Speaking out

In November 1976, the then prime minister, the National Party's Robert Muldoon, stood in the House, provoked beyond his usual belligerence, and accused the Labour MP for Mangere, Colin Moyle, of "being picked up by the police for homosexual activity".

It was a groundless charge which ultimately - though temporarily - cost Mr Moyle his seat and, possibly, his leadership of his party.

The question which troubled many at the time was not how the prime minister when he was in Opposition had obtained information about an incident nearly 18 months earlier, which had been in a confidential police file, but that he was prepared to use it in such a manner to destroy a critic.

The Muldoon example is an extreme one, but echoes of it have certainly surfaced among those with long memories in the matter of the Government's Minister of Social Development, Paula Bennett, and two beneficiaries who spoke out about allowance cutbacks.

A decision in May to further restrict eligibility for a training incentive allowance is predicted to affect about 4500 people receiving the domestic purposes or invalids' benefit who could claim for travel and course costs.

The criticisms of that specific cutback by the two women, both of whom receive a range of benefits, were published in a newspaper and taken up by the Labour Opposition.

In retaliation - there is no more appropriate description - Ms Bennett obtained the totality of the women's benefits, including their child support, from staff in her office and made the information public, without the knowledge of the women concerned.

By law, this information is collected for the purpose of administering benefits, not for entering the lists of political debate.

The minister claimed justification because the women had not told "the full story" about the "significant", "huge" state support they were getting.

Furthermore, she would repeat her actions if people "misrepresented" their situation.

It might well be asked whatever has happened to the usual ministerial riposte, that they do not comment on individual cases?

Ms Bennett can be damned for her actions for she seems not to comprehend to any degree that she went too far.

There is certainly an issue of political duty here to deflect Opposition sallies, but there is also a far more important one, of ministerial responsibility.

It is surely reasonable to suppose that no person applying for or in receipt of a state benefit ever expects to have the details of what is essentially a private matter between themselves and the department concerned displayed in a political stunt for all to see.

What will be next to be pulled out of the official databank - a critic's tax liabilities?

Their use of mental health services?

The issue between the women and the Government was simply the effect of the reduction in one particular allowance; they made no comment on the full range of their assistance.

It is moot whether, in fact, ministers are entitled to publish information about an individual by reason of their criticising a department - and in this case without troubling to advise the recipients beforehand - for the Privacy Commissioner maintains this can only be material when relevant to the issues raised, in this case the narrow one of training incentive allowances.

What is disturbing about this lapse, and which places the matter in a special category, is that neither woman was criticising the minister or her department: they were commenting only on the effect of the policy.

The potential fallout from the minister's imprudence, while relatively minor of itself, will be to chill contributions to public debate about the Government's welfare policies, and that is to be regretted.

It is particularly to be regretted that the Prime Minister is apparently "comfortable" with the women's benefit information being made public by his minister.

Is he personally "comfortable" with it, or is he "comfortable" merely because officials have told him that publication likely may not have breached privacy considerations?

There is more than a suspicion of a difference because Mr Key has also said it is "an option" to talk to people before their details are released in the future.

That suggests at least second thoughts.

Mr Key may have hoped that his tyro minister would rapidly develop a safe pair of hands in a challenging portfolio, but her actions - which he might also have judged to strike a popular note among a target audience of National Party beneficiary bashers and others holding similar views - suggest Ms Bennett is in need of much more mature and experienced guidance about her judgement, and much less reliance on instinctive shooting from the lip.