OPINION: The row over the release by the Minister for Social Development, Paula Bennett, of personal information about the benefits received by two solo mothers is being milked by the Labour Party and their allies for all it is worth.
Bennett was guilty of bullying, cried Labour's deputy leader, Annette King. According to King, the minister was attempting to intimidate the women and using Muldoon-style tactics to try to silence her critics. Labour MP Charles Chauvel, a lawyer, has reportedly been assisting the women to take a complaint alleging misuse of private information to the Privacy Commissioner.
The minister, for her part, has refused to browbeaten by all this hullabaloo. She has said she is prepared to talk to the two women at the centre of the row, but she does not admit she has done anything wrong and she is not going to apologise. Bennett is quite right to take this stand. The women had clearly put the matter into the public arena. The information the minister released was important to a proper understanding of the issue they had raised. Most importantly, it is extremely difficult to see how they could have suffered any possible harm from its being publicised.
The women made the issue public with complaints first on the internet and later in newspaper stories about cuts made in the Budget to the Training Incentive Allowance, a scheme designed to get welfare beneficiaries into further education and ultimately off benefits. In order to advance their political cause, the women gave details about the income they were receiving. While complaining of how hard-pressed they were, they failed, however, to make clear exactly what they were receiving and had received in the past from the state. The minister, entirely reasonably, decided to put the record straight. The subject is a legitimate one for discussion, but as the minister said, if we are going to have a debate, let us have a full debate, with the facts accurately stated. To suggest that by insisting the facts of the matter are accurate, that some kind of attempt is being made to intimidate the women, or to deter any future critics, is preposterous.
It is difficult also to see how, by releasing the information, the minister has breached the Privacy Act, or indeed any other privacy principles. It is wholly legitimate for a minister to respond to material that an individual has publicised. The Privacy Commissioner, in guidance for ministers and government departments, covers the point. The commissioner says that by releasing a large amount of information to the media, the individual is taking the risk that unfavourable publicity could result. The advice goes on, if the minister releases only information that 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. This squarely fits Bennett's case. It should not therefore take long for the Privacy Commissioner to dismiss any complaint against her.
The only legitimate criticism that could be made of the minister is that she was politically naive. If she had slyly slipped the information to the media, either directly or via some intermediary, as Labour apparently habitually did, this giant red herring of an issue would never have arisen.
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