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