Provisional support from Ombudsman for secret document

The Chief Ombudsman has given provisional backing for Jacinda Ardern to keep the so-called secret coalition document secret – or at least the contents of it anyway.

Newsroom:  Ombudsman sides with Govt over coalition document

The refusal of the new coalition Government to release a lengthy coalition negotiation document, despite promises of transparency, led to a complaint to the chief Ombudsman. Peter Boshier has now ruled that the Government was within its rights to withhold the material.

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters revealed the existence of the document in late October after signing his party’s official coalition agreement with Labour, describing it as “a document of precision on various areas of policy commitment and development”.

“These are directives to ministers with accountability and media strategies to ensure that the coalition works, not in a jealous, envious way, ‘We got this and they got that’, but as a Government successively, cohesively working.”

While Peters said at the time the document would be publicly released, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s office refused to release it to Newsroom under the Official Information Act, arguing it was not official information.

Ardern later described the document as “notes” made during negotiations that were yet to be finalised, not a formal government document.

“Where we’ve committed ourselves to a piece of work and a policy piece of work, we’ve released that. Where there’s more work to be done, that will be released at the time when we’ve reached a conclusion.”

In a provisional opinion sent to Newsroom, Boshier said he had “carefully read and considered” the document, saying it was “clearly made for the purpose of assisting the parties with coalition negotiations”.

“It contains discussion points designed for negotiation and, despite certain public comments to the contrary, does not include information such as directives to Ministers,” Boshier said, in an apparent reference to Peters’ comments about the document.

Ardern’s office told Boshier the document had not been passed on to any ministers or government departments, or used by any ministers in carrying out their official duties.

“It has played no part in policy decisions, and is not available to Ministers as reference material when making official decisions.”

Boshier said he was therefore satisfied that the information had not used by Ardern in her role as Prime Minister, and was held “solely in her capacity as Leader of the New Zealand Labour Party”.

He said he would consider any comments on the provisional opinion before forming a final opinion.

So a provisional win for Ardern.

I don’t really care whether the document remains secret or not, especially this long after the negotiations. It’s not likely to change anything.

Bennett v Peters on the secret document

Following her questioning of the Prime Minister, Paula Bennett also quizzed and the Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters in Parliament today, trying to establish that there was ministerial responsibility for the coalition negotiation ‘notes’.

Bennett focused on timing of when Peters described the 38 page document and the following day when he became Minister, and when the font was changed that reduced the size of the document to 33 pages.

Peters doesn’t do himself nor the Government any credit by trying to play a know it all comedian.

3. Hon PAULA BENNETT (Deputy Leader—National) to the Deputy Prime Minister: Does he stand by all his answers to Oral Question No. 2 yesterday; if so, does he also agree with the Prime Minister’s answers to Oral Question No. 1 yesterday?

Rt Hon WINSTON PETERS (Deputy Prime Minister): To the first part, the honourable member asked nine questions—or attempted questions—yesterday. I answered the six successful questions, and I stand by all of those answers. To the second part, the Prime Minister was asked nine questions yesterday. I heard them, I read them, I agree with them, and today’s Wednesday.

Hon Paula Bennett: You’re amazing.

Mr SPEAKER: Thank you, Ms Bennett.

Hon Paula Bennett: On what date was the coalition document abbreviated?

Rt Hon WINSTON PETERS: I have no idea as to the exact date that a smart staff member decided to change the font and take the coalition document down from 38 to 33 pages. We were rather busy at the time, and you’ll understand that that wasn’t our major concern.

Hon Paula Bennett: How, then, does the Deputy Prime Minister know that that was done by a staff member under New Zealand First when, in fact, he doesn’t know the date of when the font was changed, and on 25 October he stated that it was 38 pages long, and then, on 26 October, he was sworn in as a Minister? So was one of his secretaries sitting there at midnight on the 25th deciding they would change the font to make it more precise?

Rt Hon WINSTON PETERS: Well, if one wants to behave like a Philadelphia lawyer you might ask a question like that, but the reality is that it was changed and it was changed by a person in our operations and that person has confirmed it with me since then so that I could come here and, with pointed accuracy, answer these questions.

Hon Paula Bennett: Is that person employed by Ministerial Services?

Rt Hon WINSTON PETERS: Can I just make it very clear that until we were sworn in, those people were paid for by Parliamentary Service, and that’s why it’s not caught by the Official Information Act.

Hon Paula Bennett: I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. I was very, very precise in: was that person employed—

Mr SPEAKER: Yes, yes, and what I am yet to see the relevance of is whether a particular Parliamentary Service employee is now employed by Ministerial Services. I’m not sure that it’s a relevant question.

Hon Paula Bennett: So, actually, this does go to the heart of whether or not this is an official document, and I believe—and the point that I’m trying to make in here is that if it’s been worked on since he’s been a Minister by a ministerial staffer, then that actually makes it an official document. Now, we can argue whether that’s right or wrong, but that’s my line of questioning, and I would like to pursue it by having my questions answered.

Rt Hon WINSTON PETERS: Speaking to the point of order, it would be apparent to the meanest mind that to form a coalition, you have to have an agreement. It is quite possible, therefore, that it’d be inevitable the agreement would be decided upon in writing before the coalition is signed off, not after.

Hon Simon Bridges: I think this goes to the very basic point we were discussing earlier in the points of order, which is that, in terms of Speaker’s ruling 156/4, coalition agreements can be the subject of questioning, and it’s really about whether it’s Government business. That’s fundamentally the question of whether it’s Parliamentary Service or Ministerial Services. So this has to be, I’d suggest to you, a relevant line of questioning for us to pursue.

Clayton Mitchell: Referring to the point that the member raised with Speaker’s ruling 156/4, it actually specifically talks about the Prime Minister, not the Deputy Prime Minister.

Mr SPEAKER: Right, well, I think we’ll leave that point on one side. I think the important question is whether or not someone has been working on something as a Ministerial Services employee. I have heard the Deputy Prime Minister say that the change was made before the change of Government and, therefore, you know, people might have a different angle. There might be a question of further work on the document, and the member might want to pursue that. But at that time of change, I think we’ve had a pretty clear assurance that it couldn’t have been a Ministerial Services employee, because the Rt Hon Winston Peters, at the time, was not a Minister.

Hon Paula Bennett: Well, one of the answers that he’s given this time was that, actually, he wasn’t sure of the date, and I have—

Mr SPEAKER: Yes, and I, unlike some other members, have been listening, and I have heard him say that it occurred before the change of Government.

Hon Simon Bridges: I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker.

Mr SPEAKER: If this is going to be pursuing the same matter, Mr Bridges, I don’t want to hear it. If it’s a completely new matter, I will.

Hon Simon Bridges: This is in relation to a critical matter for both the Government and the Opposition. That’s why I raise these points of order. The point of order is this: I appreciate the position you’ve outlined in terms of facts. I agree; I was listening to that. But what the member has asked is whether this person is now a Ministerial Services worker. That is—

Mr SPEAKER: The member will resume his seat. If that’s an area of questioning that the members want to pursue, they can. But it will be slightly challenging getting it within order for a new question. It’s not currently relevant.

Hon Paula Bennett: When he clearly stated on 25 October that there was a 38-page document, he was then sworn in as a Minister the following day. Is he saying that between him discussing his 38-page document and being sworn in, that the font was changed in that document and it was by a New Zealand First staffer and not by someone ultimately—well, they could have been employed by Ministerial Services?

Rt Hon WINSTON PETERS: This might sound like an earth-shattering event, but the reality of it all is that—

Hon Simon Bridges: You thought it was pretty important back then.

Rt Hon WINSTON PETERS: And so did you at the time, I recall, and you’ve never recovered. I want to say it very clearly that my memory was of that size, and I was told by the staff member that, actually, we fonted it down to 33 pages. That’s why I corrected it when the members were asking the question, in the interests of accuracy.

Hon Paula Bennett: So why doesn’t the Minister just simply release the document that he describes in many different ways, or, as the Herald said today, it is “a fruitcake of disparate ideas and undeveloped policy”.

Rt Hon Winston Peters: I regard that as a compliment, coming from that paper—and its declining readership explains why. So I won’t waste my time or Parliament’s or the listeners’ time.

Hon Paula Bennett: Why have you got it safely locked in a safe in your office, when a secretary has it on a computer and, simply, keeps changing the font?

Rt Hon WINSTON PETERS: Because—if I could just say it from a chronological point of view—it was fonted down and then went to the safe. Anyone that’s got any sense of logic would have worked it out before making a fool of themselves, but there’s an old English saying: the malady of ignorance is being ignorant without knowing it.


Bennett v Ardern on the secret document

The Opposition targeted both the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister in Parliament today, trying to establish that there was ministerial responsibility for the coalition negotiation ‘notes’. This line of questioning seems likely to continue.

Bill English must have been otherwise occupied, or tactically left it to his deputy.

First up – Paula Bennett versus Jacinda Ardern.

2. Hon PAULA BENNETT (Deputy Leader—National) to the Prime Minister: Does she stand by all her answers to Oral Question No.1 yesterday; if so, does she also agree with the Deputy Prime Minister’s answers to Oral Question No. 2 yesterday?

Rt Hon JACINDA ARDERN (Prime Minister): Yes, and yes, in the context in which they were given.

Hon Paula Bennett: Does the Prime Minister stand by her answer yesterday in the House in relation to the 33-page coalition document that “nothing has been given to Ministers”; and, if so, how does she reconcile that with her Minister for Children’s comments yesterday that she has a copy?

Rt Hon JACINDA ARDERN: As was clearly stated in the House yesterday by the Deputy Prime Minister, he acknowledged that before his members became Ministers, they were aware and familiar with negotiation documents.

Hon Paula Bennett: So can the Prime Minister confirm no other Ministers currently hold a copy of the 33- or 32-page coalition document?

Rt Hon JACINDA ARDERN: As I said in the House yesterday, as Prime Minister I have not circulated any document to Ministers since they have been sworn in, and, as the Deputy Prime Minister outlined yesterday, his members may have had contact with negotiation documents before they were sworn in.

Hon Paula Bennett: How many Ministers have a copy of the document?

Rt Hon JACINDA ARDERN: As I’ve already said, I have not circulated that document, as Prime Minister, to Ministers.

Hon Paula Bennett: I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker.

Mr SPEAKER: Yes, I think I can anticipate it. I think I am going to ask the Prime Minister to have another go at answering the question.

Rt Hon JACINDA ARDERN: I can only answer in reference to my role as Prime Minister, and as Prime Minister I have not circulated any such documents from the coalition negotiations to my Ministers.

Hon Paula Bennett: I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. That’s not the question I asked. If she doesn’t know how many Ministers have it—I was very clear, very precise, because that’s what you ask of us—I think it’s fair for her to say that.

Mr SPEAKER: Well, I’m not sure that the Prime Minister has responsibility for documents that were circulated to people who are Ministers, before they were Ministers. I think that’s what the member’s asking, and when I’m contemplating whether or not people kept documents, that is certainly not something for which she has responsibility, or I would expect that she would have knowledge.

Hon Simon Bridges: I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. Speaker’s ruling 156/4 makes clear that the Prime Minister can be questioned about coalition agreements, and so my submission is she is here, the questions are to be answered, and if they’re able to be answered, well they should be answered.

Mr SPEAKER: Yes, and the area that the Prime Minister can be asked about is how they do affect Government policy. She’s indicated, certainly in the House yesterday, that currently they are not. Then, I think, because they are not the formal coalition documents, they’re not the things that have been signed and published, and in fact we’ve had an assurance today that the Prime Minister has not circulated them to Ministers. So I think we’ve reached a point where people are going to have to be more innovative in their questioning if they’re going to be in order.

Hon Paula Bennett: Can the Prime Minister confirm that no employee of Ministerial Services currently holds a copy of the long coalition document?

Rt Hon JACINDA ARDERN: I know that of course some of my staff have been privy to negotiation documents. In fact, some of them were at the negotiating table. But my expectation of my staff now, as Government, is that they work to the confidence and supply agreement, the coalition agreement, and the fiscal plan, because those are the official agreements that we have signed up to.

Hon Paula Bennett: Have any officials seen the document?

Rt Hon JACINDA ARDERN: As I have previously said, I as Prime Minister have never circulated this document to officials, nor have I circulated it to Ministers. [Interruption]

Mr SPEAKER: Order!

Rt Hon JACINDA ARDERN: I don’t know how I could be any clearer. I have not circulated—

Mr SPEAKER: Order! I am going to remind both some very loud members on my left and the Prime Minister that when I do stand up, everyone should be quiet. What I was interrupting the Prime Minister to say is that she has completed her answer. There was no need to add any more to it.

Hon Paula Bennett: How does she reconcile, then, her answer just now with her statement yesterday, and I quote, “Nothing has been given to Ministers. Nothing has been given to Government departments or officials.”—so have any Government officials seen the document?

Rt Hon JACINDA ARDERN: No, which is what I just said.

Hon Paula Bennett: No, it’s not what you said, so it’s great that you finally did.

Mr SPEAKER: Order! Ms Bennett, I did not answer the question.

Hon Paula Bennett: Sorry, I thought it was an inside voice. Does she agree, then, with her Deputy Prime Minister, as she stated yesterday, that work is going on on the GDP per capita and the unemployment measure—both things that you agreed to during the negotiations?

Rt Hon JACINDA ARDERN: The reference to unemployment measures is in the coalition agreement, which has been circulated publicly and widely, and the reference to GDP measures was in the Speech from the Throne. As I’ve said, where there are areas that we will pursue, we will put them out in the public, which is exactly what we have done.

Hon Paula Bennett: Then has the finance Minister got a copy of the document, since both of those policy areas are in it, and has he seen it to be working on those measures?

Rt Hon JACINDA ARDERN: The member for Wellington Central was at the negotiating table. He was privy to all of the negotiating documents and discussions because he was there.



The secret coalition document

The Labour is taking another hit on it’s promise for more transparency in Government after Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has refused to release a coalition document.

Newsroom: Kiwis left in dark over secret document

The Government is refusing to release a secret document with directives for new ministers, despite Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters promising it would be made public.

The existence of the 38-page document was first revealed by Peters the day after Labour and New Zealand First signed a more slender eight-page public coalition agreement.

Speaking to media after the allocation of ministerial portfolios, he described it as “a document of precision on various areas of policy commitment and development”.

“These are directives to ministers with accountability and media strategies to ensure that the coalition works, not in a jealous, envious way, ‘We got this and they got that’, but as a government successively, cohesively working.

“We’ve put a lot of thought into it, in fact day one of our negotiations that was the first subject we raised, how are we going to handle a cohesive coalition arrangement?”

At the time, he said the document was still being finalised, but would cover the appointment process for diplomats.

Peters said then the document would be made public, saying it was “for the province of the Prime Minister to release”.

However, in response to an Official Information Act request from Newsroom seeking the document’s release, Jacinda Ardern’s adviser Heather Simpson claimed “the Prime Minister does not hold any such official information”.

Simpson’s letter referred to Section 2 of the Act, saying official information covered only information held by “a Minister of the Crown in his official capacity”.

The Ombudsman’s OIA guidelines for ministers state that while official information does not include information held by a minister in their role as a member of a political party, “such information may become official information if it is subsequently used for official ministerial purposes”.

Newsroom has appealed the Government’s decision to the Ombudsman.

Not surprisingly National has picked up on this. Bill English: Secret agreement needs to be made public

The Prime Minister needs to release the Government’s secret agreement with NZ First which the Deputy Prime Minister says outlines the way ministers will behave, deal with the media and be held accountable, National Party Leader Bill English says.

“The document, confirmed by Winston Peters, goes to the very heart of the formation of the New Government.

“It is unacceptable for the Prime Minister to claim it’s not public information. It is and the public deserves to know how the new Coalition, and therefore the country, will be run.

“This is not the openness and accountability promised by Jacinda Ardern and Winston Peters and enshrined in the public version of their Coalition agreement.

“It’s certainly not them living up to their promise to ‘strengthen New Zealand’s democracy by increasing public participation, openness, and transparency around official information’.

“This lack of transparency is becoming a habit for this Government. It is also refusing to answer even the most basic questions in Parliament as well as written questions from Opposition MPs and queries from the media.

“It doesn’t seem to understand that part of running a country is being sufficiently organised to be up front and to justify and explain the decisions it is making which affect the lives of New Zealanders.

“When these decisions continue to be so ill-thought through and rushed then that’s of even more concern. They appear to be both disorganised and secretive.

“New Zealanders deserve to know what Labour has promised NZ First and how this agreement affects them,” Mr English says.

Most opinion seems to be that the document should be made public, either legally or on principles of transparency..

But Ardern is adamant that transparency only applies when it suits. Stuff: Government denies there’s an ‘official’ coalition document still to be made public

On Monday at the Prime Minister’s regular post-Cabinet press conference both her and Peters denied there was an “official” document to be released other than the coalition agreement that has already been made available.

“We did release the coalition agreement and we were very clear, both actually on the ways that we would work together, but also on the agenda items that we as two parties have formally committed to – so in our minds we absolutely have made public those things that we’ve made commitments to,” Ardern said.

Both Ardern and Peters said notes were made during negotiations, which included further work that could be done under the coalition agreement but wasn’t yet finalised.

“Yes, of course we made notes during the course of those discussions including further areas that we may undertake some work…some issues will see the light of day and at that point we’ll make sure that people are absolutely clear that that was part of our conversation with NZ First but others may not.

“There are constraints on us as a government, not least the financial constraints we’ve been left by the last government so there’s still a lot of work to be done,” she said.

“There are other areas we may explore together that may be found to be unworkable, that may be found just to be fiscally irresponsible, that may never be progressed.”

This seems to be the way the Ardern led Government intends to operate – they will be transparent in due course.

As acting Prime Minister while Ardern and Peters were overseas Kelvin Davis appeared to flounder in Parliament when he kept answering questions with non answers, like (9 November).

We will make and confirm decisions on appropriate targets in due course.

And like (14 November):

Decisions on interim targets to achieve these housing policies will be made in due course.

Winston Peters also joined the stonewalling yesterday (something he has a long record of hypocrisy on) with some back flipping thrown in:

Peters drew on Moses and the ten commandments to try and make his point, saying, “Moses came down from the mountain and only had ten commandments right? But there’s a lot in the Old Testament as well.”

Peters said the suggestion this was a “secret agreement” was “demonstrably false”.

“I was talking about how we will compartmentalise work of the type that’s just been discussed, send it off to ministers to do some work and see what the result is.”

He said an example of some of that work was how to find a new way to measure unemployment.

“We’ve agreed to work on those things and when we’ve completed the work we’ll tell you what the outcome is.”

This is providing some easy shots from the Opposition:

However, National’s leader Bill English has demanded the government release the agreement, saying it’s “ridiculous for the government to claim either it doesn’t exist or somehow it’s not official information”.

“I think it’s remarkable the prime minister has decided the public should not know about the detailed negotiations between Labour and NZ First because clearly the public agreement is not one they take seriously.

“It was going to be a billion trees, now it’s going to be half a billion trees, they were going to go into Pike River and now they might go into Pike River – we can go through the list of undertakings that they don’t appear to be able to keep,” English said.

This closely follows other examples of a far from open Government – see yesterday’s Government not walking the transparency talk.

Journalists tend to despise information being held from them. Claire Trevett: PM Jacinda Ardern’s hat trick on ‘secret’ document

What Ardern was trying to say was that the coalition agreement was not a full and final settlement – but could be added to. There was, it seemed, a long wish list by NZ First which Labour had not unequivocally said “no” to.

The public might be entitled to presume that what was in the coalition agreement was the cost of NZ First’s support for Labour.

We don’t need to wait for ‘in due course’ to see whether the Government was bullshitting us over promises of increased transparency, it is becoming obvious already they are no better than something that has deteriorated under the past two governments.

It now seemed that may have been only a down payment – but nobody will know what else might be extracted until it is done.

Ardern justified this by saying she did not believe it met the criteria of “official information” that merited release.

This hovered perilously close to former Prime Minister John Key refusing to release information by claiming it happened when he was acting as party leader or a normal human being rather than as Prime Minister.

Labour railed against Key and his many hats, yet here was Ardern merrily leaping to the hat rack herself.

Anyone thinking Ardern may herald a new era of openness should reconsider. She seems to be reverting to opaque and secretive and fobbing off type, like any politicians who think they can get away with it.

I think it’s quite damaging for Ardern’s credibility. She is accruing quite a negative record already.