lucky.

Ultimately, the furore may reveal further evidence of the workings of political privilege, and more heads may roll.

That will matter to the public only if it results in behavioural change at ACC.

Long ago, we gave away our right to sue when harmed in accidents, in return for fair, readily available, compensation.

The fact that successive governments have got away with welshing on that deal is the real ACC scandal.

- The Wellingtonian

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