Kiwi Polemicist

July 31, 2009

• Update: Govt makes it harder for beneficiaries to get off the benefit (Bennett releases income info)

The comments button is at the bottom right of this post.

This is an update to my earlier post Govt makes it harder for beneficiaries to get off the benefit.

The story so far:

  1. Two women went public, complaining about cuts in the Training Incentive Allowance that supposedly helps beneficiaries get off welfare by gaining qualifications (details in my earlier post).
  2. Minister of Social Development Destruction Paula Bennett released details of the income of those two beneficiaries, citing advice from the Privacy Commissioner which, she claims, allowed her to release the information.

This post has five sections:

  • Did Bennett comply with the Privacy Act (as interpreted by the Privacy Czar)?
  • Is the income information actually relevant information?
  • Is this governmental bullying?
  • The Privacy Act is dangerous and this case sets a precedent
  • Conclusions

Did Bennett comply with the Privacy Act (as interpreted by the Privacy Czar)?

The Privacy Czar’s advice to ministers says in part:

[Example #]8. In making allegations against a Department, an individual has released considerable personal detail to the news media. The Minister wishes to respond to the allegations using those details, but wants to add some further detail in order to answer specific allegations.

By releasing a large amount of personal information to the media, the individual is taking the risk that unfavourable publicity could result. If the Minister releases only information which is relevant to the issues raised by the individual, that person may not be able to claim that any particular harm was caused by the Minister’s disclosure rather than by the individual’s own disclosure. If the individual is not harmed, there would not be an interference with the individual’s privacy under section 66 of the Privacy Act.

In my humble opinion, using this as justification for releasing income details is marginal at best. I would not have said that these two released “considerable personal detail” (judging by this article).

Did Bennett release “only information which is relevant to the issues raised by the individual”? The NZ Herald quotes Jennifer Johnston as saying

“The DPB is a living, for which my children and I have been very grateful. But it does not afford an ability to save for these sorts of extra expenses. I was utterly dismayed to find out that the TIA had been canned.”

I cannot find a similar statement by Natasha Fuller, but absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

So, strictly speaking, Johnston at least raised the issue of her income and its insufficiency for funding training, so Bennett was compliant with the Privacy Czar’s advice.

Is this governmental bullying?

I believe so. The core issue here is the Training Incentive Allowance, but Bennett chose to release income details, and I am reminded of the “chilling effect” of the Electoral Finance Act. Remember that this sets a precedent, and a Minister could use the same justification for releasing income details of a wage earner or business owner.

Not PJ says

The details of my income are private because they’re a purely voluntary arrangement between me and my employer. They don’t concern anyone else. Those of Mses Fuller and Johnston on the other hand (and that of Ms Bennett, for that matter) concern everyone who has their pay packets raided by Inland Revenue to fund our gargantuan welfare state.

He has an excellent point, but I believe that the issue of restraint of governmental power is more important than the taxpayers’ right to know (I use that term very loosely) how much of their pay packet is going to Johnston and Fuller. In all situations the government has far too much information, and the public has little or none (asymmetry of information): we must not allow the state to abuse that knowledge/power more than they already do.

Is the income information actually relevant information?

Bennett is effectively saying “These women are receiving $X, therefore they don’t need the Training Incentive Allowance”. That is financial naivety of the highest order, and it is worrying when someone when someone who is supposed to be running the country thinks so simplistically.

The income information is not relevant information because it does not take into account the personal circumstances of these women: i.e., they may have medical or other problems that chew up a chunk of their income for reasons beyond their control. The release of effectively meaningless information supports my contention that this is governmental bullying.

The Privacy Act is dangerous and this case sets a precedent

Most people think that laws such as the Privacy Act and the Bill of Rights are good because they define their rights. They are in fact dangerous, because they restrict our rights to those which the government allows us to have. The advice to ministers from the Privacy Czar is a good example of this: if an individual raises issues in public then the door is wide open for the government to release private information. For example, a businessman could go to a newspaper and say “Inland Revenue is demanding weekly payments towards unpaid taxes that I cannot afford because my income is low. This is unreasonable and they’re pushing me towards bankruptcy”. Once he’s done so the door is wide open for the Minister of Inland Revenue Rape and Pillage to release that businessman’s income details and say “Of course he can afford the repayments demanded by Inland Revenue”.

Conclusions

New Zealand is a screwed up country (like all socialist democracies) and there is no “right answer” to the questions about privacy for beneficiaries and so on, because when everything is wrong then obviously nothing is right. In other words, when the foundations (the welfare state) are crooked the house (the answers to questions about the welfare state) will also be crooked.

I believe that the two primary issues here are:

  1. Governmental abuse of its ability to gather information at gun point
  2. Destruction of the right to privacy via the Privacy Act

What are your thoughts regarding this thorny situation?

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5 Comments »

  1. […] Click here for an update to this post. […]

    Pingback by • Govt makes it harder for beneficiaries to get off the benefit « Kiwi Polemicist — July 31, 2009 @ 2:41 am

  2. Rights to privacy must derive from rights to property, as without property their is little to have privacy about.
    In social terms, primitive societies had no privacy at all, let alone a concept for a “right to privacy”.
    Consequently, privacy is not a natural right, but something that must arise in consensual exchange between men.
    The contract in respect of receiving welfare is a public contract between taxpayer and beneficiary. That contract should not be subject to privacy, because the taxpayer is a party to it and thus entitled to know its terms.
    The beneficiaries can use their benefit monies to purchase privacy like anybody else, that is a right arising from the money given to them. Nobody is suggesting that all privacy rights of beneficiaries should be abandoned. Here the dispute is about disclosing the terms of the contract between taxpayer and beneficiary, these things should be public in any event.

    Comment by dimmocrazy — July 31, 2009 @ 9:24 am

    • dimmocrazy: you say “The contract in respect of receiving welfare is a public contract between taxpayer and beneficiary”. That is highly debatable, because the taxpayer has no say in the matter. A contract is an exchange of promises freely made, and by that definition there is no contract between taxpayers and beneficiaries.

      I see it like this: the state takes everyone’s money at gunpoint and gives some of it to beneficiaries. Arguably it’s a contract between the state and the welfare recipients and therefore a private matter between them.

      As I said in the post, the whole welfare-state situation is royally screwed up and there are no clear answers to these types of questions.

      As I said in the post, I believe that the two primary issues here are:

      1. Governmental abuse of its ability to gather information at gun point
      2. Destruction of the right to privacy via the Privacy Act

      Comment by Kiwi Polemicist — July 31, 2009 @ 10:00 am

  3. The taxpayer may have no direct say in the matter of concluding all these individual contracts, because that is impractical. Nevertheless, the state as AGENT has the role (following legislation granting it that SPECIFIC role), of entering into such contracts on behalf of all citizens, this is a public function. As a consequence the primary principle must be that all and any such contracts are public, unless exceptional circumstances exist that would be detrimental for the body public. There is no ground whatsoever to argue that such circumstances exist. All benefit contracts (together with all employment contracts for public servants and politicians for instance), should be public and easily accessible for the entire population. It is ludicrous to suggest that the state, as some sort of individualized personality should make any sort of general decision on disclosure of such details.

    Comment by dimmocrazy — July 31, 2009 @ 12:15 pm

    • dimmocrazy:

      I am not referring to the state as an individual. I am referring to it as I might refer to a company, i.e. a corporate entity.

      The state does not do anything “on behalf of all citizens”, and therefore the rest of your argument falls down. Democracy is mob rule, and at best the state acts on behalf of the mob that rules (although it will often ignore the mob and do what it damn well pleases). This is explained here:

      https://kiwipolemicist.wordpress.com/2009/07/10/the-problem-with-democracy-part-one/

      Comment by Kiwi Polemicist — July 31, 2009 @ 1:23 pm


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