Bruiser Bennett and the beneficiaries

01:50, Aug 27 2009

Bruiser Bennett is living up to her moniker again.

Paula's never been one to avoid a stoush, happy to roll up her sleeves to either stop fights - or sometimes to start them - or just join in the melee.

She's provoked outrage this morning for shopping details of the benefits received by two solo mums who have been critical of the Government's decision to can the training assistance allowance to beneficiaries.

The women concerned, one Jennifer Johnston and a Natasha Fuller, are certainly no shrinking violets. They gave their story to their local newspaper, claiming that the end of the special extra benefit for those on the DPB to get into tertiary study would curtail their hopes of doing nursing and early childhood education degrees next year.

They even used their Facebook pages to agitate for the Government to change its mind.

Bruiser Bennett is living up to her moniker again.

Paula's never been one to avoid a stoush, happy to roll up her sleeves to either stop fights - or sometimes to start them - or just join in the melee.

She's provoked outrage this morning for shopping details of the benefits received by two solo mums who have been critical of the Government's decision to can the training assistance allowance to beneficiaries.

The women concerned, one Jennifer Johnston and a Natasha Fuller, are certainly no shrinking violets. They gave their story to their local newspaper, claiming that the end of the special extra benefit for those on the DPB to get into tertiary study would curtail their hopes of doing nursing and early childhood education degrees next year.

They even used their Facebook pages to agitate for the Government to change its mind.

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All fair enough, of course, this is a free country, and you can say what you like within the bounds of the law.

But Bennett's office has been getting increasingly frustrated that the coverage the women have been getting in the media hasn't included exactly what the pair already receive courtesy of the taxpayer.

Now, the usual way of dealing with this is to quietly slip the details out to a friendly journalist, or suggest someone ask a question that would reveal the information. Let's be clear here that Labour did this all the time. It's standard practice.

But Bennett went the more open route. She had her staff release the information openly. So for the record, Fuller gets $715 after tax a week from the Government, and Johnston $554. Both are receiving an allowance for pre-degree study.

Fuller also got $9560 under an enterprise allowance to start a cleaning business, which failed because of illness.

The point of releasing the women's details was to show that they're already getting pretty hefty benefits - probably more than many working families.

I can understand Bennett's frustration. She's getting boxed about the ears by a couple who clearly haven't been telling the full story about their personal situations.

HOWEVER. Ministers have to be extremely careful about using the power of their office to come down on pesky complainants like a tonne of bricks. Bennett has extraordinary access to beneficiaries' private lives through the Ministry of Social Development.

The concern with something like this is that it sends the message that if you criticise the Government, it will hit you back 10 times as hard. And while I think actually that this information WAS relevant in this case, I'm not sure it was up to the minister's office to release it.

The other question is where the matter stops. What say a minister decided to release the tax return details of a complainant? Or their shonky work history? Or some criminal conviction that had been long buried? Let's face it, it's not a fair fight.

Bennett has a personal involvement in all of this, of course. She herself was a domestic purposes beneficiary. She availed herself of the very training allowance she has now cut, to help drag herself up by her bootstraps.

In doing so, Bennett has become the poster girl for this Government, the living proof that you can rise from a lowly DBP beneficiary to a minister of the Crown in charge of the entire multibillion-dollar portfolio.

It's a compelling story, and one that the minister needs to be careful she doesn't tarnish too much. On the one hand, it was brave to cut the very allowance she herself relied upon. You could argue that to protect it just to save political embarrassment would have been the easy option.

The argument is that the Government simply doesn't have the money to pay all these benefits any longer, and that's probably fair enough. I think it was probably an argument the Government was winning, actually. Most Kiwis understand times are very tough.

There will always be flashpoints, however, and obviously this training allowance is one. The axing of adult community education courses is another.

But sometimes as a government you've just got to grit your teeth and wear the criticism. By refusing to turn the other cheek, Bennett has given the Opposition a new stick with which to beat National.