Two grumps and a prod - from Bennett & Garrett to drink

As The Verlaines put it so pithily, sometimes "there's too many things to talk of at any one time." [sic-Ed]. Paula Bennett... David Garrett... Andrew Becroft...

Sitting down to write this post, I found I had three topics to choose between. I couldn't do it. So I've kept all three.

First up, I’ve found reason previously to query Act MP David Garrett’s choice of words. His recent behaviour in Parliament’s law and order select committee rather confirms my impression that he has a mouth that runs several steps ahead of his brain. During a hearing on the Corrections (Contract Management of Prisons) Amendment Bill – which will permit the private management of prisons – he told prison officers giving evidence critical of this policy:

You say that you don’t want to go back to working in this environment - to the private [sector]. You’d be aware that given your submission here, you wouldn't get offered a job anyway, would you?

Not only does this statement come across as oafish and bullying, it treads mighty close to being a contempt of the House. Standing Order 401(t) gives as an example of contempt, “intimidating, preventing or hindering, a witness from giving evidence, or giving evidence in full, to the House or a committee”. It applies just as much to MPs as to those outside the House.

Maybe the fact the prison officers were able to present their evidence in full means David Garrett’s comments didn’t actually amount to a contempt, as apparently they weren’t intimidated, prevented or hindered in fact. But note that Standing Order 400(c) allows the House to treat as a contempt anything that “has a tendency, directly or indirectly, to [obstruct or impede the House in the performance of its Functions].” So the mere fact David Garrett’s comment could have been intimidatory in its effect might still make it a contempt.

Unless some MP raises the matter with the Speaker, we’ll never know for sure. [Update: apparently Labour has now laid such a complaint ...] But perhaps David Garrett might be as wise to start thinking before speaking, even if he is only stating what he believes to be an obvious truth.

One last bit of free advice on this matter, this time for Bevan Hanlon, the president of the prisons officers’ union. If, as you say, “at least four threats have been made to the prison officers” by their employers about giving evidence to Select Committee, you should find a tame Labour Party MP and get them to lodge a privileges complaint with the Speaker tout suite. Because, as TVNZ found out in 2006,  that sort of behaviour gets severely frowned on by the Privileges Committee.

Second, I don’t know enough about privacy law to give a firm opinion on whether Paula Bennett breached the Privacy Act by revealing details of the benefits received by two critics of the Government’s decision to axe the training incentive allowance. Nicole Moreham at Victoria’s Law School thinks she has, and may have committed the tort of breach of privacy to boot. But I suspect the question of whether the information was really “private” in a legal sense is complex, especially in light of previous disclosures on the matter.

That said, the legal technicalities of the situation are less important to me than the bigger picture. On this question, I find myself in rare agreement with the Otago Daily Times editorial line;

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 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.

The key point is that Government knows a hell of a lot about us, much of which we don't have a choice about giving over to it. And it shouldn't wheel out what it knows when we criticise it, whether to deliberately intimidate or simply "add context". That's a line that just shouldn't get crossed in spirit, whatever the black letter words of the law say.

Finally, I posted a couple of weeks ago on the constitutional proprieties of Chief Justice Sian Elias' speech on criminal justice matters. I thought she was within her rights to make it. Some commentators disagreed with me, and thought she'd strayed into impermissible political territory.

I'll simply note here that another judge now appears to have done likewise. Chief Youth Court Judge Andrew Becroft has told a Local Government conference that:

Among measures councils could take [to combat youth violence] were to develop venues for community work, "get tough" on the availability and use of alcohol by young people, support truancy programmes and promote community networks by providing sports facilities, libraries, youth centres and cultural centres.

He also told the conference that "New Zealand needed to get tough on alcohol, which was a factor in as many as nine out of 10 cases of youth crime." This on the eve of the release of a major Law Commission report, released today, reviewing the legal regulation of alcohol sales, which recommends much the same approach.

So - more evidence that the judiciary is run amuck in policy land? Or just words of wisdom from the coalface?