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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    1. 22 Responses to “Gordon Campbell on Paula Bennett’s problems with privacy, and our deference to Big Tobacco”

    2. By Maxiimus on Aug 16, 2012 | Reply

      The MSD should really stop violating human rights and its law breaking but when no punishment is dished out ergo they feel no wrong has been done.

      Why all the fuss on plain packaging tobacco, does it reduce actually smoking in the addicted .Is the removal of a picture of a diseased organ on the current packs really going to make it less attractive.
      Looks like a win for Tobacco .

      I feel we should have outgrown the Olympics ( its like the coliseum & gladiators). This fixating on the sporting games is not good for anyone seeking something other than the “glory” of watching a really well practiced and skilled athlete perform.

    3. By MH on Aug 16, 2012 | Reply

      If you bite the taxpayers hand that feeds you than you ought to be questioned. If you refuse to allow someone to question you or remain silent then you are a hypocrite. My right to know as a taxpayer is important too. You step up and criticise you should expect to be hit back.Perhaps by asking these women first and the truth had then come out, then that would have been accetable,and if they had refused…then leaks would have come to the press eventually.Paula seemed more honest than those ladies. They were doing quite nicely out of the system and without those total figures in their particular cicumstances the eligibility argument is irrelevant. Someone else should have done the arguing for them,or at least on behalf of more genuinely affected persons..but not as nicely as English was doing out of the housing allowance scam.

    4. By Timbo on Aug 16, 2012 | Reply

      Plain wrappers – great idea, but beware Tariana, the closed doors of the TPP tribunals

    5. By Kat on Aug 16, 2012 | Reply

      Paula Bennett is not a ‘pretty sight’ full stop. According to the speaker of the house she acts like a three year old! Paula Bennett is the ugly face of an ugly and mean spirited government.

    6. By K on Aug 16, 2012 | Reply

      Nobody would know who Natasha Fuller was, nor would they care what her opinion was if Bennett hadn’t breached her privacy and blown this out of all proportion. I agree that the TIA was best removed but that doesn’t mean what Bennett did was ok – and the fact that she made such a half arsed “apology” if you could call it that is deeply insulting.

      Bennett should be fired over this, just as her staff would be if they pulled the same stunt. Bill English should go the same way given that as acting PM he made comments suggesting that openly criticising government policy means that the critic should expose themselves and their income to public scrutiny.

    7. By Maxiimus on Aug 17, 2012 | Reply

      The example of the msd minister bullying promotes bullying and humiliating actions.
      An intelligent solution for this would’ve been for the privacy commissioner to punish Bennett.
      Still on the topic of the msd bullying, when will the relative truth online become a criminal offense?
      Lets not understand bullying, instead lets use the idea to allow those who bully to control the internet, and meanwhile MPs can continue to publicly bully and humiliate if it serves their service cutting policy.
      This under the premise that the taxpayer is paying (for more than only the interest on borrowed debt) and has the right to know something personal about our societies smallest and poorest beneficiaries.

    8. By donna on Aug 17, 2012 | Reply

      “You step up and criticise you should expect to be hit back.”

      Really? By releasing personal information on people who have given that info to the government in the expectation that it will only be used for the purpose for which it was provided? MH, as a taxpayer you have no right to know how much any of us is receiving by way of benefits or our source of income or how much tax we pay – assuming these are within the law – any more than we have the right to know your personal details.
      Releasing personal information to undermine critics of policy has a name, and it’s bullying. The fact that the Minister of Social Development clearly thinks that law only applies to her departmental staff just makes her own privacy breach more contemptible. She should apologise or step down.

    9. By peterlepaysan on Aug 17, 2012 | Reply

      Maybe her actions are pitched at her electorate base (labour voters wont turn out) and trumping Judith Collins leadership ambitions once Sho Key departs to warmer climes.

    10. By MH on Aug 17, 2012 | Reply

      Why shouldn’t taxpayers know what people are getting on the benefits if they go to the media? For one it alerts others to questioning why they aren’t getting similar amounts in similar circumstances. My income is not state funded. I know what MP’s and CEO’s of State run Depts receive,well within a band or range. I can find out their yearly travel perks etc,so why not this hard done by Jane Blogs? Why are they so special? Is it pride or do they fear losing something they may not be entitled to? When these ladies start earning more than me then I am damned right annoyed.What fairy land are they living in? It is my money,my social contract to decide to put aside monies to assist people in distress.Temporary sustenance. These ladies exposed themselves and were found wanting more.Bah and humbug to privacy concerns.

    11. By Ken Martin on Aug 17, 2012 | Reply

      The minister may well reconsider her approach to privacy in the fullness of time. Let’s not rush to judgement, let’s see what she accomplishes. She will do some good, and that ought to be remembered by all. Her electorate majority is slim. She has to be seen as performing. Have a look at MSD’s Statements of Intent. She has input to these. Some of the criticism of beneficiaries is jealousy, which is unbecoming of those expressing it.

    12. By Patsyw on Aug 18, 2012 | Reply

      Actually its not difficult to work out what a beneficiary might be getting from WINZ. Check out the MSD website. MH would you like the Taxation Minister to release your income and tax details to the public if you made a public statement about taxtion increases for example. what the problem is with Paula Bennett, is that she is a hypocrite – staff in the MSD cannot use a persons information so neither should the minister.

    13. By lynz on Aug 18, 2012 | Reply

      “There’s a pattern here: privileged treatment for those with connections, fear and intimidation for critics. Not a pretty sight.”
      You know what? this is our entire culture in a nut shell.

    14. By ST on Aug 18, 2012 | Reply

      It’s the PM’s office I’m more concerned about. He is extremely comfortable with his minister releasing personal details of his fellow citizen, he trusts his minister who has been found to be on breach of the Privacy Act (1993) – so sayeth the Human Rights Privacy Commission – but let’s be honest: she did not apologise for the breach of privacy.

      She doesn’t even recognise it was wrong for her to have done so.

      Thus, her judgement of Rights and breaches of human rights is extremely suspect especially considering her power over some of the vulnerable citizens in the country and their dependants: how can her employers trust the policies she implements will respect the Human Rights and Dignities of the people it affects?

      As the PM’s office trusts this ethically suspect minister, so I distrust the PM’s office.

    15. By Joe Blow on Aug 19, 2012 | Reply

      @ MH

      If it was only your social contract you might have a leg to stand on, but it takes at least two to tango…

      I wonder why Paula Bennett hasn’t released all the information about how much she got on the DPB and how much she got over the years for her training incentive allowance and whether she paid off a mortgage while on the DPB. Then she could be fairly called an “honest woman”.

      Funny how Bennett didn’t publish who the father or fathers of Fuller’s children were and how much maintenance they were paying to WINZ or whether they left Fuller for another woman… where’s it going to end?


    16. By DeepRed on Aug 19, 2012 | Reply

      Paula Bennett seems to have put deadbeat dads in the too hard basket.

      And she seems to fit the following warning signs of that-word-we-all-know according to Umberto Eco: (

      3. Irrationalism also depends on the cult of action for action’s sake, ie attacking the symptom.
      4. Disagreement is treason.
      5. Fear of difference.
      6. Appeal to a frustrated middle class
      7. Obsession with a plot
      8. The followers must feel humiliated by the ostentatious wealth and force of their enemies.
      10. Contempt for the weak.
      14. Newspeak.

    17. By DeepRed on Aug 19, 2012 | Reply

      I should also add that Natasha Fuller is trying to climb the same ladder that Paula Bennett did years ago. To then kick it away is symptomatic of the dark side of meritocracy, as described by Chris Hayes in his latest book Twilight of the Elites. (

      “But why did the smart people fuck up, again and again? Because, Hayes argues, America’s mechanism for sorting the gifted and talented from the rest of us – what we proudly call our meritocracy – has broken down, to the point where it “isn’t very meritocratic at all.” And the consequence is that we’re “led” by a grasping, status-obsessed elite class that’s increasingly socially and economically distant and prone to rigging the game for its own benefit, the public good be damned.”

    18. By Dee on Aug 20, 2012 | Reply

      A new benefit payment system has just been rolled out, which gives those under 18 on unemployment or the DPB a smart card to live on. Does anyone know if they will have enough to live on under this system.

    19. By FiFi on Aug 23, 2012 | Reply

      I agree with you 100%. Why the hell won’t they do a thorough audit of WINZ and weed out the crooks in that dept? They are constantly lying to people and bullying people and it needs to stop. An elderly friend of mine challenged his case manager about her saying that somethinbg is not included and when he took in info that showed she was lying to him she said “Aren’t you a clever cookie”. Is this acceptable? I don’t think so.

    20. By FiFi on Aug 23, 2012 | Reply

      If that’s the case then you should also be told why they need the amount they are getting. Don’t judge till you know ALL THE FACTS, not just some of them.

    21. By Swordfish on Sep 6, 2012 | Reply

      Dee: the mass-media are not exactly trumpeting it from the rooftops in NZ, but the Poor Card has already been extensively rolled out in Australia in the form of a green credit-card sized card; but the number-one priority of the “new” welfare system is first of all to pay out of the beneficiaries’ benefit, the landlord and any electricity/utility provider who has sent a bill, and this is done automatically.

      After that, what miniscule amount is left over from the original benefit payment, is then divided up as follows: two-thirds of it are “locked” into the Poor-Card and this card can only be used at a pre-ordained selection of grocery stores, and the “locked-in credit” on the cards can only be used for specific kinds of items; no tobacco or alcohol is allowed, for instance.

      The remaining measly pittance that is left from the original benefit is then available to the beneficiary for “discretionary spending”.

      There is massive social stigma attached to the Poor-Card in Australia, and beneficiaries feel humiliated and despised, standing in queues with their bright-green Poor-Cards; they get treated with contempt, like third or fourth-class citizens (or more like non-citizens altogether, actually).

      A “little bird” tells me that the Poor Cards that Key, Joyce, and Bennet (what a vile mob they are!!!)are rolling out here will be the exact green colour as the Australian ones, and identical in every other respect as well.

      And what is more, inflicting them on the young people (who are the most helpless of all) first, is the thin-end of the big fat wedge: before long, every beneficiary will be forced to have the Poor-Card.

      With every passing year this country resembles ever-increasingly the monstrously brutal USA and it’s vicious treatment of it’s colossal hordes of poor people, who rot, starve, and miserably die in an evil capitalist hellhole ruled by Utter Vermin.

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