Paula Bennett’s bells and whistles
If Steven Joyce provides much of the Government’s managerial nous and intellectual firepower, Social Development Minister Paula Bennett plays a different role for her colleagues.
Bennett has become the noisy little engine of the National Cabinet – all bells and whistles and clouds of smoke to distract the media whenever lesser performers (such as Hekia Parata) get themselves in trouble.
She has carried some potentially controversial freight (such as welfare reform) in such a brash, unapologetic fashion that those issues have proved more popular for the Government than many would have predicted.
In her latest foray, Bennett has used a school teacher – perpetrated abuse case – step aside again, Hekia – to announce a proposal for pre-testing possible abusers.
If Bennett gets her way, any recipients of government funds in schools, hospitals or other state agencies dealing with children will face mandatory testing of their child abuse potential and the prospect of instant dismissal if they (a) fail the test or (b) refuse to take the test, which will be administered by the police, once every three years.
To say there are civil liberties issues involved here would be an understatement.
The test – whatever it will be – has not even been devised yet.
Even if a reliable predictor of risk-posing individuals could be concocted, people could lose their jobs and be socially stigmatised in their communities on the basis of little more than police suspicion, and in the absence of criminal action on their part.
Reportedly, only state employees who work with children will face this mandatory regime. For scoutmasters, sports coaches and others who work with children in the private or voluntary sectors, compliance with the test will be voluntary.
In that sense, Bennett’s proposal appears unlikely to deter determined abusers and is likely to channel them down alternative avenues of access to children.
Given the glaring problems of design and implementation, the plan could just be another example of Bennett blowing smoke on behalf of a colleague.
The conviction of Northland school teacher James Parker has raised concern about how such extensive abuse could be concealed for so long. But the notion that a police-administered litmus test could accurately predict the likely abusers of the vulnerable seems fanciful and politically motivated in that it offers only the illusion of a response.
Given the potential for error and the drastic consequences of a mistaken allegation, it seems extraordinary that the Government should be contemplating, even for a moment, the arbitrary suspension of normal workplace rights to a fair hearing in the context of a summary dismissal.
Unfortunately, the Government is compiling a lengthy list of laws that suspend civil liberties. The GCSB Bill has received most attention but a related bill would restrict internet privacy and install the GCSB as the overseer of internet security and telecommunications.
Not to mention the limits recently imposed on free expression in protests at sea, the proposed narrowing of grounds for consent challenges under the Resource Management Act, the increased ousting of judicial review, the increased resort to parliamentary urgency, the amending of laws without normal parliamentary process . . .
For a government elected on its declared opposition to the nanny state, this latest flexing of state power by Bennett seems surprising.
Crucially, the proposals appear unlikely to protect the children most at risk.