Paula Ben­nett’s bells and whis­tles

Kapi-Mana News - - OPINION -

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.

GOR­DON CAMP­BELL

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