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?

Comments (12)

by stuart munro on July 31, 2009
stuart munro

The law commision's recent stance on alcohol is arrogant and imprudent. Alcohol, for all it's flaws, remains a significant, even an important social drug, and a crude compulsion for poorer New Zealanders to do without it is a draconian assault on our social norms.

The rise of much less tested and less sociable recreational drugs, like party pills and P, owes a great deal to the declining affordability of alcohol due to the combined effects of perennial tax increases and declining real wages.

In terms of criminality and sociopathy, P is much worse than alcohol, and it is interesting to notice that the Law Commision's prurient temperance does not include a countervailing measure to ensure that the impact of their crude measures to reduce demand for alcohol does not simply displace demand into more dangerous forms of drug abuse.

A more sensible measure might be to reduce alcohol tax on beverages consumed on licensed premises, where the worst forms of binge drinking are (or ought to be) obviated by supervision. But the same greed for revenue that has caused the excessive proliferation of speed cameras will surely defeat any sanity or fairness in drinking laws.

Palmer, you will recall, was also the nut behind the fisheries quota system, an egregious theft that so nakedly conflicted with the Treaty of Waitangi that the government was obliged to buy Sealord, with public money, to make restitution. It is Solon who states that a moral man is a law unto himself - a phrase so abused that it's modern meaning has been reversed. But Palmer does not wish to regulate himself, only other people. This is not a sound basis for law.

by Ian MacKay on August 01, 2009
Ian MacKay

I wonder why you would decry research into the alcohol problem Stuart? Alcohol is a much bigger problem than other drugs because it is legal and freely available and affordable. The abuse of alcohol is a serious problem. Every person with a drinking problem affects at least 10 others. There are at least 60,000 alcoholics in NZ. The number of P users is tiny by comparison. Over half of traffic accidents are alcohol related. Over 90% of violence is alcohol related. Police spend about 80% of the time and resources on alcohol related crime. Your solution Stuart? Read the Advisory report why don't you?

by Adolf Fiinkensein on August 01, 2009
Adolf Fiinkensein

While I agree with everything you say about the fool Garrett, I'm tempted to stick my neck out (you being a law professor and all) and suggest that the prison officers were not 'giving evidence' but rather were 'making submissions.'   One gives evidence to a court, surely?  I have never before heard the term evidence used in such a context.

It WAS a select committee hearing, was it not?

by Bruce Thorpe on August 01, 2009
Bruce Thorpe

I have always argued that  consumption of alcohol on licensed premises can be better managed than off licence drinking.

However the benefit is somewhat negated when the staff on these premises evict clients who they now consider under the influence, onto the streets.

Of course progressively higher pricing must be one of the tools to acheive a reduction in binge drinking, but the price structure must also ensure low alcohol and non-alcoholic drinks are available at the lowest prices.

by william blake on August 01, 2009
william blake

Thanks Andrew I have been mulling over Bennett and Garrett this week on my walks with the dog. I have been trying to fit them into a frame with Rodger Douglas's entitlement to $44,000 worth of air time, Don Brash trying to make us as one with Australia and Rodney Hide inserting a big spanner into Auckland.

It seems, at the time of the National Party conference, that the government is just not able to stick to the centre ground, it is tilting (being magnetically drawn by Act?) to the right.

This has got to be a major error, Labour survived for three terms by not being too socialist, National simply cant afford to be too neo-conservative or they will be out on their ear.

I hope Bennett and Garretts' crude attempts at muzzling dissent are just signs of poor character and not party policy and a little distancing of these two from the party by the respective leaders would be reassuring.

I wonder if the referendum this week will be a litmus for how far the country has shifted to the right.

by Andrew Geddis on August 01, 2009
Andrew Geddis

Adolf,

A "submission" is "evidence" in this context. People, through their submissions, provide evidence to the Committee on the issue they are considering.

William,

I rather think it is the product of being new to the game. Both David Garrett and Paula Bennett are learning the ropes of their respective roles (MP and Minister respectively). It'll take a while to learn what is acceptable/unacceptable behaviour in these roles.

At least, I hope that's the best explanation. The alternative isn't too pretty ...

by Adolf Fiinkensein on August 01, 2009
Adolf Fiinkensein

Hello again Andrew

I think you are wrong.

I guess the point I was trying to make is that in this instance, the officers were venturing their opinions rather than black and white factual information.  In that regard, I thought the term 'evidence' gave their opinions a measure of respectabilty they didn't deserve.  I bit like beneficiaries referring to their benefit payments as 'wages.'

I'm sure you would not grace the screamed obscenities endured by the Super City select committee the other day with the term 'evidence' would you?

It's a great pity the SC chairman Cosgrove didn't pull up the oaf on the spot and then encourage the officers to say what the hell ever they liked, no matter how politically unattrative to a fundamentalist right winger.

by stuart munro on August 02, 2009
stuart munro

Yeah righto Ian,

I went off what I saw in the media. I was back in Auckland last weekend, & not amused to be paying $7:00 for a glass of beer. It's about $8:00 for 2 litres here. If Palmer sticks to his assertion that it will not be a return to wowserism, perhaps some good may come of it. But his regulatory intincts have always run to revenue gathering - I wish the commission were being run by someone more credible.

As for research, we have to take it with a pinch of salt. If you consider the division of conclusions on marijuana, and the legal origins of the ban, it seems that regulatory convenience and habit make up as much of the process as objective consideration of the issues. I like to have beer or two now & then, & I don't want Palmer and his ilk telling me I may not. 

by Andrew Geddis on August 02, 2009
Andrew Geddis

Stuart/Ian/Bruce,

The Law Commission has set up a feedback/discussion forum on its proposals - you should let it know what you think (as well as continuing to participate here, too, of course!).

by Tim Watkin on August 03, 2009
Tim Watkin

While P does more damage from a 'quality' point of view, alcohol is far and away the biggest problem in terms of quantity. Over 30% of all crimes – according to the Law Commission – are committed by people under the influence, and alcohol is "involved" in about half of all murders. If it were measured on its merits, alcohol would be listed as a class B drug. So I don't think we need to wonder any more whether we should act. The question is what to do...

For one, I'm always amazed at the parents who fret about their kids getting onto drugs, who are horrified by teen binge-drinking, and what a more decent society, who then buy alcohol for their under-age kids. It's school ball season, and parent-run after-balls are offering alcohol, when most of the kids attending are 16 or 17. Wristbands that guarantee you five drinks at one posh school... or so I'm told.

What were the parents thinking?

Why don't the police act?

by Graeme Edgeler on August 03, 2009
Graeme Edgeler

If it were measured on its merits, alcohol would be listed as a class B drug.

This wasn't based on the massively debunked BERL report, was it?

It's school ball season, and parent-run after-balls are offering alcohol, when most of the kids attending are 16 or 17. Wristbands that guarantee you five drinks at one posh school... or so I'm told.

What were the parents thinking?

Why don't the police act?

Ah. Perhaps because it's not illegal.* We have an alcohol purchasing age, not a drinking age. Parents can legally supply alcohol to any person of any age - or provide it to intoxicated people - without breaking liquor laws. I suppose we could go the other route and sentence them to eight years' prison (reduced to 27 months on appeal); perhaps this is what the Law Commission will favour.

* I could construct a scenario in which it would be illegal, but I can't see that you'd run such a party in such a way, and the general point would remain anyway.

by Roger Brooking on January 17, 2010
Roger Brooking

Alcohol would be a Class B drug in NZ if ALL drugs were classified according to the harm they cause to society irrespective of their legality. This statement has been made by addiction psychiatrist, Prof Doug Sellman of Otago University who is on the committee that decides the classification of drugs for the NZ government.

Prof Nutt is the British equivalent. He was fired recently from his position on the British committee for telling the truth about the comparative harm of drugs including alcohol.

 

 

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