Scoop Election 08: edited by Gordon Campbell

On whether politicians should have the same rights to privacy

November 18th, 2011

Eight days before an election. The Police are poised to search major newsrooms to try and validate the government’s determination to conceal (at least until election day) the evidence that the Great Leader is saying one thing in public and something quite different in private.

One can safely assume that if the Great Leader in question had been Helen Clark, we would be hearing quite a lot from John Key, Steven Joyce and the Act Party about jackboots and the totalitarian state and rampant socialism and the public’s right to know.

One can safely bet that many Police officers are venting their feelings in private about their work being politicised in this way – especially when, in order to justify this use of Police resources, John Key claimed yesterday that the Police have got spare time on their hands, thanks to his government’s successful policies on crime.

No one ever thought it would be easy to balance the issue of privacy on one hand, and the public interest on the other, concerning what the Epsom tape contains. The public interest in the Epsom tape goes well beyond mere curiosity. Arguably, the individuals concerned are not in the same category as ordinary citizens. The more ‘presidential’ our politics become, the more the personal views, style and charisma of party leaders become political commodities.

Just as the Atkinson case a few years ago (regarding media criticism of David Lange) raised the bar as to what constitutes defamation of politicians, the same limiting argument could conceivably apply to whether politicians’ have the same privacy rights as ordinary citizens – especially when the communications at issue involve comments directly relevant to the public roles of the politicians concerned. Otherwise – as is apparently happening in the Epsom case – the right to privacy can be invoked to safeguard a deliberate, elaborately staged process of misleading the public.

Clearly, each case would need to be assessed on its merits, but the courts should perhaps be invited to consider applying an Atkinson type distinction to the privacy rights of politicians.

Largely thanks to the efforts of legal commentators such as Andrew Geddis on Pundit and Steven Price on his Media Law Journal blog it seems likely that there are sufficient extenuating circumstances to conclude that the taping could well have been accidental. This makes the taping neither unethical or unlawful, as the government keeps insisting it was – even as the Police scurry around trying to find evidence to verify that assertion.

The venue was sufficiently public, and the compliance with the command to leave the premises was sufficiently voluntary (especially given that the cameraman who allegedly was outside taking pictures and didn’t hear the request to leave) that media outlets would be on reasonably safe ground if they went ahead and published the contents.

As I mentioned the other day, the Dominion Post brushed aside court orders and published transcripts of the secret taping of the Urewera defendants, even at the risk of prejudicing the rights of those defendants to a fair trial. This time, it appears unwilling to run of the risk of prejudicing the right of politicians to mislead the public, all the way to the ballot box.

The Gender Voting Gap

In the past, the centre left could count on a disproportionate share of women’s vote, especially while Helen Clark was Prime Minister. The explanations as to why more women tended to vote centre left while more men tended to vote centre right were never particularly illuminating. The women as empathetic/homemaker stereotype supposedly meant that women were more aware of the social impact of economic policy, while men were more attracted by economic policy per se. In the age of John Key, that gender gap in favour of the centre left has allegedly disappeared.

As a result, government policies that might have rallied women voters in the past do not seem to be getting any traction at all in this election. The recently unveiled social welfare reforms for instance, will impose a benefit cut on some DPB recipients. Once their youngest child turns 14 such parents – and most of them are women – will be shifted to the lower Job Seeker payment.

Meaning: just as kids head into the costlier teenage years, solo parents will have less money to support their children, even as they are being made to chase illusory jobs. Behind the smokescreen of a one-off increase, the government is also cutting its annual allocation to women’s refuges. This will amount to a $700,000 reduction in funding for such services as safe houses and child advocacy work.

On both counts, women are being made to bear the brunt of domestic violence, relationship breakdown, divorce and the care of children – and are being treated punitively (and in miserly fashion) by the state while doing so. This seems to be the true face of the “compassionate conservatism” that we hear so much about. In reality, it looks like misogyny with a smiling face.

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Content Sourced from scoop.co.nz
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