Wednesday, July 29, 2009

ZenTiger Not theirs to give

Oh dear, Paula Bennett has released personal information on two Labour lackeys that were making their case for their right to receive more entitlements from the tax payers, via the Government.

I admit there is some relevance to knowing what those current entitlements already are, at least in a generic sense. However, I am very uncomfortable the Government using their power in this way.

The information was not actually theirs to release. It's not theirs to give.

In the same way the Government should not have the right to request a tax audit from the IRD, or declare how much tax a person pays, simply because that person takes the government to task on policy. The ends do not justify the means, and the Government could have used many other legitimate and moral approaches to debating with these Labour flunkies.

Perhaps that's the other annoying part of this sorry affair. A principled and thoughtful government could still have debated this issue and exposed the underlying sense of greed and entitlement behind the push to get something for nothing, at the expense of other families that receive the same amount of money, but do it the hard way - having a job. It's a tricky thing to balance entitlements against collecting the tax needed to pay them. We can see the disparity when the government suggests they need to cut superannuation even while others seek to get more than $50,000 a year from the government to "make ends meet". But that is besides the point of the post.

If I could contrast the previous government with National, it seems to me Labour seemed to understand the principles, and were willing to deliberately break them. They were shameless, arrogant, and ultimately dangerous. As opposition, they will have no trouble in ignoring the hypocrisy of their stance, and it will not be National's fault should they ignore Labour's howls for blood. Whilst they might dismiss Labour's opinion on this matter, I hope they slow down and listen to others.

On the other side, National seem not to understand principles, and instead react to issues. Bennett's actions are partially defensible only when looking at the issue at hand - combating heavily biased information pushed by some half baked Labour strategy fronting a couple of useful pawns to take the heat.

However, I expect better from the government than mere reaction. This is another example, like the smacking legislation, where the government just doesn't get it.

Unfortunately, acting this way has allowed the opposition to take attention away from what was an important debate.

Equally, whilst this issue of citizen privacy versus the State, these are not the sort of issues that necessarily need to be addressed by more laws. It's the kind of issue that our Ministers of Parliament need to realise automatically when they cross the line, and correct this lapse of judgment accordingly. The fact that our Ministers have lost this capability is why inevitably we will fall back on the law.

All I see here is two sets of people both arguing for entitlements they appear to believe are automatic rights. We can handle the first group without needing to give the government undeserved power.


The thing about the VRWC, is that it isn't vast, and its hardly a conspiracy. Even the definition "right wing" is arbitrary, being used more as a supposed slur from the left. That being said, the VRWC is generally united in it's desire for small government, personal freedom and protection from the destructive forces in society. The conservative right tend to take a different road than the liberal right, but at least we can respect differing opinions, when they are not motivated by the authoritarian spirit-crushing politics from the left. It is in that spirit I comment on the issue of the day, with a view at odds with several of my fellow bloggers! My fellow members of the VRWC - I invite you to attempt to change my mind on this matter, or show some agreement. Either way, I figure this is an important issue, and welcome your comments.

17 comment(s):

KG said...

Zen, I'm a simple soul and for me the issue is simple:
If I'm paying people out of my own earned money, then I'm entitled to know how much they're getting from the taxpayer. I simply don't trust either government or bureaucrats to dispense taxpayer's money efficiently or fairly and transparency is the only weapon taxpayers have to pressure governments where welfare spending is concerned.
Take WFF--the earned income of any person receiving it is and should remain private, but there's no reason in the world why the taxpayer shouldn't know how much a family of--say--five receives under the scheme.
The larger issue is that a person who is entirely supported by the state has no reasonable right to privacy about the amount of that support, otherwise we're having money taken from us in amounts and for a purpose which we have to trust bureaucrats judgements on.
We, the people work for the money and we're entitled to know it's being spent properly.
A welfare cheque is not a pay cheque--it's taxpayer-funded charity and if the loss of privacy is such an issue then the solution is for those receiving it to go and get a job, any job and a top-up from the taxpayer if they're unable to survive on the minimum wage.
I'm not very sympathetic towards beneficiaries when my partner and I already fund thousands of other people's children for their education, day care and medical care, thousands of people who choose to live in areas where there's no employment, thousands who get invalid and disability pensions with no requirement that they seek treatment...
And what about assets investigations of gang members and people who live in remote areas who somehow manage to own $25000 Harleys and flat-screen TV's and quads and all the other toys they love so much, while receiving the dole?
Welfare fraud and dependency is such an enormous problem in NZ, such a dead weight on the necks of the productive and honest that it may well be time to break a taboos and accept that this particular right to privacy may have to take second place to justice.
Otherwise, working for a living is little better than slavery, if the rewards for that work can be taken and given to people who aren't accountable.

Mr Gronk said...

ZT:

I'll probably be echoing some of what KG said here.

Once upon a time, the Poor Law (before it was renamed the Social Security Act *grins*) was administered by local communities. I have no doubt this left it open to gossip, petty corruption and even intimidation. On the other hand, the community knew, or could in principle have known, exactly who was receiving community assistance, the intended purpose of that assistance, and whether it was actually used according to those intentions.

Fast-forward to today, where recipients of welfare are basically anonymous and unaccountable, and official attempts to inquire into their use of welfare money (as distinct from lawful earnings) are seen as intrusive and patronising.

I would much like to see some middle ground, where a person can get such help as he or she needs, but is accountable for it. (As an aside, I really don't like the use of the word "entitlement" in this context. Joe Bloggs isn't "entitled" to a share of my money because he doesn't happen to be earning any of his own at the moment, even though the results of me giving him some will almost certainly be good.)

As I see it, the issue here was not that the women involved were criticising government policy in a general sense. Rather, they were saying government policy would cause major problems for them personally. In that context, Bennett probably felt she could, and should, correct the record.

Having said all that, I agree with you generally, that release of individual information by the Government to publicly discredit its political opponents is always dangerous, and I would oppose it in the strongest terms unless (1) the individual has made, or caused to be made, public statements suggesting that a particular government policy will cause him or her hardship; (2) the information released by the Government is necessary and sufficient to refute those statements; and (3) the information released is confined strictly to whatever is necessary to achieve #2.

Even if all these criteria are satisfied, I don't think that necessarily means the info should be released; but in my opinion it means it can be, because if not, the Government is allowing a damaging lie - that it, through its policies, deliberately harms the people - to stand unchallenged.

Your thoughts?

KG said...

From Adolf over at No Minister:
"A quick perusal of their Trademe chatter indicates the strong likelihood that (a) at least one of them has been receiving the DPB while her bloke was living with her and keeping his income separate and (b) the so called business was a sham and the $10k grant was spent initially to buy a car which was sign written for a cleaning business and then crashed, with the remainder of the grant being used to buy another car for the family, by which time the silly bitch was pregnant again and so the business was closed."
Which begs the question--can we trust those in charge of disbursing our money ('churning it' would be a better term) to rigorously vet the recipients?
In fact, complete transparency is our only assurance that we're not being robbed twice.

Lucia Maria said...

The most dangerous lies are those mixed with truth. In this case, the outrage that we feel over beneficiaries milking the system outweighs the outrage we should feel over the government using it's power and knowledge of people's incomes as a weapon and allowing this situation to occur in the first place.

ZenTiger said...

Thanks for the long comments. I actually agree with most of what you guys have said.

I think the information about what people in general get from welfare should be made fully public and become matters of common knowledge.

This has an element of public interest, in that all people should claim and receive from the government what they are entitled to receive. The fact that these entitlements can be skewed against people that work are another issue entirely, and also should be up for debate.

All benefits should be made public, just as salaries of various government positions should be public information (but not necessarily naming people and declaring what their salary is) - except that as you move higher up the food chain, I would expect more scrutiny. Publishing the expense claims of MPs for example would be acceptable to me. If they don't want to disclose an expense, it probably means they cannot justify an expense.

I don't see this issue as a right to privacy though, more a right not to be squashed by the government. There's an obvious overlap here though.

As for people claiming benefits illegally (such as when people claim they don't have a partner but they do, where that makes material differences to their benefit) - any illegal claims need to be aggressively hunted down and fraudsters tried and punished. It shouldn't take a public statement to trigger a review.

I also agree that once people accept government money, they lose some of their so called "independence" - indeed, they are dependents just as children depend on parents, and need to accept the rules of dependency (which potentially includes disciplinary action if they continue to deliberately break the rules).

I'm sure the information could have been tabled in such a way as to bring the full story out, without resorting to the approach Bennett took, and without being underhanded.

I'll absorb your comments and the commentary out there and revisit this discussion at the end of the week, and see where I am at on this.

x said...

You've jumped to conclusions too soon in your chronology.

The first issue you have to reconcile is that they lied, first, then tried to use the law to say the lie was ok. So the incident was voluntarily instigated by them.

If you cannot reconcile that, then you cannot form the opinion that an abuse took place on behalf of the government, unprovoked.

To reconcile it, you have to believe that it is the job of every citizen to use whatever methods necessary to bring down the government.

That may be fine if you're an anarchist.

But if you aren't, and believe there should be a govenrment for infrastructural requirements, you have to examine the fact that these people weren't bringing down a government, per se, they were attacking a political party with the assistance of the opposition party. They were activists. And that changes the picture considerably.

It then becomes a case of all is fair in love and politics and if you lie and get found out, or go into bat in the big league, expect a big league reaction.

ZenTiger said...

Good point.

I haven't read the initial interview where this all happened. What was the lie? Even better, does anyone have some good links to the source?

Inventory2 said...

I disagree ZT - the beneficiaries in this case have brought this matter into the public domain, but they haven't been totally transparent. It transpires now that one in particular has been pretty "out there" in terms of hocking her story around cyberspace via Facebook, Trade Me etc, and has a history as a "serial litigator". They are reaping what they have sown.

ZenTiger said...

Even if they deserve what's coming to them, does it mean the government should have the power to act as the executioner in this manner?

No doubt, someone in government probably thinks I don't deserve to have an anonymous blogger ID and is getting ready to publish information for my transgression of holding a different opinion.

They'll claim that it was in the interests of transparency, and perhaps people should know I've worked for a company that has made money from a government contract, or perhaps that my opinion is based on supposedly that company losing a contract to a government agency? They'll spin it one way or another.

I'm sure a lot of bloggers from the left would be laughing their heads off and merely saying I had it coming.

I'm left thinking the principle is more important than the reason.

Happy to keep considering these arguments though. Keep em coming and thanks for being patient with me!

x said...

The government has not acted as executioner, Bennett acted as inquisitor. If there is an executioner, it is public opinion. The women protested an already decided government cut, offering incomplete information as complete. The government did not make the cut because two women spoke out about training benefit levels. Lying by omission, the women implied malicious behaviour by the government. One woman has since met with Bennett and has made peace. You could debate whether lying by omission is actually lying - I believe it is in this case. They did not omit personal details to avoid unnecessary embarrassment, they omitted technical facts to support an untrue conclusion. You can see more uncovered omissions at Bignews blog.

Whether or not they "deserved it" depends on your personal values. If you believe that any of your actions will attract a reaction, then you accept that you ask for everything you get and cannot cast off your responsibility by saying someone else should have called a halt. If you believe it is your right to say what you want with immunity, you'll never accept that you had anything to do with the reaction. If you are (semi)Average Joe voicing personal opinion on the internet, why would the government care? One day giving opinion about gay rights, the next, a fluff piece about feral cats in Chile. This point was argued during the EFA debate also. Who has authority to question a person’s veracity and intent? Direct involvement is a defining feature. To ask the question you have to defer to a higher purpose - why ask it? To find the truth, to clear your name?

As with the EFA debate, this situation has a similar theme. One party believes they were maligned and moved to stop it. The EFA (ignoring funding issues) stopped people or organisations publishing critical opinion where the result would be a loss of influence to the incumbent party. An example is the pamphlet funded by the Exclusive Brethren. It is reported that everything in the pamphlet was true - except for one conclusion. The incumbent party argued it was not true. No transparent examination of fact took place outside of the blogosphere. Politicians are concerned with what the public lends weight to. The MSM examined only one side of the story and politicians were happy to let that be the end of it. With the benefit issue we have two women giving a story, the incumbent party dispute the story. But now we have a directly involved minister who appeals to, if not the truth, then something close to all the facts. Transparent examination takes place in the media.

The deference to higher values gives us the authority to question opinion and intention and not have to rely on lower, but still useful, concepts like freedom of speech. The EFA argued that no such authority existed because the incumbent party did not appeal to, value or need the truth. They were not willing to give up the moment of control that appealing to the truth requires. In the benefit issue, Bennett relinquishes control by appealing to the truth. If people always told the truth there’d be no need for freedom of speech. Relativity is a tool for examination of values not an end in itself. Using relativity, no one could find for or against in any dispute, and since we must live in the real world of judgements and findings we have to accept absolutes in some concepts, like truth.

So my response to your statement:

“...No doubt, someone in government probably thinks I don't deserve to have an anonymous blogger ID...”

Is that if you are telling the whole truth in your opinions, they could release any information they wished and it would not effect you. Spin or no spin. You would reveal your association with company XYZ voluntarily, reveal conflicts of interest voluntarily – just as the original two women didn’t. If the examination is transparent and the government gives up the moment of control to search for the truth, or even the facts, you cannot be found to be a liar without cause or be oppressed.

ZenTiger said...

Thanks for the comment. I'll digest it later. One minor point at the end leaps out at me:

Is that if you are telling the whole truth in your opinions, they could release any information they wished and it would not effect you.

Sure, I'm telling the truth. However, the reason I prefer a blog handle has nothing to do with truth or lies, and releasing it CAN affect me for other reasons.

This idea that information no other person can get, can be obtained by a government official and then used for "just purposes" remains chilling to me, even though I understand the circumstances.

Perhaps in the future all MP's will request extensive dossiers compiled on all people who challenge any aspect of government policy and be released as they deem fit. Perhaps they do it now. What happens when they misuse that information - how would we ever know?

At least with Police files, police staff know they are in serious trouble if they access information they don't have authority to see.

ZenTiger said...

Sure, I'm telling the truth. However, the reason I prefer a blog handle has nothing to do with truth or lies, and releasing it CAN affect me for other reasons.

PS: Not that I actually have other reasons, but that's not the point. It could be something as trivial as some-one putting a brick through my window because I satirised their favourite MP.

Madeleine said...

For me it boils down to one fundamental: the state is not above the law. If the state imposed this (arguably) stupid law on itself then the state has to abide by it.

We don't get to pick and choose which laws we'll follow and we should not tolerate a government doing the same regardless of any merit we might see as to why it did it or some broader argument.

Sean said...

It's not often but I completely agree with KG in his first comment. SOmeone throw a buckey of cold water over ZenTiger please.

"does it mean the government should have the power to act as the executioner in this manner?"
- oh Zen, emotional words, but unrepresentative. Has some Labour lackey done a body snatch on you?

Transparency, transparency, transparency.

x said...

ZT:

No one can protect themsleves against brick throwers completely. That's the wonderful uncertainty of life. And without wanting to drain all the fun out of life, I don't believe that satire is not a good vehicle for truth. It contains too much unexamined opinion (that's why it is often funny) and unless it is done with kindness it always smells of "fear an loathing". No surprise then that not many targets enjoy it. Again, you'll get what you give.
Bloggers have to accept that if they want to use the medium for revolutionary purposes that it is serious business and the fluff stories and half measures have to make way for total committment to change. Sooner or later we all get old and boring and serious to get what we want. No more pop music and McDonalds.

"This idea that information no other person can get, can be obtained by a government official and then used for "just purposes" remains chilling to me, even though I understand the circumstances."

It would chill me too, but only enough to change the way I react to it. How you deal with it is up to you. Apart from not voting in authoritarian governments, I don't believe politics is a way to stop it. I think to stop it the behaviour of private citizens has to change voluntary - make it an obsolete cultural trait. A bit idealistic I know, but do you know of an alternative that will offer long term certainty?

Madeleine:

You give the republican war cry. Good. But I'm sure you know that the battle will drift into the grey zone pretty quickly and either you or your political enemies will have to abandon their peace time ideals to fight it.

x said...

"... I don't believe that satire is not a good vehicle..."

should read:

"...I don't believe that satire is a good vehicle..."

ZenTiger said...

It would chill me too, but only enough to change the way I react to it. How you deal with it is up to you. Apart from not voting in authoritarian governments, I don't believe politics is a way to stop it. I think to stop it the behaviour of private citizens has to change voluntary - make it an obsolete cultural trait.

Which is what I said in my post: Equally, whilst this issue of citizen privacy versus the State, these are not the sort of issues that necessarily need to be addressed by more laws. It's the kind of issue that our Ministers of Parliament need to realise automatically when they cross the line, and correct this lapse of judgment accordingly.

By at least bothering to debate this (in the papers, talkback, in the lunch room and blogs) way may be sending a message, that whilst this particular issue may be deemed justified by enough people, that it skated on the edge and perhaps that will suggest a little more consideration in the future.

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