Scoop Election 08: edited by Gordon Campbell

Gordon Campbell on Paula Bennett’s problems with privacy, and our deference to Big Tobacco

August 16th, 2012

beehive, government, privacy, hekeia parata, paula bennett, acc

You don’t really have to be a theologian to know that if you’re truly sorry for doing something, repentance includes a commitment not to do it again. Social Development Minister Paula Bennett clearly has a problem with the second part. On the one hand she apologises in a letter to the Human Rights Commission for the abuse and hurt to which she exposed her beneficiary critic Natasha Fuller by releasing her personal details to make a political point…. but then says she’d be willing to do the same thing again.

Not much of an apology is it – given that Bennett seems to be ready, willing and able to use personal details to discredit the next beneficiary game enough to challenge her welfare policies?

Trying to point out to Bennett the error of this approach is a bit like trying to talk ethics to a rampaging rhino, but here goes. Ms Bennett, the department you run claims to have a zero tolerance policy towards people who access personal files improperly. Recently, ten Social Welfare staff were fired for doing so, in the wake of two separate reviews into staff behaviour. Here’s what was said only a month ago about the three workers fired after the second review:

“None of these staff gained financially and their actions were not illegal,” Winz deputy chief executive Debbie Power wrote. “However, they were in breach of the zero-tolerance policy and for that reason they lost their jobs.”

One of the fired workers emailed their partner, who does not work for the ministry, to say someone they knew had applied for a benefit. The second emailed an associate, who works in another government department, about a client. The third sacked staff member accessed and processed records of people they knew. None financially benefited.

Isn’t there a rather large inconsistency here? Bennett accessed the files of her two beneficiary critics for political benefit, without suffering any consequences from her boss, John Key. Here’s the thing: the original point at issue was the loss of access to a re-training incentive allowance. The personal circumstances of any one beneficiary are not the issue. Play the ball, not the woman etc etc. If Bennett cannot win the eligibility arguments on the merits of the policy – without trying to personally discredit and silence her critics – maybe that suggests that there was something wrong with the policy. And with the Minister.

In passing, one could also cite this case as indicative of the wider problem this government evidently has when it comes down to respecting the boundaries between the personal and the political. Nick Smith couldn’t see it was wrong to use his Ministerial clout to influence decision-making on behalf of someone he knew. Bennett can’t see there is anything wrong in using her Ministerial clout to access private information to personally discredit a critic. There’s a pattern here: privileged treatment for those with connections, fear and intimidation for critics. Not a pretty sight.

Plain Wrappers, Not So Plain Talking

So the High Court in Australia says there is no legal barrier now to the Australian government enforcing a policy that will require cigarettes to be sold in plain wrappers. New Zealand has been looking on with interest, and seems to think it is a good idea.

Associate Minister of Health Tariana Turia and the Cancer Society have praised a ruling in the Australian High Court endorsing the federal government’s world-first plain packaging laws for tobacco. The High Court decision means all cigarettes and tobacco products in Australia will have to be sold in drab olive-brown packs from December.

Ms Turia says the decision gives New Zealand some security about moving forward with consultation on a similar policy. “We have been watching the developments in Australia with huge interest, and we are extremely pleased that the decision now confirms that Australia’s plain packaging regime is justified and conforms with the Australian constitution,” Ms Turia said.

This is more than just a victory for the Australian government, I think it is a global victory for those who have lost their lives to smoking, for their families and their communities.”

Fine words. But why are we not rushing to follow suit – given that there’s supposedly a target of eliminating smoking altogether by 2025? Well, there is this little matter to consider:

The High Court ruling comes a week after Imperial Tobacco completed a $45 million upgrade to its Petone factory which will quadruple its exports to Australia.

Also, Turia’s comment about “watching developments in Australia with huge interest” begs to be translated. What it really means is: “We are watching to see if Australia gets hammered by Big Tobacco before we decide to dip our toes into that particular shark-infested pool, thanks very much.” That certainly seems to be how the Australians are reading the situation:

The victory against big tobacco should inspire other countries to push ahead with plain packaging laws, Australian Attorney-General Nicola Roxon says. “Governments can take on big tobacco and win, and it’s worth countries looking again at what the next appropriate step is for them,” she told reporters.

Right. It amounts to a new definition of the Anzac spirit, doesn’t it? As in: “You go on up over that hill, lad, and we’ll wait here a bit and see whether you get shot. And if you don’t, you can count on us being right there behind you.”

Arabs and the Olympics

Interesting guest column on Juan Cole’s site about the (non) performance by Arab nations at the London Olympics. Anouar Majid points out that the Arab bloc of 22 nations comprising 350 million people won only 12 medals, (eight of them bronze) and only one gold. (ie, the Tunisian marathon swimmer Oussama Mellouli) Arab nations combined won fewer medals, Majid points out, than Kazakhstan, Cuba, New Zealand and Jamaica managed single-handedly. “Even Iran, a nation often maligned by Sunni Arabs, did better, with 4 gold medals out of a total of 12.”

Yes, the Olympics were held during Ramadan – and it is hard to imagine them being held during Yom Kippur or Lent – but that, Majid says, is not an excuse given that several fatwas exempted athletes from fasting during the London Olympics. What it comes down to is the nature of the Arab regimes, he argues, and the forms of Islam that they espouse. Arab authoritarianism, he argues has invested fewer resources in public facilities even than a Chinese authoritarianism that still retains some populist elements. According to Majid, religion also plays a part. (Although he doesn’t press the case of Shia Iran in this context.) Instead, he discusses the role of religion in this way:

Oil-rich nations may build fabulous cities and import many global treasures, including brand name museums and universities, from Europe and the United States, but they produce practically nothing, not even the simplest device used to broadcast their programs on their ubiquitous satellite television networks.

Instead, Arabs have turned into the best consumers of Western products—from oil pipelines to skyscrapers—while smugly believing that they are in possession of religious truth. In other words, the only thing left the Arab world is its conviction that Islam is better than other religions or beliefs and Sunnis are better than Shiites. Such convictions may help one feel good but they don’t help nations progress or win gold medals.

Just as political systems need to change, the Arabs’ relationship to Islam needs to be reformulated…. They need to make a concerted effort to keep the spheres of religion and politics wholly separate. This, however, requires active dissent from within. Muslim-majority Arab societies need heretics, people who are not cowed by the fear of hellfire and the popular condemnations of moralists to nudge their fellow co-religionists out of their paralysis. They need to instigate a cultural revolution, not just a political one, if there is ever any hope for Arabs and Muslims to have a real place in contemporary civilization. Magical thinking about reviving 7th-century Islam is not going to get them gold medals at the Olympics, a soccer world cup, give them the knowledge to invent new technologies, improve their universities, cure dangerous illnesses, overcome poverty and illiteracy, and temper the flames of extremism. Only a well-defined secular, contemporary project can get them there.

Even so…Majid’s condemnation of the alleged prevalence of magical thinking among Sunni Moslems does not explain how evangelical, righteous, magical thinking Americans manage to devote time and energy to succeed at the Olympics, even as they await the Rapture.


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