Gordon Campbell on political smears and begging

If you’re a ministerial spin merchant can you ‘accidentally’ pass on to a journalist the fact that a prominent critic of your Minister and her government is under Police investigation?

Even in in the event that you did think you were only sharing common knowledge – and in your job, you would be expected to be cautious about such distinctions – the apparent intention remains the same. The status of the info would seem irrelevant –whether it is by affirming common gossip or by planting new information, the process involves undermining the credibility of a person currently being troublesome to the Minister.

Journalists are also supposed to tread carefully when speculating on situations where they don’t know the minds/intentions of the people involved. On this occasion, an accident may have been involved. Yet on the other hand, this government, and this Minister, have been here before.

Social Development Minister Paula Bennett has refused to apologise to a single mother whose income details she released in 2009 – and will not rule out taking the same action again in the future.

This incident resulted in a privacy breach complaint to the Human Rights Commission and a resolution of the Director of the Human Rights Office Proceedings, Robert Hesketh.

Ultimately, no proceedings against Bennett were taken on that occasion:

However, [Hesketh] also released a letter which made it clear Mr Hesketh believed there had been a privacy breach by Ms Bennett – something Ms Bennett said she disagreed with. The complaint dated back to July 2009 when Ms Bennett provided the benefit details of Ms [Natasha] Fuller and another single mother to the Herald after they criticised Ms Bennett’s decision to scale back the Training Incentive Allowance.

Reportedly, Bennett had sought to justify herself back then on the grounds that she felt the details were relevant to the public debate occurring at the time.

When asked… if she would do the same thing again, Ms Bennett would not rule it out, but said she was more experienced and would seek advice. “It would depend on the circumstances but I’m not going to make a judgement on what may or may not happen. I’d make a call at the time.”

So… this is a Minister who seems to feel no qualms when private information that comes her way purely by dint of her ministerial post, happens to undermine critics of government policy. To repeat: even if the status of the information was ‘accidentally’ mistaken in this case, the context of sharing that info with the media has had the effect of undermining someone whose organisation was showing up the ineptitude of the government’s response to the homeless. Given that Bennett is the current frontrunner to eventually replace John Key as National Party leader, her apparent willingness to consider resorting to Muldoonism (when under pressure) has to be disturbing.

Harassing The Homeless

If New Zealand’s response this week to the global refugee crisis has been pitiful, its ongoing attitude to the homeless on our city streets seems just as bad. In Wellington, one mayoral candidate has already advocated the banning of begging.

Palmerston North rejected that option, but is now is trying something else. Security guards – cosmetically re-named as “hosts” – will patrol the streets to try and intimidate locals from giving money to beggars.

A Safety Advisory Board working group has recommended a plan that would involve uniformed hosts standing next to beggars during the day, and discouraging people from giving them any money. ….ouncil community engagement manager Ian Littleworth said targeting donors was the best way to tackle the begging problem.

Interestingly, the conservative wing of the US Supreme Court has just come out in support of the rights of street beggars/panhandlers, and against local bylaws that seek to clear them off the city streets. Such actions have been ruled to be a violation of individual rights to free speech that are protected by the US Constitution’s First Amendment.

The relevant Supreme Court was – amusingly – triggered by its defence of a religious pastor, who had put up signs directing people to his church. By laws that put strict time limits on such ‘directional’ signs were ruled unconstitutional via judgement written by one of the Supreme Court’s most conservative justices. Clarence Thomas. In a ripple effect, this judgement extended to the striking down of by laws against ballot box selfies, political robot calling, signs held by panhandlers, and – eventually – asking for money on city streets. “Any law distinguishing one kind of speech from another by reference to its meaning now requires a compelling justification,” Frank Easterbrook, a federal appeals curt wrote in a key rights-to panhandle case, raised in Springfield, Illinois. As Bloomberg News also noted:

Advocates for the poor say anti-begging ordinances crimnalise poverty and overlook the root problems of mental illness, drug addiction, and homelessness that can lead to panhandling [street begging.]

Indeed. Aggressive begging can be a nuisance, but it doesn’t seem fair – or healthy – to try and simply suppress this increasingly common symptom of social failure. In part, it is a reflection of the under-funding of mental health services. Moreover, it is hard to see how passive begging with a sign is any different to the advertising signs that are freely allowed to clutter the streets. To the point of tedium, Wellington likes to call itself the coolest little capital in the world. (Cooler than Port Vila? Apia? For obvious reasons, capital cities are not usually little. Being the Tom Cruise of capital cities seems a dubious virtue.) Well, genuinely cool cities – eg New York – currently ban sidewalk cluttering advertising signs.

Ultimately, if we are interested in curbing begging, maybe we need to change the economic settings that are generating more and more beggars. In the meantime, we should definitely stop undermining the people who are actually helping the homeless.

Hey Hey It’s the Monkees ( Again)

One of the strangest comebacks of 2016 has been the return of the Monkees, who have just released a new album 50 years after their heyday. Surprisingly, it is pretty good. (The late Davy Jones is represented via a remixed out –take.) The album’s highlight “Me and Magdalena” was written by Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie, and features some terrific harmonies by Michael Nesmith and Micky Dolenz. Here’s the folkier version:

And here’s the rockier version of the same song. Both good.

Years and years ago, the Monkees released a respectable take on the Byrds’ “Wasn’t Born To Follow”. Here, in 2016, is a survivor’s version of the song, sung by Peter Tork:

1 Comment on Gordon Campbell on political smears and begging

  1. Excellently well put, Gordon. It took quite some time for Bennett to admit it was she who had passed the information to her leaking staffer. Meanwhile Huia Dennis can’t comment while the investigation is in progress.

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