Transparency trashed, Official Information Act plans kept secret

The Official Information Act is supposed to enable public access to Government information. It is supposed to improve transparency.

So it is alarming that discussions on a review of the OIA are being kept secret, and are limited to some unnamed people – referred to as “a select group of chosen insiders”.

No Tight Turn: The government’s secret OIA plans

Back in September, when the government announced plans to increase proactive release of official information, we learned by accident that they were also considering another review of the OIA, and “intend[ed] to carry out targeted engagement to inform a decision on whether to progress a formal review”. As someone interested in OIA reform, I was naturally curious about this, so I sent an OIA off to Justice Minister Andrew Little seeking information about the proposal. I finally got the response back on Friday, after a month-long extension for “consultation”. Unfortunately, its not very informative.

You can read the released documents here. As is obvious, all interesting information about the proposal has been redacted. All their specific proposals for reform are secret, as is practically everyone they plan to consult in their “targeted engagement”. People with specific expertise in the law? Secret. Bloggers and commentators? Also secret. They do list some media organisations, and the members of the OGP Expert Advisory Group, but everyone else is secret.

Which is outrageous when you think about it.

It looks outrageous to me.

The OIA is quasi-constitutional legislation, something that belongs to (and affects) all of us. But rather than a full public consultation, they plan to privilege some voices over others, presenting their select secret proposals to a select secret group, then presenting the stovepiped results to us as a fait accompli. And they kept this entire process secret as well: they decided it all back in May, but never announced anything. The only reason we know about it at all is because of a passing reference in another document. Whether these are the actions of a government committed to transparency, accountability, and participation is left as an exercise for the reader.

We deserve better than this. Its not just politicians, journalists and trouble-making bloggers who use the OIA, but all of us. Steven Price’s 2005 study of the OIA contained an extensive list of examples of how ordinary citizens use the Act, and summed it up as “the stuff of democracy”.

According to the Ombudsman’s 2017-18 annual report, individuals made three times as many OIA complaints as journalists, and its 5.5 times as many when you look at the LGOIMA. In short, it’s our Act, not theirs. And any non-trivial changes to it require publicly consulting all of us, not just a select group of chosen insiders.

From Reddit:

As some of you like to point out, I don’t comment often here. I’ll make an exception today in order to endorse this post by No Right Turn, who is something of an authority on OIA issues.

Regardless of your political views, the Official Information Act is an incredibly important tool to hold those in power to account. It’s also one of the strongest freedom of information laws in the world.

Any changes to the OIA need to be taken seriously.

So how can we  demand inclusion in this review of the OIA?

Jacinda Ardern, in a speech at Auckland University of Technology, outlined 12 priorities “looking 30 years ahead, not just three”, which included:

  • transparent, transformative and compassionate government;

Bryce Edwards (1 News september 2017):

“Stylistically it was brilliant but it was fairly hollow in terms of substance,”

This seems to be a repeating theme with Ardern.

Under her leadership the only transformation in transparency appears to be towards more secrecy, and the review of the OIA suggests she is doing the opposite of what her hype has promised.

Stardust in New York but Ardern’s New Zealand garden needs urgent attention

There has been a huge contrast between Jacinda Ardern wowing the world with her week in New York, and they stuttering struggles of her government back in New Zealand.

On New York

NZ Herald editorial: Stardust and substance – PM Jacinda Ardern at the United Nations in New York

Although embattled Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has been facing flak on various fronts at home this week, there can be little doubt she has delivered both “stardust” and substance in New York.

She has certainly been in demand on the sidelines, undertaking interviews with media and talk show heavyweights CNN and The Late Show, meeting UN goodwill ambassador and actress Anne Hathaway, and generating media interest the world over with pics of her baby Neve in tow in those hallowed halls.

The images of a smiling, capable, young, progressive female leader and young mum are priceless PR. Some of the engagements may have seemed trivial, but Ardern has ensured mention of motherhood and even hobbits have presented an opportunity to highlight New Zealand as a tourist destination and a progressive, supportive, inclusive society.

She has met other heads of state, taken part in a range of substantive meetings, discussions and panels on issues such as climate change, trade and the sustainable development goals. She has talked about refugees, steel tariffs, foreign investment, foreign aid, gender equality, child poverty, compassion and collaboration.

She has been nothing but diplomatic about US President Donald Trump in the face of difficult meetings on trade and many testing questions – not to mention outright contempt from the General Assembly floor in what must be one of the most extraordinary scenes in that chamber ever witnessed.

Ardern has effectively and memorably presented New Zealand’s interests and values to world leaders and a global audience. Job done.

And generally, done very well. Good on her for that.

Duncan Garner: Jacinda Ardern was masterful in trumping the Don

The prime minister returns from New York this weekend as the big apple in the eyes of her many international admirers.

Her international stocks are high, she’s played her limited cards superbly, and she made dancing through the foreign affairs minefield look effortless.

In reality, it’s not as easy as she made it look, especially with America (well, Trump) all passive-aggressive, and isolationist. In short, Ardern smashed it out of the park.

But she also painted a rosier picture than reality back in New Zealand.

And guess what? The PM got away with not telling the world how we have failed spectacularly to curb our carbon emissions and how they continue to grow at unsustainable levels.

We also don’t punish our big polluters, we don’t punish pollution from transport, we don’t have incentives to drive electric cars, and we can’t swim in 60 per cent of our rivers.

Imagine if Ardern had told the truth about us overseas.

She wouldn’t have been so lauded and applauded if she had.

She didn’t go to Woodstock while she was in the US, but some lyrics come to mind.

We are stardust
We are golden
But we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden

Ardern now has to get herself back to the New Zealand garden, where the pests and weeds look like getting out of control.

John Armstrong:  Jacinda Ardern must stop the rot in ‘drunken sailor’ Government

Stop the rot. And stop it quickly. That has to be Jacinda Ardern’s absolute priority on her return from overseas.

The incumbent three-party governing arrangement was displaying all the coherence and co-ordination of the proverbial drunken sailor long before the Prime Minister left for the relative sanctuary of a Winston Peters-free New York.

The unwieldy contraption has since appeared to be even more sloshed in her absence as its components stumble from one mini-crisis to the next minor scandal with such regularity that you can almost set your watch by it.

This three-headed hydra needs to go on the wagon — and pretty darned soon.

Viewed in isolation, each blunder or botch-up has not amounted to very much in the grand scheme of things.

Viewed in total, however, the various mishaps and miscues add up to a fair-sized catalogue of catastrophe.

Voters will soon forget the details of who was involved in each episode of woe and what happened and when.

What will stick in their minds from this epidemic of embarrassment will be the hard-to-erase impression that Ardern’s regime is riddled with incompetence.

It will leave the public wondering whether Ardern has lost control. That is where the damage is really being done.

Ardern’s has fiddled with aplomb on the world stage, while her government shows increasing signs that it risks crashing and burning.

In her Speech from the Throne last November Ardern said something that highlights the gulf between some of her rhetoric and reality: “This government will foster a more open and democratic society. It will strengthen transparency around official information”

NZ Herald editorial: Govt’s greater transparency vow nowhere to be seen

The Government’s domestic woes continue this week even as Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern continues to bask in the global limelight in New York.

First there was the fallout from Derek Handley’s released communications in the chief technology officer saga, then there were allegations in Parliament which reminded the public about the investigations regarding recently appointed Deputy Police Commissioner Wally Haumaha.

Now, the Department of Internal Affairs is set to investigate how the draft report of the investigation into the Meka Whaitiri incident was leaked to the Herald.

The draft report finds it was agreed Whaitiri did have words with her press secretary for not alerting her to a photo opportunity with the PM during a function in Gisborne. It showed the staff member was allegedly left with bruising to her arm.

Although Whaitiri denies touching the staffer, David Patten, the lawyer who conducted the inquiry, found on the balance of probabilities the staff member’s version that she was grabbed was the more likely explanation of what happened.

That is damning — and clearly what led to Ardern’s sacking of Whaitiri as a minister last Thursday, a day after seeing the draft report.

So why the ongoing secrecy?

At the very least it raises questions about anger management and suitability for public office. And, for those who believe the alleged incident is minor, teachers now have strict new rules that prohibit manhandling pupils.

The public had the right to know exactly why Whaitiri was stripped of one of her roles. It would still be helpful to know why she was deemed okay to remain the Māori caucus co-chair, or whether there was any thought of expulsion from the party.

This Government promised to usher in a new level of transparency and openness. But there has been little evidence it is any more transparent than any other administration it seeks to better.

So returning from the euphoria of a very successful trip to New York Ardern has a lot to do in her real job, as Prime Minister in a government that looks lacking in leadership beyond Winston Peters’ wagging of the Labour dog, with the Green flea clinging on.

Ardern only had a temporary gig at the United Nations, for now at least.  She will return to a far more difficult job as Prime Minister of New Zealand.

The stardust of New York won’t keep masking the garden back home looking increasingly unkempt.

City Council surge of secret meetings

The Dunedin City Council is having a lot of ‘workshops’, or meetings with the public not only excluded but also not advised about. They avoid public notification saying no decisions are made at the ‘workshops’ so they are not classified as meetings, but decisions councillors make must be informed by these secret meetings.

And this move towards secrecy is a common council problem around the country.

ODT:  What goes on behind closed doors? More DCC ‘workshops’

Dunedin’s elected officials are increasingly discussing major issues behind closed doors.

Since October 2016 the Dunedin City Council has held 48 workshops, none of which have been publicly advertised.

Figures released under the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act show they are also being held more often.

In the year to July 31 this year the council held 31 more workshops  than in the previous two years combined.

Subjects covered included the council’s $860 million 10-year plan, the $15.8 million Mosgiel pool project, the central city plan and freedom camping.

Under the Local Government Act, councils need to publicise all official meetings and make agendas publicly available.

But as no decisions are made during the informal workshops, they are not classified as meetings.

Other local councils publicise  workshops and some  open them to the public, but many do  not.

Mayor Dave Cull has campaigned on transparency and public engagement, but seems to be doing the opposite. This looks like deliberate avoidance of open democracy.

Cull is also president of Local Government New Zealand.

A leading local government academic says the informal meetings, also known as workshops, exacerbate the disconnect between councils and the public.

Massey University senior lecturer Dr Andy Asquith said secrecy was bad for local democracy and when someone stood for public office they should expect to be scrutinised.

When the public and media were excluded, people had no way of knowing what their council was doing, he said.

“The fundamental problem with local government is people don’t know what councils do, or what councillors do or who they are and they turn off,” Dr Asquith  said.

The use of workshops was widespread across councils and there would only be a change if the Government decided to make  changes to the Local Government Act, something it had been hesitant to do, he said.

So this isn’t just a Dunedin problem.

Dunedin Mayor Dave Cull said councillors were presented with such a large amount of complex information, it would be impractical to try to absorb all of it during one council meeting.

There was no risk public debate would be stifled because of the increasing use of workshops, he said.

That’s a remarkable claim.

If the public doesn’t know what councillors are discussing and being told then public debate must be at risk – the public can’t debate what has been kept secret from them.

Cr Lee Vandervis said while some workshops were valuable, others were a “muzzling exercise” and he had stopped attending many.

“Some of them are good but many are being used to stifle debate and a lot of decisions are precariously close to being made or certainly coming to consensus, as Mayor Cull likes to say.”

He has often clashed with Cull, being a rare Dunedin councillor prepared to publicly challenge the mayor and council.

Media commentator and University of Auckland academic Gavin Ellis said the effect of workshops was to reduce the level of public debate of issues which were of public interest, whether it was intended or not.

There were already sufficient provisions in the Local Government Act safeguards which protected sensitive information discussed by councillors, so there was no need for the increasing use of the meetings.

Mr Ellis said the Dunedin City Council was not the worst offender, but the increase should worry anybody who cared about accountability and open government.

Unfortunately it isn’t unusual for politicians to do the opposite of what they say they will do on transparency, but that doesn’t excuse a surge in secrecy.

The default position should be that meetings or workshops be notified and to held in public.

This surge in secrecy sucks.

The black art of OIAing

Despite promising to be one of the most open and transparent governments ever reality is quite different. Refusals to disclose information seems to be becoming more of a black art than ever.

That prompted this quip:

Promised transparency was an election promise that could have been kept by all parties in Government, but power seemed to change their minds quite quickly.

Stuff in December: For a Government vowing to be more transparent, it really is stuck in the mud

For a Government vowing to be the most transparent and open the country has ever seen, it really did get stuck in the mud this week.

That 38-page secret coalition document that’s stored in a not-so-secret safe in Winston Peters’ office has caused all sorts of headaches, for the prime minister in particular, who has been visibly frustrated about the position she’s been put in.

On Monday, it was revealed the prime minister’s office was refusing to release the document that NZ First leader and deputy prime minister Peters had previously described as “a document of precision on various areas of policy commitment and development”.

Newsroom in April: Grading the Government

Open government and transparency – F

Perhaps its biggest failure. Promising to be the most open and transparent government ever, the coalition has instead stumbled repeatedly over its own good intentions. Just five weeks in it found itself defending its right to withhold a crucial governing document while the Prime Minister’s plans to proactively release cabinet papers and briefings had been pushed to the side.

The Official Information Act continues to be treated with disdain, with many journalists holding the opinion that their requests are taking longer, and returning poorer results, than under National who was not exactly known for its transparency.

Meanwhile, the minister tasked with opening up the Government to greater transparency found herself mired in a murky case of secret coffee meetings and mysterious voicemails while the Labour Party couldn’t even be open with its own leader when news of sexual assault at a youth camp broke. Soon after the Government was formed I wrote that despite all the promises, things were unlikely to change. Of course, I hoped I would be wrong but all signs point in the other direction – Shane Cowlishaw 

The signs are still pointing in a far from transparent direction.

Like this: Clark’s holiday further proof of Govt’s lack of transparency

Jacinda Ardern promised her Government would be the most open and transparent the country’s ever seen, but they’ve failed. The fallout from the country’s biggest industrial spat in the health sector in a generation put paid to that.

The hum from the spinning top in the Beehive was deafening, it was always the minister’s intention to be back in the country before the strike began and for its duration, he insisted.

Bollocks. If this Government wants to be taken seriously it’s got to be what Ardern promised it would be, transparent.

Yet again another case for this Government of spin over honesty.

Will this black art…

…become a symbol of Ardern’s government’s ‘transparency’?

 

“The most open government in history”

Journalists continue to complain about the government not living up to it’s promise to be the most transparent government ever.

There was no pledge of transparency in the Labour-NZ First coalition agreement. From the Labour-Green Confidence and Supply Agreement:

20. Strengthen New Zealand’s democracy by increasing public participation, openness, and
transparency around official information.

Claims of a lack of transparency began early under the incoming Government late last year.

Stuff (26 November 2017):  Labour promised transparency in Government, but they seem to be buckling on that early

The Government is facing a mountain of questions – more than 6000 to be exact. They’ve been lodged by an army of National MPs with nothing but time on their hands and it should be no surprise to Labour Ministers, who have so far refused to release much detail, if any, about their first actions in office.

In a 100-day programme, where major reform is being pushed through at break-neck speed, that is cause for concern.

…and it might be early, but on the current trend those accusations aren’t far from being squarely levelled back to Labour. They and the Greens made much of their desire to “bring transparency back to Government” on the campaign trail.

Labour is also yet to release what’s known as the ‘Briefings to Incoming Ministers’ – or BIMs. They are the documents prepared by the experts and officials, delivered to ministers in their first week to give them a crash course on the portfolio they’ve just been handed – in some cases rendering them responsible overnight for the spending of public funds totalling billions.

Stuff (2 December 2017): For a Government vowing to be more transparent, it really is stuck in the mud

For a Government vowing to be the most transparent and open the country has ever seen, it really did get stuck in the mud this week.

The problem with this document is not necessarily what’s in it, but the message it sends by not releasing it after Peters insisted it would be made public.

Ardern has spent the week arguing it isn’t a “live document” or a work programme the Government is bound to.

The new Government has an opportunity to pave a new path on transparency, it just needs to get out of the mud its bogged itself down in over the last few weeks and accept sometimes it’s better to just admit that you’re wrong.

RNZ (4 December 2017): Jacinda Ardern on ‘secret’ documents

Speaking to Morning Report today, Ms Ardern defended the new government’s reluctance to reveal the details of its coalition agreement.

“When something becomes an official part of our work programme, then that’s the point at which, absolutely, we have to be transparent about that. But when it comes to documents that sit behind a negotiation, that aren’t necessarily going to be pursued, as soon as you release it, that gives an expectation that it is a hard and fast policy, when it might not be at all.”

“We are actively at the moment looking at ways that we can make sure there is greater transparency around briefings that ministers receive, cabinet papers, whether we can routinely release documents after decisions are made, these are conversations I have never heard governments have before, and we are having.”

She said the government was still dedicated to greater transparency.

Jump forward seven months and this is looking like a ‘same old’ secretive government.

Stuff: ‘Secretive’ Shane Jones won’t release Fonterra texts

Regional economic development minister Shane Jones is refusing to make public messages backing his criticism of Fonterra chair John Wilson.

Self-styled “provincial champion” Jones launched a blistering attack on the long-serving dairy co-operative boss last month. Defending his remarks, Jones then claimed 365 people had sent messages supporting his stance.

But the NZ First Minister is now refusing to release those text messages. And that raises questions about the Government’s official record-keeping processes.

“The messages I was referring to were received predominantly on my private phone and not in my capacity as a Minister. They therefore do not fall within the scope within the scope of the Official Information Act 1982,” Jones said in a letter to Stuff.

@HenryCooke from Stuff: “In Politically Correct this week I recounted some recent OIA fun we’ve had with “the most open government in history”

But it looked like “We will be the most transparent government ever…unless it doesn’t suit us.

Labour, Green MPs block holding Curran to account

The Government that promised more openness and transparency has taken another step backwards, with Labour and Green MPs on the Economic Development, Science and Innovation Committee voting against asking Broadcasting Minister Clare Curran to appear before it to clarify unanswered questions about her meeting with ex-RNZ employee Carol Hirschfeld and her communications with RNZ chairman Richard Griffin.

NZH: National members blocked from getting Clare Curran to appear before committee over meeting with RNZ Carol Hirschfeld

National was blocked from asking Broadcasting Minister Clare Curran to appear at a select committee to clear up unanswered questions around her communications with former RNZ executive Carol Hirschfeld, a report says.

The Economic Development, Science and Innovation Committee released its report
today on a briefing in which the committee was inadvertently misled by RNZ chairman Richard Griffin and chief executive Paul Thompson about a meeting between Curran and Hirschfeld last December.

A minority report by the five National Party members of the select committee said questions remained unanswered regarding the appropriateness of communications initiated by Curran, with Hirschfeld and Griffin.

Curran’s behaviour was potentially in breach of parliamentary standing orders covering “intimidating, preventing, or hindering a witness from giving evidence, or giving evidence in full, to the House or a committee”, the National members said.

The National members also sought to invite Curran to the committee to give her the opportunity to clear up the unanswered questions.

“Regretfully, this resolution was not supported by other members of the committee, once again leaving the matter unresolved.”

The National members of the committee – chairman Jonathan Young, Andrew Falloon, Paul Goldsmith, Melissa Lee and Parmjeet Parmar – said they felt Parliament itself had been impugned by the inadvertent misleading of the committee by RNZ and actions of the minister.

The MPs who blocked holding Curran to account:

  • Paul Eagle (Labour, Rongotai)
  • Tamati Coffey (Labour, Waiariki)
  • Michael Wood (Labour, Mt Roskill)
  • Deborah Russell (Labour, New Lynn)
  • Gareth Hughes (Greens, list)

Coffey had a surprise win against Maori Party leader Te Ururoa Flavell in last year’s election.

Eagle, Wood and Russell scored fairly safe Labour electorates – Wood got into Parliament in a by-election in 2016 after Phil Goff resigned, while Eagle and Russell are first term MPs. Russell was rated as a good prospect as an MP, but she is putting party before principles here.

Hughes keeps a low profile in Parliament these days – Greens are also supposed to be strong supporters of open and transparent government and of holding the government to account (going by James Shaw’s comments in handing Parliamentary questions over to National) but joining the blocking of holding Curran to account suggests big talk, walk away from responsibilities.

Tn the whole scheme of things this isn’t a big deal, but it leaves a cloud over Curran’s ambitions to significantly boost RNZ, and she is likely to be reminded of this embarrassment whenever she tries to do anything on open government.

The final commitment in the Labour-Green confidence and supply agreement:

20. Strengthen New Zealand’s democracy by increasing public participation, openness, and transparency around official information.

Labour and Greens have weakened democracy through their weasel blocking in the committee.

Newsroom: When ‘open government’ becomes a joke

Curran isn’t just the Minister of Broadcasting, Communications and Digital Media but the Minster of Government Digital Services and Associate Minister for ACC and Open Government (via a State Services portfolio).

Open Government now becomes something of a joke under Curran at a time when we need it to be the very opposite.

What’s important now is RNZ and the many other initiatives Curran is involved with don’t keep on paying the price for her mistake. Curran’s copybook may well be blotted but she presides over portfolios that are far too important for us to allow that stain to spread.

That was on 2 April. Labour and Green MPs on the committee have spread the stain further.

Most of the public won’t know or care about this festering, but it remains hovering over Curran, and it is a confirmation that Labour and the Greens are in Government more for themselves than for integrity.

“The silence of National and Labour on transparency is noted”

Neither of the two large parties, Labour or National, show any sign of following the Green Party example of transparency and a refusal to accept corporate baubles. Neither does NZ First. This is a shame, but it’s unsurprising.

The Green announcement: Green Party announces new transparency measures

Green Party Co-leader James Shaw has today announced two important new transparency measures, which will apply to Green Party Ministers, MPs and staff, to help counter the influence of money in politics.

Green Party Ministers will soon proactively release their ministerial diaries, to show who they’ve met with and why. Additionally, Green Ministers, MPs and staff will not accept corporate hospitality, such as free tickets to events unrelated to their work.

ODT editorial: Green Party transparency welcomed

Transparency is a hallmark of any functioning government and the Green Party says it will continue to aim to uphold that – in Parliament and in Government.

Green co-leader James Shaw recently announced two important new transparency measures which will apply to Green Party ministers, MPs and staff to help show what he says is the influence of money in politics.

The actions are a major step forward in transparency and one which should be held up as an example to other political parties, both inside and outside Parliament.

The power of big business over politicians has become insidious in the United States. It is possible many New Zealand voters will be surprised by the influence of lobbyists in New Zealand.

Because New Zealand is such a small country, MPs, or their staff, often move into areas of influence outside of Parliament while retaining their close ties with the parties with which they previously worked.

Broadcasting Minister Clare Curran was blindsided in Parliament recently when questioned about her relationship with public broadcaster Radio New Zealand. It was revealed Ms Curran, the Dunedin South MP, had met privately with a highly ranked staff member of RNZ.

Then, National revealed an employee of the Prime Minister’s Office promoted Government policy while participating in an opinion segment on Radio New Zealand National, only describing herself as a public relations consultant from a private company for which she no longer worked.

The silence of National and Labour on transparency is noted.

There should be no reason why big wealthier corporates have better or more access to politicians than those organisations who cannot afford to shout free tickets to the rugby or a corporate box at the tennis.

Some will view the Greens’ actions as naive. However, the party must be congratulated and voters should push hard for other ministers and MPs to also start opening their diaries.

Yes, the Greens should be congratulated on walking the transparency walk.

Pressure needs to be put on Labour in particular to front up on this. They have an agreement with the Greens to do this – their Confidence and Supply agreement:

20. Strengthen New Zealand’s democracy by increasing public participation, openness, and transparency around official information.

Labour agrees to work with the Green Party on these and other policy areas as may be identified from time to time, and in good faith.

There is little sign that Labour is living up to their agreement. There is one Beehive release from Associate Minister for State Services (Open Government) Clare Curran that touches on it: Continued effort needed against corruption

“While we continue to hold the position of least corrupt country, and already have high standards of conduct and integrity, we must not be complacent. These results show we are not immune to behaviour and actions that can erode the great work done by the majority of people in the public sector.

“Our focus must be on building and maintaining the public’s trust in the integrity of the public sector, a key enabler in our ability to do better for New Zealand and New Zealanders. I expect a continued commitment to transparency and the highest levels of integrity,” Ms Curran says.

“This government is also committed to reviewing and improving our access to information frameworks and is currently initiating work on human rights in the digital environment.

“Our commitment to open government plays an important role in New Zealand’s democratic system, underpinning the public’s respect, trust, and confidence in the integrity of government.”

That’s just talk from Curran – and she has been embarrassed twice in Parliament over questionable actions of herself and of Government advisor and lobbyist Tracey Bridges.

Greens have shown Curran up by committing to having open diaries and not accepting corporate baubles, while all she seems to have done is waffle and duck and dive.

If all parties currently in government establish more open and transparent procedures and practices then whenever National next gets into Government they should be under pressure to continue with similar levels of transparency and openness.

Talking of National, they don’t make it easy finding their list of MPs on their website. Todd McClay is their spokesperson for State Services – I can’t find anything from him on open government, although Nikki Kaye has called for greater transparency over Partnership Schools.

See:

 

Greens: Sending lobbyists a message

James Shaw has announced today (via email) that he is “Sending lobbyists a message” – he could do with sending this message to the Labour Party too.:


Progressive change means living our values. It also means staying true to who we are as a Party.

That’s why I announced today two new measures to ensure transparency and counter the influence of money in politics:

  1. Green Party Ministers will proactively release their ministerial diaries, to show who they’ve met with and why;
  2. Green Ministers, MPs and staff will not accept corporate hospitality, such as free tickets to events unrelated to their work.

Greens have always stood for more transparency around lobbying and access to politicians. Now we’re in government, we’re walking the walk.

Other MPs consider being shouted free rugby tickers or an expensive meal just a perk of the job. But it’s not how we do things.

You all deserve to know who we’re meeting with and why. You all deserve to know we won’t accept gifts as a quid-pro-quo for looking after corporate interests in Parliament.

I’m proud to announce yet another small way that the Green Party is committed to doing government differently and doing government better.

You can read more here OR check out my full speech to the Green Party Policy Conference.

UPDATE:

MPs on notice over written question feud, reform possible

Trevor Mallard continues his very promising start as Speaker. He has introduced innovations to try to help the flow of questions and answers, he has been balanced, and has penalised interjections that breach his guidelines in a balanced way. And he has been prepared to adjust his guidelines as he sees how they work in practice.

Question time (Oral Questions) has been working better as a result.

See Speaker Mallard plans to let the game flow

Trevor Mallard says he wants to be a hands-off Speaker in Parliament — if MPs are prepared to play ball. Mallard spoke to Sam Sachdeva about which predecessor is his role model and his plans for parliamentary reform.

On Friday Mallard warned all MPs over the written question feud that had escalated into large numbers of questions to Ministers being submitted by the National Opposition.

Newsroom: MPs on notice over written questions furore

Speaker Trevor Mallard has put both sides of Parliament on notice in the war over written questions, warning them he expects a higher standard once the House resumes in 2018.

Speaking to Newsroom, Mallard said it was “very early days” in the new Parliament, but he expected both sides to resolve the situation by the new year.

“There’s clearly a bit of ‘young bull, old bull’ head bashing going on, and that is pretty inevitable as a settling down of new and different roles.

“I think it’s fair to say I wouldn’t be happy if the current approach from either side continued in the long term … I don’t want us to be in this situation after Christmas.”

“Members are meant to be individually approving each of their questions and I’m not convinced that’s happening, and ministers are meant to be individually approving each of their replies and I’m not convinced that’s happening either, but it’s not my role to dig deeper into either side.

“What I hope is that the Government eventually gets to the point of fulfilling its undertakings to be open and transparent.”

That’s a gentle but pointed reminder of what Jacinda Ardern had promised but have not yet delivered.

Mallard said he would not comment on the quality of the Government’s answers, “other than to say if it continued like that for a long period of time then I would get anxious”.

Asked specifically about decisions to decline written questions asking for a list of briefings, he acknowledged he had used the same approach while in opposition.

He has asked thousands of questions of Ministers in the past. He knows most of the tricks of Parliamentary process, a lot of it from his own experience.

While there were some cases where it was justified to withhold information, Mallard said “most stuff … should be able to be got out there by one route or another”.

However, he described written questions as “sort of like a last resort”, and instead believed it would be better to establish an automated method of releasing information.

“There was a strong view [in past discussions] that if you could get a system that was pretty much automatic, transparent, didn’t require application, then that would be better.

That sounds like significant reform, not just of systems but also of attitudes and practices of Ministers and their departments.

“That obviously takes time, it takes a bit of discussion with the Ombudsman to work out where lines should be.

“Eventually getting some websites going which contain most of that material, for example, Cabinet papers two months after they’ve been to Cabinet automatically up unless there’s a good reason not to, just that sort of stuff would mean you’d have a lot of access to, actually quite boring information, but access to what’s going on.”

Opening up more public mechanisms for transparency was the best approach, he said.

“Frankly, the idea that the written parliamentary question is the mechanism for transparency generally … it would be very sad if it had to be that, because I think it’s not just parliamentarians, everyone should be able to access the matters which should be publicly available.”

I hope Mallard has success with this sort of reforming and the necessary cultural shift.

National MP and shadow leader of the House Simon Bridges said the Opposition remained concerned that the Government was “simply not giving any respect to” the written questions process.

Leader of the House Chris Hipkins refused to speak to Newsroom about the issue, with a spokesman saying he had said all he intended to on the matter and was focused on “delivering for New Zealanders”.

There is little sign of progress so far.

 

Time to give a push for more open government

Bryce Edwards is being an open political activist, calling for support to “guide the new government” into being “more open with its information”.

Newsroom: It’s time to open up the Closed Government Act

Calling all journalists, academics, public servants, political activists, and members of the public who believe in the need for government to be more open with its information. We need to form a coalition to fix the Official Information Act (OIA).

It’s time for everyone who believes in reforming the OIA processes to join together and campaign to make that actually happen. Such a coalition could guide the new government in making the necessary changes so that New Zealand is once again a world leader in open government, the way we were in 1982 when the extraordinary act was introduced.

The OIA itself may still be fit for purpose, but the wider official information system desperately needs review, especially in the way that the act is adhered to by government. At the moment, it often functions more as the Closed Government Act.

Now is the perfect time to act. Whenever a new government is formed, it’s normally enthusiastic and idealistic about fixing problems in the system. And when it comes to problems with the OIA, the parties coming in from opposition are highly sensitive to its faults because they’ve been on the receiving end of governments keeping an overly-tight grip on information.

The parties making up the new coalition government have protested strongly against abuses of the OIA that occurred under National. So, hopefully they’ll want to prioritise some sort of review aimed at fixing the problems.

Clare Curran is the minister with responsibility for “Open Government”, as part of her role as Associate Minister for State Services. She has already committed her government to doing much better than the last government in terms of releasing information.

But in a recent interview with the Otago Daily Times’ Eileen Goodwin, Curran wasn’t very clear about whether any reform of the OIA would be forthcoming.

Hence the need to ‘guide’ the Government.

Instead, journalists are now leading the way in calls for reform. Newsroom’s Shane Cowlishaw has recently explored all of these issues in his must-read article, The OIA is broken, can it be fixed? He says, “the spirit of this law has dissolved in an air of contempt that has spread, like a stain, from the top down”.

Cowlishaw reflects on his own experiences as a journalist, noting the growth of government department spin-doctors, and saying that the “ever-growing mighty wall of ‘comms staff’ has seemingly forgotten its obligation to the public in a desire to protect its Ministers from embarrassment.”

The new government – as well as the opposition – need some constructive encouragement to take this key area of democracy very seriously and make sure it’s fit for purpose.

I’m keen to bring together participants, set up forums, and help establish a way for interested parties to come up with ideas about how to move ahead. At the very least, such a campaign could compile all the complaints and examples of how the OIA isn’t working, or is being thwarted and put everyone in touch who has an interest in OIA reform.

There’s a lot to consider. For example: Does the legislation need fixing, or just the way that the OIA is observed? Is there a need for a new Information Authority that would be responsible for overseeing the operation of the OIA, and teach government departments and the public how to use and adhere to it? Or is the Ombudsman’s Office best placed to carry out these functions? And is it resourced and empowered enough to fulfil such a role? Should there be stronger penalties for abuse of the OIA? Does the OIA need to be extended to Parliament, or at least to some of its agencies such as the Parliamentary Service?

The new coalition government has specifically made a commitment to “strengthen New Zealand’s democracy by increasing public participation, openness, and transparency around official information”. This wording is in the confidence and supply coalition agreement between Labour the Greens, and it could quite easily also be the stated focus of a new Campaign for Open Government.

Sounds like a worthwhile aim. As well as journalists and media it should get support from blogs from across the spectrum, as well as from other online forums.

If you’re interested, please get in touch. Contact me: bryce.edwards@vuw.ac.nz