Matt McCarten on politics

Matt McCarten is a Herald on Sunday political columnist

Matt McCarten: One rule for the elite, another for the rest of us

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Paula Bennett. Photo / Natalie Slade
Paula Bennett. Photo / Natalie Slade

My day job is negotiating employment agreements for workers. One of the most important claims by employers is that any information the employee gleans about the employer, or clients, must be strictly confidential and any breach of that trust grounds for immediate dismissal.

Clients and staff are then able to be assured that any personal information they share with the employer will be held in confidence and not be misused.

But after a regular litany of cases - such as cops going into criminal databases to check on former spouses and their new partners, immigration officers running checks for friends, and social welfare staff passing on files to mates - I don't believe the confidentiality of any citizen's personal information in a government department can be said to be secure.

In the private sector it's not much better. A mate spoke in confidence to his bank manager and his bank shared this information with his employer.

Much more serious are events that expose a disturbing culture by those at the top misusing private information on individuals to humiliate clients or employees.

It was no surprise that the ACC investigation report into information leaks found that ACC senior leadership took a cavalier approach to clients' personal information.

When they realised they had sent thousands of clients' files to an individual claimant they did virtually nothing. When the claimant raised it with them in a meeting they seemed more obsessed in covering things up.

When that failed they tried to divert attention by claiming the individual was a blackmailer.

Luckily for the individual recipient she had recorded the meeting so was able to refute their spin. The report recommendations are a whitewash, prattling on about how they will be more considerate in future.

Yeah, right.

Then there are the more sinister incidents. During the wharfies' lockout early this year, a union worker commented about the Ports of Auckland treatment of its staff. His employment history was leaked to a partisan anti-union website to discredit him and frighten off any other workers who dared speak about their problems.

This week, we found that some teachers had written to Education Minister Hekia Parata disagreeing with a Government policy.

Parata then advised the principals and boards of trustees of the actions of their employees. Their unions say none of these teachers identified what school they taught at or raised anything about their particular school. How did Parata or her staff access these individual's files to identify their employer?

But the prize for misusing people's confidential personal information goes to Minister for Social Development Paula Bennett. When two beneficiaries criticised the change in training allowances for sole parents, Bennett dumped their department's files into the public arena. It was crass and thuggish.

These women raised legitimate issues that affected thousands of sole parents whom this Government insists must get into training or a job.

They did not deserve to have their personal information vindictively spread. Called to account, Bennett revelled in the attention. Watching her smirking and smugly saying she wouldn't rule out doing it again was less than classless.

So here's the question: If Ministers of the Crown and senior executives publicly misuse personal information on an individual who annoys them, with the purposes of humiliating or punishing them, why aren't they sacked?

The next time I represent an employee who has used private information they had access to in their work, I'll use Bennett's defence. I'll say we will accept a warning although we won't apologise and won't rule out doing it again. Somehow, I don't think this strategy will save the employee's job.

That's because there are rules for our elite and different rules for everybody else. Some other countries have this system. It's called totalitarianism.

- NZ Herald

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