While both I and Green MPs have slammed Paula Bennett’s beneficiary bashing policies, I haven’t climbed into the information privacy dispute between Bennett and DPB beneficiary Natasha Fuller – until now! But Bennett is now going too far.
Today it was revealed that the Privacy Commissioner had written to Bennett last week with a request “for compensation and an apology for breach of privacy”.
The way the Office of the Privacy Commissioner works is similar to the Human Rights Commission – the preferred way of dealing with disputes being through mediation, with litigation in the Human Rights Review Tribunal being the measure of last resort.
It is inconceivable that the Office of the Privacy Commissioner would have written to Bennett suggesting a settlement if they did not think Fuller had at least an arguable case – they would instead have told Fuller that she had no legal grounds to proceed and advised her to withdraw her complaint. The level of the financial settlement proposed, $15,000, would also suggest that the Privacy Commissioner’s office considers Fuller has a reasonably strong case.
Bennett declined to entertain the idea of settling the complaint, ripping into Fuller big-time:
Ms Bennett yesterday attacked Ms Fuller’s integrity and accused her of being motivated by politics.
“Her integrity is obviously in question. She says one thing in one breath and then the next day seeks media attention, and then goes online and lies so it becomes very hard to believe anything she says.
Of course it is motivated by politics – the politics of both Bennett and Fuller. But Bennett started it. She made a political decision to cut the Training Incentive Allowance. As an affected beneficiary, Fuller made a political decision to challenge that publicly. Bennett then made a political decision to release Fuller’s personal details, in an attempt to discredit her and discourage other beneficiaries from challenging Government policy.
The issue is whether a Minister of the Crown, motivated by politics, is justified in publicly releasing the personal details of a beneficiary, also motivated by politics.
And on Bennett’s other point of Fuller’s alleged change of position; in a mediated process both parties’ positions are likely to change depending on the response they receive from the other party. That is what mediation and negotiation are all about.
So I suspect, given Bennett’s intransigence, the dispute will proceed on to the Human Rights Review Tribunal, where Bennett could very well be ordered to pay far more than the $15,000 in compensation suggested in the letter from the Office of the Privacy Commissioner.
I guess if that prevents an admission of wrongdoing by a senior Cabinet Minister before the next election, the Nats must think it is worth the risk.
Meanwhile, beneficiaries concerned about National’s welfare policies will remain fearful of speaking out, lest they be victimised by a bully Minister like Natasha Fuller has.
Update: Top privacy lawyer John Edwards agrees with me:
“The Privacy Commissioner has conveyed the complainant’s suggestion for settling the matter. If there was no basis for the complaint, she wouldn’t do that. The fact that the commissioner is still involved suggests that the initial action probably was a breach of the Privacy Act.
“And in disclosing the correspondence, the minister has done it again. Releasing that material is arguably a fresh breach of privacy.
“Whether it is or not, it is an aggravating factor of the initial breach.”