On the Ombudsman review

The ODT has an editorial on Chief Ombudsman Beverley Wakem’s review of the Official Information ActNo room for complacency.

Dame Beverley’s year-long investigation was undertaken after she says she became aware of growing public concern and criticism about perceived practices within government agencies in relation to the Act.

Her report (released this week) concluded most agencies are compliant most of the time, and there was no direct evidence of political interference in the release of information.

That is certainly pleasing. It adheres to our democratic principles, reflects international findings such as the Corruption Perceptions Index (which rates New Zealand the second-least corrupt country), and reinforces the goals to which we aspire as part of the international Open Government Partnership and our recent ratification of the United Nations Convention Against Corruption.

However, Dame Beverley’s report raised several red flags.

The report found greater leadership was required.

While chief executives and senior managers understood their obligations, there was little OIA training for staff, and policies for proactively releasing information were lacking.

Ministers gave ‘‘mixed messages” to departments about compliance and some Government ministers’ offices had attempted to interfere in their departments’ responses to information requests.

All of the above created a

‘‘cycle of distrust and suspicion” between the public and agencies.

The training and policy lack is concerning given the Act has been in effect for more than 30 years.

While the report found departments put ministerial officials right about their obligations and released the information, the fact influence is being exerted is worrying.

Worrying too is the possible extent of this.

Wakem has been criticised for being to weak in her role.

The public (and media) ‘‘distrust and suspicion” around transparency is certainly real, and was discussed in an editorial in this newspaper only last week.

The situation has not been helped by Prime Minister John Key’s admission the Government sometimes delays releasing information right up to the 20-day OIA deadline if it is in its interests to do so. (It is a legal requirement to release the information as soon as practicable within that time frame.)

It must be acknowledged privacy provisions and security considerations come into play when releasing some information.

Most will understand that conflict and the difficulties in obtaining the right balance.

Unacceptable, though, is the withholding of information, or delaying tactics, for political purposes.

Politicians need to be much better  at serving the interests of the people. And the Ombudsman needs to be better at ensuring this happens.



Goff versus Key, Tucker and Wakem

Although an inquiry is under way as to how Cameron Slater might have been tipped off to submit a specific OIA to the SIS to get information that would embarrass Phil Goff (this happened three years ago, in 2011) Goff has raised it as an issue. He claims that Key must have been involved. Stuff reports:

Labour MP Phil Goff says he has evidence the prime minister was briefed about a decision to release Security Intelligence Service documents to WhaleOil blogger Cameron Slater.

John Key, who is also the minister responsible for the SIS, has denied his office had anything to do with the release in 2011 of the documents used to embarrass Goff, who was then Labour Party leader.

Goff had denied being briefed by then SIS director Warren Tucker on a security matter, but the documents showed he had been fully briefed.

A letter was produced today saying three times that SIS head Warren Tucker had advised ‘the Prime Minister’ about the OIA release.

On Firstline this morning Phil Goff was scathing, including accusing John Key of lying.

“It’s important because John Key is not being truthful in saying that he wasn’t told,” says Mr Goff. “Warren Tucker says in this letter three times not that he notified the office of the Prime Minister, but that he told the Prime Minister himself.”

Mr Goff says the letter proves Mr Key was “manipulating the Security Intelligence Service for his own political ends”, and if an upcoming inquiry “finds the fingerprints […] this is resignation material”.

But Key has strongly refuted this:

“The standard process for the NZSIS is to inform the Prime Minister’s office of any significant OIAs which may result in media coverage being released on a ‘no surprises’ basis,” she said in a statement. “They consider this to be informing the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister stands by his statement yesterday that his office knew about the release of the OIA, but he didn’t”.

Then a letter from the Ombudsman was produced in which it states:

Mrs Wakem is of the view that there is a good reason to withhold Dr Tuckewr’s full recollection of his discussion with the Prime Minister…

(See here for documents and details).

It’s easy to see how people deduced that Tucker personally met with the Prime Minister, but this has been ‘clarified’ by Tucker who has backed Key’s version:

Dr Tucker also put out a statement, saying the “convention relating to Official Information Act requests was to brief the Prime Minister through his office”.

“The reference to the PM in this context means the PM’s office.”

The Ombudsman Beverly Waken also made a verbal statement.

I am very clear that the Director of Security communicated with the offices of the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition [Goff] on this matter.

In the letter that was written on my behalf while I was away but which had been discussed with me, the word discussion has probably been loosely used, and may have given rise to an impression that there was a direct approach.  There wasn’t, and there hasn’t been.

Why is Goff trying to make an issue of it? He said on Campbell Live tonight that he would rather be talking about policies, but that is contradicted by what he’s trying to do with something already subject to an inquiry.

‘Tinakori’ explains how OIA requests can be handled in practice:

it has been native custom forever that agencies and Ministers can release at any time within the 20 day max. Reasonably practicable can cover an awful lot of things including a release minutes after the request and a release after multiple extensions of the 20 day limit. Some agencies are faster than others and often the big ones have so many requests that most significant written requests for information take the max time. For them that is the reasonably practicable period. For others, when the information is easily available or is simple – like did Goff get briefed or did he not – the time period can be anywhere from minutes to a couple of days.

Also, Goff placed the SIS in the political crosshairs and relied on them covering up his untruth, a matter contradicted by the Agency’s records. The fastest way to get out of that situation was to release, not withhold.

All the crap about what did Key know and when did he know is just utterly beside the point. It doesn’t matter if the Minister (of the SIS) wanted it out or the agency wanted it out. Both had the power to do so.I wouldn’t have given it to Whaleoil – it seemed a waste to me to do so. Far better to give it to all media, but there you go, people make different decisions.

As to whether the Minister (Key) knew or not that is also besides the point. Agencies – even agency heads – don’t go straight to Ministers when dealing with this sort of thing. They discuss it with staff and the staff might then discuss it with their Minister.

Some Ministers let their staff deal with most of it, others micromanage and some simply don’t have the time and ruthlessly prioritise what they see and don’t see. They might know only after the fact or as something occurs. Most PMs are in the latter category, though Helen Clark was an exception and was a famous micro-manager in media matters, as so many have testified in the last few days. Guess which category John Key might be in.

The SIS stuff is all a wonderfully entertaining and successful political gotcha by Nicky Hager that relies on the public and media’s ignorance of how the world actually works and uses the aura of a secret intelligence agency to to create an atmosphere of intrigue and high stakes. It was just an attempt by an opposition politician to mislead or lie (or very charitably, forgot) and who had his bluff called. No more.

Goff did it when Foreign Minister to Don Brash in a far more serious case.

John Campbell asked Goff if he was ever involved in ‘dirty politics’. The example above was the leaking of the “gone by lunchtime’ quip that Goff leaked in 2004.

Foreign Affairs Minister Phil Goff on Friday released Brash’s alleged remarks after the National leader waived his rights to privacy.

Goff said Brash told the US delegation New Zealand’s current ban on allowing nuclear powered or nuclear armed ships into its ports would be lifted  “by lunchtime” if the National Party were voted in to power.

The comments were noted down by a Foreign Affairs Ministry official present at the January meeting, according to Goff.

Goff said of Brash’s comments: “That is deceit that is dishonesty and the public would expect that to be revealed.

“…either he was not telling the truth to the delegation or subsequently he was not telling the truth to the New Zealand public.”

Goff’s office leaked a rumour that led to the resignation of Richard Worth in 2009. NZ Herald:

It is obvious that Goff’s office first leaked the rumour to the Press Gallery that Labour had already warned Key of allegations of sexual harassment by Worth of another woman, who we now know is Neelam Choudary.

No one has come out of this business with their reputation enhanced by what now must be seen as a Labour Party dirty trick.

Goff has ducked for cover, after a couple of weeks of drip-feeding juicy tidbits to the media and taking the moral high ground. That can only be seen as an admission he was wrong.

Goff was prominent in an MFAT leak in 2012.

Documents leaked to Labour foreign affairs spokesman Phil Goff showed a reworked plan for the ministry would cut 146 jobs, down from 304.

He had also been leaked documents from trade negotiation staff which showed the restructuring had dented staff confidence.

In 2013 Goff leaks secret army death report:

Labour MP Phil Goff appears to have broken the law by releasing pages from a suppressed Court of Inquiry report into the death of a Kiwi soldier in Afghanistan.

Mr Goff has released part of the report into the death of Corporal Doug Hughes which he says reveals “critical deficiencies in the training and deployment of Kiwi troops”.

Phil “The Bucket” Goff seems to catch plenty of leaks.

Who to believe in Goff versus Key, Tucker and Wakem?