Release of Curran emails in bungled Handley appointment deferred to OIA

On Tuesday the Speaker told Chris Hipkins to front up in Parliament with Clare Curran emails on Wednesday, but Hipkins himself failed to front up (he has gone on parental leave). Instead Grant Robertson advised that emails would only be released under the official Information Act.

This means the emails will be delayed and subject to possible redactions, but it also means the bungled appointment of a Chief Technology Officer will drag out for another month or two.

Jacinda Ardern responding to Simon Bridges in Question Time yesterday:

3. Hon SIMON BRIDGES (Leader—National) to the Prime Minister: Will she release today all communications between herself, her staff, and her Ministers in respect of Derek Handley and his proposed appointment to the role of Government Chief Technology Officer?

Rt Hon JACINDA ARDERN (Prime Minister): Mr Speaker, my office has received a number of Official Information Act (OIA) requests, including from the Opposition, and is working on a response to those. We will release that information in accordance with the provisions of the Act once it has been compiled and once it has been processed.

Hon Simon Bridges: What did Derek Handley’s text message to her say?

Rt Hon JACINDA ARDERN: Mr Speaker, I would have to go from my recollection. But my recollection is that he mentioned that the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) role had been mentioned to him. Again, as I said, I did not directly reply to that message, and it was received in April.

Hon Simon Bridges: Was there more than one text from or to Derek Handley from the Prime Minister?

Rt Hon JACINDA ARDERN: The text that I received, again, as I said, was in April. I did not directly reply to that text message on that day or engage with him on the CTO role. On the CTO role, I did not engage with Mr Handley via text message.

That is potentially evasive. She said she did not respond “on that day” and “I did not engage with Mr Handley via text message” but that leaves a number of possibilities open.

Hon Simon Bridges: Well, were there any other texts between the Prime Minister and Derek Handley?

Rt Hon JACINDA ARDERN: Mr Speaker, as I acknowledged the very moment I was asked this question, I have known Mr Handley for a number of years and have had correspondence with him for a number of years.

“I have known Mr Handley for a number of years and have had correspondence with him for a number of years.”

Hon Simon Bridges: What other communications by any medium—Gmail, WhatsApp, and the like—were there between the Prime Minister and Derek Handley?

Rt Hon JACINDA ARDERN: Mr Speaker, as a consequence of the member’s question, I have had my office check. Mr Handley sent me an unsolicited email to my private email on 7 June, which I did not open and which I did not reply to. I’m advised by my staff that it informed me that he’d submitted an application for the role. But, again, it was not something I opened, saw, or replied to.

Again that leaves other possibilities open.

Hon Simon Bridges: When will the text, and that Gmail she’s referred to, be released?

Rt Hon JACINDA ARDERN: Mr Speaker, as I said in my primary answer, my office is currently working through the OIA that was received, and we will reply in accordance with the Official Information Act.

So Ardern has had correspondence with Handley over a number of years. She has revealed that she received a text from him in April regarding the CTO job, and an email in June but suggests she replied to neither but doesn’t categorically deny responses or other communications.

Nick Smith also had questions for the Minister of State Services Chris Hipkins but curiously (there could be a valid explanation) he wasn’t in Parliament, so Grant Robertson answered on his behalf.

10. Hon Dr NICK SMITH (National—Nelson) to the Minister of State Services: What are the dates and the contents of the work-related emails to and from former Minister Hon Clare Curran’s private Gmail account, in relation to the appointment of the Government’s Chief Technology Officer, that he referred to as having been handed over to the Chief Archivist in yesterday’s Oral Question No 11?

Hon GRANT ROBERTSON (Acting Minister of State Services): Mr Speaker, as I informed your office, this will be a slightly longer than normal answer. There are three email exchanges. The first: on 11 August, where Derek Handley emails Clare Curran about the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) position and questions about the role of the CTO, including resourcing for the role and potential conflicts of interest. On 14 August, Clare Curran replies to that email, confirming a call to discuss these matters. On 15 August, Derek Handley replies to that, confirming times for the call.

The second exchange: on 19 August, Clare Curran emails Derek Handley regarding logistics around the next step on the process of appointment, including the content of any public statements that might be made, and refers to contract discussions with the Department of Internal Affairs (DIA). On 20 August, Derek Handley responds to that email to Clare Curran about those issues, including the contact he has had with DIA and management of conflicts of interest.

The third exchange: on 21 August, Clare Curran emails Derek Handley regarding issues that would be on the work plan of the CTO and attaches some relevant background documents on those issues. On the same day, Derek Handley responds to Clare Curran, acknowledging the material and referring to the discussions that he is having with DIA.

I have sought and received an assurance from the former Minister that these email exchanges will be made available for release subject to the normal Official Information Act (OIA) processes.

Hon Dr Nick Smith: Will he publicly release or table those emails today, given his responsibilities as the “Minister of Open Government” and this Government’s commitment to be the most open and transparent ever?

Hon GRANT ROBERTSON: I believe I have explained the dates and the contents of the emails today. As I said at the end of my primary answer, those emails will be released in accordance with the rules of the OIA.

Hon Dr Nick Smith: Was there any inappropriate content in any of those emails between Mr Handley and Clare Curran over the appointment that influenced the Government’s decision to not proceed with Mr Handley’s appointment?

Hon GRANT ROBERTSON: The Government’s decision not to proceed with the appointment does not relate to those emails.

That leaves other possibilities open.

Hon Dr Nick Smith: Does he agree with the statement “The only conclusion that can be drawn from Ministers using private Gmail addresses for Government business is that they have something to hide.”, a statement made by Chris Hipkins in opposition; if so, what were Minister Curran and the Prime Minister doing having Government business communicated through a private Gmail account?

Hon GRANT ROBERTSON: One of the things we learn on becoming Ministers is that we receive a lot of correspondence from a lot of different sources to a lot of different places, and, as I quoted in the House yesterday, Sir John Key, the former Prime Minister, acknowledged his use of a private email address for ministerial business.

A diversion to ‘Key did it too’, but no response or denial to “what were…the Prime Minister doing having Government business communicated through a private Gmail account”.

So this saga will stretch out further, as we now await the release of communications under the OIA.

In the meantime suspicions of a less than open and transparent government with questions of competency remain.

Curran communications from NZH Grant Robertson reads outline of Clare Curran emails but no release

  • August 11 – Handley emailed Curran and asked questions about the role of the CTO, including resourcing for the role and potential conflicts of interest.
  • August 14 – Curran replied, confirming a call to discuss those matters.
  • August 15 – Handley replied, confirming times for the call.
  • August 19 – Curran emailed Handley regarding logistics about the next step of the appointment, including content of any public statement and refers to contract discussions with the Department of Internal Affairs.
  • August 20 – Handley replied, about those issues including his contact with DIA and managing any conflicts of interest.
  • August 21 – Curran emailed Handley about any issues that would be on the work plan of the CTO and attached relevant background documents.
  • August 21 – Handley emailed Curran, acknowledging receipt and referring to his discussions with DIA.

Is it normal for a Minister to be that involved with an appointment to a job?

Claire Trevett (NZH): Ministers’ evasion on emails release undermines Parliament’s Question Time

The hiring of Handley and then scrapping his appointment before he even began is the messiest mishap of the new Government so far.

The best Labour can hope for is to deal with the fallout efficiently and without being cute about it.

Labour had no doubt hoped the Handley episode would be tidied away with the departure of Curran.

But as long as the contents of those emails remain a secret so too will the suspicion the Prime Minister is somehow involved, or there is something else damaging in there.

Curran messed up and eventually resigned, but there’s a real risk that Ardern will be tainted by this mess as well.

Ministers using private email accounts

The issue of Ministers using private email accounts while doing their jobs was raised in Parliament yesterday, when Minister of Broadcasting Clare Curran struggled answering questions from National’s Melissa Lee – see Curran struggling with confidence and memory.

Melissa Lee: Does she use a personal email account or accounts to conduct any official business?

Hon CLARE CURRAN: From time to time, I have used my Gmail account. When using it, I adhere to my obligations as a Minister.

Melissa Lee: What Government business has she conducted via her Gmail account?

Hon CLARE CURRAN: To the best of my recollection, I haven’t used my—I’ve answered Official Information Act (OIA) responses and personal and parliamentary questions correctly, and, to the best of my recollection, you know, that’s what I’ve done.

Without being prompted on the Official Information Act Curran must have recognised it could come up.

Avoiding having to provide communications through OIA requests has previously been said to be a reason why a Minister might use a private email account. It is a serious issue if Ministers use private emails to deliberately avoid their OIA obligations.

The Speaker Trevor Mallard then made this comment:

SPEAKER: And I’m going to rule that the member, between the primary and the supplementary answer, certainly answered that to my satisfaction. I mean, I think all of us know that there’s no restriction on members or Ministers using Gmail accounts. I think all of us know that a large amount of the foreign affairs business of the previous Government was carried out by Gmail.

That’s alarming. Is there really no restriction on Ministers using private email accounts when doing their jobs?

This came up as far back as 2012 when Activists hacked McCully’s emails

Labour says revelations Foreign Affairs Minister McCully’s email account was hacked into is a wake-up call and raises serious questions about what was sent to the private address.

The Telecom Xtra account was broken into by international hackers’ collective Anonymous, potentially revealing sensitive Cabinet information and cable traffic from foreign posts.

McCully had asked that official emails be forwarded to that account while he was overseas in April last year.

Prime Minister John Key said he was aware of the breach and warned other ministers to be more careful, particularly about passwords.

Key didn’t seem to have a problem with McCully using a private account, just that he may have had an insecure password.

Interestingly:

Labour’s information technology spokeswoman Clare Curran said she was “bemused” to learn the minister was having emails forwarded to a private accounts.

“There are questions to be answered.”

If it was easier for the minister to access a private account when he was overseas, that was an issue that needed to be addressed by Parliament’s information technology department.

But it was concerning if there was another reason, she said.

“What sort of correspondence would be going on between a minister and officials through a private account that wasn’t subject to the Official Information Act?”

From time to time the Parliamentary email system was unable to be accessed, Curran said.

“(But) given he holds a ministerial position, is it sensible to be using another email account which is so obviously that you’re a minister?”

She was aware six years ago of the potential to use “a private account that wasn’t subject to the Official Information Act”, but on other matters, like having private meetings, Curran’s memory has been a bit suspect so maybe she forgot this by the time she became Minister of Broadcasting, Communications and Digital Media, Minister for Government Digital Services and Associate Minister of State Services (Open Government) – she lost the Digital Services and Open Government portfolios two weeks ago due to her indiscretions.

I’d be surprised if there are not clear guidelines if not rules by now on the use of email accounts by Ministers.

Security is an obvious issue, especially after McCully had his private email account hacked.

And security and transparency of email accounts has received international attention when Hillary Clinton’s emails were hacked and leaked to (successfully) try to derail her presidential campaign.

It pales in comparison to the email controversy surrounding former United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, during her 2016 presidential run against US President Donald Trump, but has raised similar questions over security and transparency of information.

https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/politics/106851077/embattled-minister-clare-curran-struggles-to-explain-using-personal-email-for-government-business

After that major security breach surely the new Zealand Parliament has ensured the our Ministers have secure email accounts to conduct their business.

And our Official Information Act was obviously on Curran’s mind yesterday. She referred to it indirectly and directly four times:

Hon CLARE CURRAN: From time to time, I have used my Gmail account. When using it, I adhere to my obligations as a Minister.

Hon CLARE CURRAN: To the best of my recollection, I haven’t used my—I’ve answered Official Information Act (OIA) responses and personal and parliamentary questions correctly…

Hon CLARE CURRAN: I worked with my office to ensure that I am responding appropriately to OIA requests and parliamentary questions.

Hon CLARE CURRAN: I have reviewed my processes with my office. I reassure that member that I’ve released information in accordance with the OIA.

And her final answer:

Hon CLARE CURRAN: As I’ve said, I have reviewed processes in my office, including with the former Government digital services.

I’m not sure what she means by “the former Government digital services”, but whoever runs email and communications systems for Ministers (and MPs), and whoever sets rules for communications and information storage for Ministers, surely must have secure systems and clear rules on use of email accounts.

I don’t know what official systems Ministers and MPs use for emailing. This from 2016 in Parliamentary Service defends blocking email between MP and Fairfax journalist:

Parliamentary Service told Hipkins the email he tried to forward was picked up by the secure system because he “sent it to a domain that does not use SEEMail” – in this case, Fairfax.

SEEMail is the agency used by Parliamentary Service for MPs and staff emails.

“SEEMail is an all of government secure messaging system that we subscribe to. SEEMail classified messages can only be sent to-from approved government departments and agencies,” Parliamentary Service wrote.

Their public email addresses must be in a different system too this.

They can’t just leave it to Ministers to do as they see fit.

Minister embarrassed by Advisory Group failing to keep minutes

Minister of Broadcasting, Communications and Digital Media Minister, and Associate Minister for ACC and of State Services (Open Government) Clare Curran has been embarrassed by a letter that shows an advisory group she set up failed to take minutes at meetings when they found out they would be subject to the Official Information Act.

In Parliament today:

12. MELISSA LEE (National) to the Associate Minister of State Services (Open Government): Has she provided any guidance to State agencies and Government bodies about best practice to achieve open and transparent Government?

Hon CLARE CURRAN (Associate Minister of State Services): No, and that’s because the State Services Commissioner provides leadership to the State services on these matters.

Melissa Lee: How concerned would she be if she were to learn that a Government-appointed body had decided not to minute their meetings because those minutes could be subject to the Official Information Act?

Hon CLARE CURRAN: Well, the State Services Commissioner provides, as I said, leadership to the State services. Some examples of that: guidance is provided on the Official Information Act (OIA) to increase public access to information, there is guidance on providing free and frank advice and codes of conduct for staff in ministerial offices, as well as speaking up guidance—so a range of advice on a range of matters. So that’s good advice to the State services, and if there are instances of concern, then I suggest that she raise them with the State services.

Melissa Lee: Is she concerned that the ministerial advisory group appointed by the Minister of Broadcasting, Communications and Digital Media to decide the future of public media funding in New Zealand has decided not to keep minutes of their meetings because they would be subject to the Official Information Act?

Hon CLARE CURRAN: I’m not aware of that, but what I would say is that that the ministerial advisory group has provided reports to the Minister, which will be provided in due course publicly.

Melissa Lee: Is it open and transparent for the public media ministerial advisory group responsible for millions of taxpayers’ dollars for public broadcasting to no longer take minutes of their meetings in order to avoid being subject to the Official Information Act?

Hon CLARE CURRAN: I think I’ve already answered that, but I’ll repeat that ministerial advisory groups provide advice to Ministers—that’s what they’re set up to do. That advice is made public to the media in due course as the process goes through.

Melissa Lee: Is it open and transparent for the public media ministerial advisory group responsible for millions of taxpayer dollars for public broadcasting to no longer take minutes of their meetings—

Hon CLARE CURRAN: I’m unaware of any allegation of that sort. My understanding is that my ministerial advisory group is providing reports to me which will be made public in due course. I’m unaware of that matter that that member is raising.

Melissa Lee: I seek leave to table a letter dated 19 June 2018 from Te Manatū Taonga, which is the Ministry for Culture and Heritage, and the 27 February 2018 minutes of the public media advisory group, released from the Minister’s office under the OIA.

Mr SPEAKER: Is there any objection to those documents being tabled? There appears to be none.

Documents, by leave, laid on the Table of the House.

A screenshot of the minute recorded.A screenshot of the minute recorded. Photo credit: Screengrab/Newshub. (more…)

Government puts House in urgency over fuel tax bill

This may be largely unnoticed as most attention is on Trump’s immigration fiasco and New Zealand media will likely be obsessed with a maternity hospital in Auckland.

URGENCY

Hon CHRIS HIPKINS (Leader of the House): I move, That urgency be accorded to the committee stage and third reading of the Land Transport Management (Regional Fuel Tax) Amendment Bill and to the committee stage and third reading of the Taxation (Neutralising Base Erosion and Profit Shifting) Bill. McGee says that “the use of urgency is expected to be confined to situations where an urgent approach is genuinely needed.” The passing of these two bills meets this criteria quite comfortably. The passing of the Land Transport Management (Regional Fuel Tax) Amendment Bill this week is essential so that the Order in Council in clause 5 under new section 65K of the Land Transport Management Act can be made in time to establish the Auckland regional fuel tax scheme from 1 July, as scheduled. A late delay in the start date would make that very difficult, if not impossible.

The Taxation (Neutralising Base Erosion and Profit Shifting) Bill must be assented by the end of this month to allow the commencement of most of its provisions on 1 July to apply in the income year that begins on that day. Any delay could create serious compliance issues for the IRD and for taxpayers. The bill has been supported by all parties at its first and second reading.

The scheduling of the remaining stages of these two bills this week was notified to all parties last Thursday, so there are no particular surprises here. The use of urgency today will prevent the disruption of the third readings of the Treaty settlement bills that are planned tomorrow and next Thursday, and it will stop the Government having to interrupt members’ day next Wednesday, which is an undertaking that I have given to members opposite—that we would avoid interrupting members’ days wherever possible.

Urgency will be used very rarely by this Government, as we showed last month when we became the first Government not to seek post-Budget urgency, and therefore I ask the House to support the motion.

  • [Party Vote—Ayes 63, Noes 55]

    Motion agreed to.

Scoop:  House goes into Urgency over tax bills

The Government moved to put the House into Urgency tonight after making slow progress on the committee stage of the Land Transport Management (Regional Fuel Tax) Amendment Bill.

The unusual step was taken to end the debate by reporting progress and then immediately afterwards the Leader of the House Chris Hipkins put the Urgency motion to complete all stages of the fuel tax bill and the Taxation (Neutralising Base Erosion and Profit Shifting) Bill.

Hipkins said Urgency was required as the two bills had to be enacted by July 1 and it would mean less disruption to the rest of the House’s sitting programme.

One could ask why the Government has left themselves with so little time to get these bills through in time.

National MPs disagreed saying Urgency was being given without notice due to the Government losing control of its parliamentary agenda.

National MP Jami-Lee Ross then put forward a motion that “it be an instruction to the Committee of the whole House on the Land Transport Management (Regional Fuel Tax) Amendment Bill that all members wishing to speak that have already spoken in Part 2 have the ability to have a full four calls reset to zero so each member is able to restart their speaking number”. This in effect would have extended the debate by some time.

Hipkins then moved an amendment to the motion that “the motion be amended to delete all the words after “That” and replace them with “That it be an instruction to the committee that the remaining questions on the Land Transport Management (Regional Fuel Tax) Amendment Bill be put without further debate”.

Debate will resume in Parliament at 9 am this morning.

The fuel tax was originally intended to help Auckland with it’s urgent need for more money for transport infrastructure, but it could spread around the country.

Newshub – Revealed: The number of councils considering a fuel tax

Newshub can reveal at least 14 councils across the country have discussed the possibility of implementing a regional fuel tax.

This time next month, Aucklanders will be paying an additional 11.5 cents a litre for their fuel through the regional fuel tax – and it seems other councils want in on the action.

In response to a number of local government Official Information and Meetings Act requests, numerous councils across the nation admitted they were considering a fuel tax.

Those councils are:

  • Christchurch City Council
  • Rangitikei District Council
  • Bay of Plenty Regional Council
  • Thames Coromandel District Council
  • Tauranga City Council
  • Gisborne District Council
  • Greater Wellington Regional Council
  • Hamilton City Council
  • Western Bay of Plenty
  • Waikato Regional Council
  • Waikato District Council
  • Westland District Council
  • Environment Canterbury
  • Hurunui District Council

Another eight lower North Island councils had discussed the policy at a Mayoral Forum.

The law is currently making its way through Parliament – and while it was drafted to address Auckland congestion, the legislation doesn’t specify that the tax should only be applied in the super city.

 

 

Government says it has no plans to reform the Official Information Act

Concerns of abuse of the Official Information Act by Government Ministers have been growing for years.

Last December: Clare Curran is planning a few shake-ups

Broadcasting aside, Curran has also been given the newly created role as the Minister in charge of ‘open government’.

Falling under her Associate State Services portfolio it’s a natural fit for Curran who during her years in opposition was a loud campaigner for greater transparency.

She repeatedly criticised the National-led coalition for refusing to improve government practice in the area and for gaming the Official Information Act (OIA).

But, of course, when the shoe is on the other foot those strong views can sometimes mellow.

Curran was apparently “half-hearted” when asked by the Otago Daily Times if she agreed the OIA was being manipulated for political purposes but is clearer now that it has happened in the past, but won’t in the future.

How can she be sure that a Labour Minister won’t do the same thing a year or two down the line, once they’re feeling more secure in their power?

“Through better processes and protocols being in place that we all sign up to and agree to. I don’t think it is being made to agree to it (formally), it’s about a will and getting things right.”

To push through this change, she and Justice Minister Andrew Little will review the Act and previous recommendations from the Law Commission and the Ombudsman and take a policy to Cabinet.

While the final result may not be a major legislative change, Curran is supportive of a former Labour Private Member’s Bill that called for the Ombudsman to be given the power to fine departments and Minister’s offices that inappropriately withheld information.

Real change will take time, she says, with a culture shift within the public service needed.

“To change the way that advice is provided, to the way in which it is released to the public, is not something that can be turned around overnight.

“It’s hugely frustrating, it means that people feel there’s a deliberate attempt to keep every piece of information withheld from public scrutiny. That is the thing that has to be turned around.”

But it now appears that no review of the OIA will happen.

NZ Council for Civil Liberties: Disappointment as Government says it has no plans to reform the Official Information Act


Contrary to reporting last year, it seems that the Government currently has no plans to reform the Official Information Act.

At the time we wrote to Ministers Clare Curran and Andrew Little expressing our support for such a reform. We have finally had a response from Justice Minister Andrew Little that:

Although a review of the Official Information Act is not presently under consideration by the Government, such a review is possible at some point in the future.

Chairperson of the NZ Council for Civil Liberties, Thomas Beagle says:

We’re very disappointed that the Government won’t be reforming the OIA, it’s a vital tool in holding governments to account. The OIA has been steadily weakened over the years by both changes in how government works, and gaming of the law by Ministers and public servants.

Among other things, the Council would like to see serious consideration given to:

  • Further encouragement for extensive pro-active publication of documents.
  • Removing commercial sensitivity as a ground for withholding information, particularly for outsourced government services.
  • Giving the Office of the Ombudsman more resources and powers to enforce the Act.
  • Restricting the use of the “legal privilege” grounds to times when matters are actually before a court.
  • Reducing Ministerial interference with OIA requests.

We believe that the Official Information Act does need substantive reform, and that the reform process should include significant public consultation and participation. “The Official Information Act needs to be updated so that it can continue to be used to deliver open and transparent government in service of our democracy. We call upon the Government to reconsider its position and start the OIA reform process now,” says Thomas Beagle.

Another report information wrongly withheld by Auckland Council

RNZ reports on a third case where mayor Phil Goff and the Auckland City Council withheld information requested under the Official Information act that required intervention by the Ombudsman’s Office – Auckland Council stalled release of reports

The release of the $935,000 consultants’ report on a downtown stadium on Friday was the third time RNZ had to resort to the Ombudsman’s Office to extract public information.

The information was eventually found to have been wrongly withheld by Auckland Council.

All three directly involve the mayor Phil Goff.

In the latest case, RNZ had requested at the end of November 2017 the “pre-feasability” study looking at the prospects for a downtown stadium.

Advocacy for a closer look at the stadium had been part of Mr Goff’s election campaign.

Mr Goff personally called for the report soon after he was elected Mayor in October 2016, following 33 years in national politics.

Consultants PwC were engaged in January, although that move was not publicly announced until March, and the draft was delivered on time in June to the council agency Regional Facilities Auckland (RFA).

The council argued initially that the report was only a draft, and therefore not required to be released under the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act (LGOIMA).

Wrong, said Ombudsman Leo Donnelly in an opinion he sent to Auckland Council and released to RNZ.

“There is no basis for a blanket withholding of drafts under LGOIMA until they are completed and finalised,” he wrote.

“To have a standard approach of withholding draft reports until they have been fully signed off, leaves the process open to exploitation by agencies who want to hold off release of information until it is most convenient.”

Read the Ombudsman’s opinion on Auckland Council’s arguments here (693.4KB)

In negotiations between the council and the Ombudsman, a senior council legal manager had also rejected the notion that public interest was not a ground for release.

“Any interest in the contents of the Report is tangential to the overall stadium issue, and falls into the category of being interesting to the public as opposed to being of legitimate concern to the public.”

Wrong, opined the Ombudsman.

“This is a project which, were the matter to progress, would involve the use of significant public funds, either through the council or central government,” wrote Leo Donnelly.

“There is a public interest in the Council being transparent at each step of the process.”

If draft reports could be kept secret under the OIA then many reports may never reach a final stage.

RNZ understands that the mayor’s office has been the key player in seeking the withholding of the “draft” report, and it was the mayor’s office which managed the reports’ release on Friday.

It also allowed Mr Goff to have a “conversation” with Finance Minister Grant Robertson on the subject, just a week ago.

It’s a re-run of RNZ’s effort to get a report commissioned by Mr Goff on the future of the vehicle import trade on Auckland’s waterfront.

Again, moving Auckland’s port long-term and the space-hungry vehicle import trade in the shorter term, were Goff campaign battle cries.

Again, fresh in office, Mr Goff ordered a report on the costs and benefits, and a draft was completed in May 2017.

It didn’t support Mr Goff’s view that the trade was a blight on the waterfront. RNZ’s request for a copy in July was declined.

Goff seems to have transferred poor OIA practices of central Government to the Auckland Council.

The outcome of the Ombudsman’s Office investigation into Auckland Council conduct around public information release, is still awaited.

But will it make any difference to Goff’s delaying tactics?

From Goff’s campaign policy document:

Council is regarded as an organisation that needs to cut fat from its system, become more responsive to the needs of its residents and ratepayers, and to be more transparent in how it spends its money.

Transparency seems to have morphed into secrecy. And the fat cutting? Auckland Council paying $45 million for ‘communications and engagement’

A leaked, confidential Auckland Council report has revealed the local body is spending $45 million running its various communications departments which employ 234 staff.

Critics have called for the council to tighten its belt and drastically cut the number of “spin doctors” it employs.

Mayor Phil Goff, who campaigned on tightening the city’s excess spending, addressed the reviews, which he instigated, at a meeting with the North Harbour business community in August.

“I’m spending your money,” he said. “You need to know you’re getting value for money in what we spend.”

Except when Goff wants to use his comms staff to keep things secret.


Goff is being interviewed on RNZ now.

Goff denies playing any part in the withholding of information. He says it follows a process. That process seems to be severely flawed.

He expects the Council to take on board the Ombudsman’s comments but then puts forward reasons (makes excuses) for not releasing information.

 

Redacted document dump, closed communications by Open Government minister

Clare Curran has dumped a pile of documents related to the RNZ saga on journalists tonight.

ODT (NZME):  Curran releases information on RNZ saga

The office of Broadcasting Minister Clare Curran has released a raft of documents, text messages and other information, including a voicemail left on her phone by Radio New Zealand chairman Richard Griffin.

The documents, loaded on to the Beehive website late today, are Curran’s response to requests made under the Official Information Act in the wake of the resignation of RNZ’s former head of content Carol Hirschfeld.

The large wad of documents contained many redactions but no smoking gun.

It looks like the Minister of Open Government has closed down the barrel.

One text exchange, released today but with identifying information redacted, said: “If it comes up again the answer will be that it was arranged at short notice. It’s clear from talking to her that it was not spur of the moment.”

The response came back: “Can you send a copy of the staff announcement please.”

Today’s release of information includes a text from Curran following her voice mail which says: “Hi Richard I have left a voicemail message re a written correction to the select committee that is needed today. Can you please advise you have received the message and it can be done. Thanks.”

Griffin then left a message for Curran which said: “Good afternoon Minister I just picked up your call this morning, and your text. The fact is we agreed last … I agreed last Monday with the Chairman that we would appear … we have since requested such an action and on Tuesday amended the appearance date from 1 o’clock today to 9am next Thursday. I can only suggest you have a word with the Chair if necessary but, we’ve already got a signed deal with them to have it on 9 o’clock on Thursday and we’re taking legal advice … we took legal advice yesterday with Hugh Rennie QC so that’s where the situation is from my point of view. The same applies to the message I got from Paul James today. Call me back if you’ve got a problem. Cheers.”

Curran declined to comment this evening.

The Minister of Broadcasting and Minister of Open Government has closed down communications.

The Peters Super leak, and how to get away with it

Documents obtained under the Official Information Act don’t reveal who leaked the information about Winston Peters’ Super overpayment (and neither has Peters despite claiming to know who did it albeit with changing targets).

But Sam Sachdeva uses the papers to show how to leak and get away with it, perhaps.

Newsroom – Inside the Peters leak: how to escape the net

During last year’s election campaign, the New Zealand First leader confirmed he had received higher superannuation payments than he was entitled to for seven years, after a number of media outlets including Newsroom received anonymous tips about the overpayment.

MSD, the Department of Internal Affairs (which has responsibility for ministerial staff) and Inland Revenue all launched investigations to determine whether their staff had been the source of the leak (all ultimately failed to find any leaker).

Copies of the final MSD and DIA reports outlining investigators’ work, released to Newsroom under the Official Information Act after months of delays, offer nothing in the way of a smoking gun but show the lengths they went to and the difficulties they encountered along the way.

Journalists love Government leakers as they can provide juicy and often exclusive stories. Sachdeva helpfully provides some helpful hints.

How to leak (and get away with it)

Handily, the documents also offer some hints on how a budding Deep Throat in waiting could share an issue of concern with their friendly neighbourhood media outlet.

Both departments relied in large part on digital records, turning to sweeps of email accounts, cellphone records and landline logs of staffers who had accessed or knew of Peters’ superannuation details.

MSD used “footprinting” of its IT systems to determine who had accessed Peters’ files and whether they had a valid business reason for doing so; that would appear difficult to circumvent, meaning a public servant wishing to share details with the media had better have a legitimate reason for knowing about it in the first place.

MSD and DIA also searched for any emails or phone calls between their staff and Newshub (which broke the story) or Newsroom (identified by MSD as an “early chaser”).

MSD’s email searches were initially based on “headline information” such as the sender, recipient and subject headline (so leakers might want to avoid putting anything too incriminating in there).

That turned up little of any value, in part due to a shortcoming identified by Jong: as searches were conducted only on records, networks and devices managed by Ministerial Services or the Parliamentary Service, he had to rely on “signed attestations” that information was not shared through other means, such as social interactions or a private device.

While Newsroom would of course advise against false declarations, that shows using a personal phone or computer – or better yet, a face-to-face encounter – may be the best way to share information while avoiding detection.

MSD also acknowledged “significant limitations” in its use of document-tracking in ministry systems to determine whether any reports had been shared with outside parties.

“A person with intent to use these documents (or remove them from the ministry) could use any number of options to remove these documents without leaving any footprint e.g. they could simply print it and walk out with it.”

We may live in a digital age, but it appears analogue methods can be best when it comes to staying off the radar.

Of course there’s a much higher risk of leaving digital footprints if using photocopiers or printers that are logged, or emails or other means of electronic communication.

Taking photos using personal devices and not sending them while at work have obvious advantages if trying to avoid detection.

Government to drip feed health underfunding stories pre-budget

Former Health Minister Jonathan has finally spoken about what he knew about the building problems at Middlemore Hospital that seem to have suddenly emerged.

RNZ: Coleman says documents show he didn’t know about hospital rot

RNZ has been reporting on hospital buildings at Middlemore Hospital that are full of rot and potentially dangerous mould. There’s also asbestos present and raw sewage leaking into the walls.

Earlier today, National Party leader Simon Bridges told Morning Report Dr Coleman did not know about Middlemore’s building problems.

In a blog post this afternoon Dr Coleman said he had been reviewing a couple of “very pertinent” documents.

“It’s just not credible to say that Middlemore Building problems were widely known about and I would have known,” he wrote.

This claim that was made in late March to Morning Report by former Counties Manukau District Health Board chair Lee Mathias.

“Most people in Wellington knew of the situation Middlemore was in,” she said then.

She also said the state of the buildings was covered in board minutes that were publicly available. However, the DHB has blocked the release of these minutes to RNZ under the Official Information Act.

More withholding of information under the OIA.

But the Government seems intent on not withholding information about health underfunding heading into next month’s budget.

RNZ:  PM hints of further public underfunding revelations

The government is going to drip feed stories of public sector underfunding by the previous government in the run-up to next month’s Budget, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has indicated.

Ms Ardern is playing down expectations of a big spending budget next month saying her government did not realise how bad the under-investment in public services had been under National.

She said it was now clear National put budget surpluses ahead of the wellbeing of New Zealanders, and chronically short-changed public services.

“I’ve always said that from the beginning we thought it would be bad, we didn’t know it would be this bad.

“And the public is seeing just a snapshot of it now, the state of Middlemore Hospital I think is emblematic of what we’re seeing across the board.”

I get the feeling that the public were played during the election campaign, and are being played by politicians now – with DHBs possibly complicit.

Ardern:

“What we are flagging is that as we’ve gone through this process we’ve uncovered things we didn’t expect. We want to build more transparency around that as we lead up to Budget day.

“As ministers we have been engaging in this conversation for some time, we’ve decided it’s one we should be having with the public too.”

The public could have done with factual information on health and hospital funding long ago. This sort of waffle in an apparent attempt to manage pre-budget PR is crap. If Ardern has information she should just present it all now.  Instead she seems to be intent on playing a risky game. Not all information that is drip fed could look good for Labour.

So why did the Middlemore building story just start to emerge now? It sounds too serious and important to be used as political misinformation.

US poll: 74% believe in ‘deep state’

What is ‘deep state’? In the US, according to Wikipedia:

In the United States, the term “deep state“, describes a form of cabal that coordinates efforts by government employees to influence state policy without regard for democratically elected leadership.

Deep state was defined in 2014 by Mike Lofgren, a former Republican U.S. congressional aide, as “a hybrid association of elements of government and parts of top-level finance and industry that is effectively able to govern the United States without reference to the consent of the governed as expressed through the formal political process.”

In The Concealment of the State, professor Jason Royce Lindsey argues that even without a conspiratorial agenda, the term deep state is useful for understanding aspects of the national security establishment in developed countries, with emphasis on the United States. Lindsey writes that the deep state draws power from the national security and intelligence communities, a realm where secrecy is a source of power.

Alfred W. McCoy states that the increase in the power of the U.S. intelligence community since the September 11 attacks “has built a fourth branch of the U.S. government” that is “in many ways autonomous from the executive, and increasingly so.”

Probably a better question would be what degree of ‘deep state’ exists in the US (and in New Zealand).

Monmouth University Polling Institute: Public Troubled by ‘Deep State’

A majority of the American public believe that the U.S. government engages in widespread monitoring of its own citizens and worry that the U.S. government could be invading their own privacy. The Monmouth University Poll also finds a large bipartisan majority who feel that national policy is being manipulated or directed by a “Deep State” of unelected government officials. Americans of color on the center and left and NRA members on the right are among those most worried about the reach of government prying into average citizens’ lives.

As it stands right now, do you think that unelected or appointed officials in the federal government have too much influence in determining federal policy or is there the right balance of influence between elected and unelected officials?

  • Unelected or appointed officials have too much influence 60%
  • Right balance of influence between elected and unelected officials 26%
  • Don’t know 14%

Are you very familiar, somewhat familiar, or not familiar with the term Deep State as it applies to the federal government?

  • Very familiar 13%
  • Somewhat familiar 24%
  • Not familiar 63%

The term Deep State refers to the possible existence of a group of unelected government and military officials who secretly manipulate or direct national policy. Do you think this type of Deep State in the federal government definitely exists, probably exists, probably does not exist, or definitely does not exist?

  • Definitely exists 27%
  • Probably exists 47%
  • Total definitely/probably exists 74%
  • Probably does not exist 16%
  • Definitely does not exist 5%
  • Don’t know 5%

I would question whether there is ‘a cabal’ rather than different groups of people within government or the military who try to influence policy.

There are also many groups outside of US government trying to influence policy (like lobbying groups and companies), as well as all the politicians of course. So it’s a complex of competing interests.


I very much doubt that any group within the New Zealand military has any influence or attempt at influence beyond promoting their own military interests (which is what they should do).

I also doubt that there is a cabal inside our public service.

Definitions of cabal:

  • a secret political clique or faction
  • a small group of people who plan secretly to take action, especially political action
  • the contrived schemes of a group of persons secretly united in a plot (as to overturn a government); also : a group engaged in such schemes

I’m sure there are some public servants, and possibly groups of public servants, who try to influence policies, effectively in secret. But I doubt there is a secret group plotting to overturn the government.

To an extent it is the job of government advisers to advise the Government what to do, that is, influence policies.

The biggest problem here is secrecy – that withholding of information provided to our elected representatives from the public. This is more a problem with government MPs trying to keep advice to them secret, but they may be advised to do that by unelected officials.

Here in New Zealand the obvious antidote to secret manipulation or advice is transparency. So making the Official Information Act work as intended is important.

And this is a topical problem here, and not just with national government. From RNZ yesterday: Questions over tardy release of Auckland Council report:

Auckland Council senior executives stalled the release of a major report, for political convenience in a possible breach of official information law.

The study on the impact of moving the imported car trade away from Auckland was withheld from RNZ by the council for five months, and released only after intervention by the Ombudsman’s office.

The problem here isn’t a cabal trying to secretly run or take over the Government, but we do have problems with public servants generally in collusion with elected representatives try to manipulate public opinion and hide information from the public.

This isn’t ‘deep state’, but it is a significant concern.