Government not walking the transparency talk

Prior to and on becoming Government Labour and the Greens talked the transparancy talk.

From the Labour-Green Confidence and Supply Agreement:

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

From Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s Speech from the Throne:

This government will foster a more open and democratic society. It will strengthen transparency around official information.

But they are not walking the walk – instead they seem to be sticking a finger up to the Opposition and to media.

The refusal of Ministers to properly answer written questions is covered here: Parliamentary question spat

Media are also getting frustrated at being denied information they should be provided with.

Stacey Kirk in Labour promised transparency in Government, but they seem to be buckling on that early

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.

All of them have been requested under the Official Information Act by reporters across New Zealand. All of them have been denied by the Government on the grounds they’re about to be released publicly anyway.

The trouble with that is the law actually applies to occasions where the document in question is yet to be printed or the minister hasn’t had a chance to read it first.

These were read by the ministers more than a month ago, and its understood to decision on when to release the BIMs – state sector wide – is to come from the Prime Minister’s Office.

“[The section] should not be used to delay the release of information which is intended to be incorporated in other material which, although to be made public at a later date, may still require the making of other policy decisions,” is the expressed order of the Ombudsman.

Kirk also comments on the written question spat:

They can lodge questions to ministers on matters related to their portfolios, and ministers must respond within six working days. There is no limit as to how many questions can be lodged, they must be concise and targeted.

Undoubtedly, 6000 written questions in a month is a lot.

But is it fair to demand those answers? Absolutely. Is it hypocritical of National to be complaining they’re being blocked? You bet. Does that matter? Not one bit.

Because the answers, or at least the willingness to provide those answers, benefit New Zealand as a democracy.

In July 2010 Labour asked 8791 questions in a single month.

More than 7000 of those questions came from MP Trevor Mallard alone.

Now in the Speaker’s chair, it’s his jurisdiction to force answers where they are not fairly being withheld if a complaint is laid.

Labour is getting off to a poor start on transparency.

That’s certainly how it looks, and it seems a deliberate tactic not to be transparent.

Where is Jacinda Ardern’s leadership on this? She has promoted absolute transparency. Like in Debate #1:

Ardern managed to get in a couple of references to the generation factor, including “your generation” directed at her opponent. He pushed hard at the tax nerve, and Ardern’s response was all about being “absolutely transparent”, which is evidently a cousin of relentlessly positive.

But the even then the walk didn’t match the talk.

Ardern’s insistence she was being “transparent” and “clear” about her refusal to reveal any detail on tax – or really anything much at all – started to grate as the hour progressed.

And at election time:

Ardern unilaterally ditched her party’s commitment not to implement tax changes in a first term, declaring herself absolutely transparent about profound uncertainty.

Ardern in particular has benefited from at times very favourable media coverage, but transparency alarm bells have also been sounded, during the campaign and since.



“This government will foster a more open and democratic society. It will strengthen transparency around official information.”

Ardern and her Government need to start walking that talk.

Otherwise he light may be shone through a thin veneer of Ardern insincerity and Government bull.

If journalists don’t get Government information they are entitled to they may get increasingly grumpy.

They may be more inclined towards their own transparency tricks “allowing light to pass through so that objects behind can be distinctly seen”.



Show us the money Winston

I agree with Winston peters that Labour should be more open about their intentions on tax.

I cut Jacinda Ardern a bit of slack, Andrew Little and possibly Grant Robertson arrived at the election campaign with no concrete tax plans and Ardern has had no time to get sufficient expert advice.

But I still think it looks like Labour is playing games with voters, and should be far more up front.

But the need to be open applies to other parties too. If Peters demands transparency, he should also be transparent.

Perhaps he or someone from NZ First could respond to claims by TOP:

Show us the money Mr Peters

1. $5bn  – Student Debt write-off.

No funding sources provided

2. $3bn pa – Diversion of GST collected in regions to funding regional development.

This is money that would otherwise fund central government’s activities so has to be found from somewhere – we wonder where as Peters provides no suggestions.

3. $2.3bn pa – Universal Student Allowance and zero fees.

And this is before hordes more people decide to go to University because it is free.

4. $1.9bn pa – reduction of company tax rate to 25%.

No funding detail provided

5. $1.3bn – ban inshore fishing and provide compensation to the commercial fishers.

No detail at all given on funding

6$1.1bn pa – fix interest rates at 2% per annum for 5 years for first home buyers.

No funding provided and this doesn’t consider the flood of extra buyers who would be drawn in by such low rates

7. $845m pa – raising the minimum wage to $20 ph.

No funding detail provided

8. $450m pa – replacing 1080 with alternate pest eradication methods.

No funding detail provided

9. $324m pa – 1800 more police.

No funding detail provided

10. $3.6bn pa – Removal of GST from fruit and vegetables.

To be funded apparently by a “tax evasion crackdown”, and clamping down on the black economy. No realism at all provided to this throwaway line – it’s grossly inadequate of the %3.6bn pa required.

The above list is by no means exhaustive but provides an idea of the absurdity of the Peters programme. All up it will cost somewhere of the order of $12.5bn per annum plus at least $18bn of one-off costs. To cover this would require a 50% increase in income tax rates & even then the $18bn of one-off costs needs to be raised.

Seeing through Labour’s tax transparency

One of Labour’s biggest weaknesses in the last three weeks of the campaign is tax – what they may or may not tax, especially regarding Capital Gains Tax.

Just after she became Labour leader Ardern spoke on Q+A (6 August):

JESSICA MUTCH: Capital gains tax – yes or no?

JACINDA ARDERN: I will not be campaigning on that this election.

JESSICA MUTCH: So no for a capital gains tax.

JACINDA ARDERN: But let me be transparent, though, here. I won’t be campaigning on it in the next seven weeks. I don’t think anyone would expect us to generate a policy like that in seven weeks. But I’m very clear on is that we are giving a mandate to a tax working group, as we’ve always been clear that we will, to look at the way we tax assets and wealth in New Zealand. 

JESSICA MUTCH: So laying the groundwork for post-election?

JACINDA ARDERN: Yeah. That work will be done after the election. We do not tax assets and wealth the same way as other countries do. If we want to look at inequality, then it is necessary that we do that. But I will not be doing that in this seven weeks.

Ardern has pretty much stuck with this line, repeating ‘transparency’ often but always deferring to a future tax working group.

On one hand it is understandable that Ardern doesn’t want to be rushed into making significant policy decisions when she has been suddenly thrust into the heat of an election campaign. Theoretically decisions like this have to be run through the party policy development system.

But on the other hand this lack of certainty leaves Labour wide open to claims and confusion. Even her deputy was confused.

Yesterday from Stuff: Jacinda Ardern tells Kelvin Davis off over capital gains tax comments

In a confused interview with the AM Show, Kelvin Davis appeared to know little of the detail of Labour’s tax stance and seemed to resile from that comment in the next breath.

Labour has faced tough criticism over its decision to establish a tax working group after the election, but not reveal to voters beforehand whether they intended to implement a capital gains tax or any other taxes.

This election, the party is refusing to rule in or out the possibility of capital gains tax at all.

It was the weak spot for Ardern in Thursday night’s first TVNZ leaders’ debate

Ardern said she was “absolutely clear” on the fact Labour would hold a working group, but refused to answer how far Labour was intending to go with its conclusions and suggested tax changes were more likely to occur in the first term.

“I’ve absolutely maintained our right, and my right as leader, to make sure when that tax working group reports back that I am able to act in Government in the best interests of New Zealand to try and address the housing crisis.”

Apparently not clear to Davis though.

Davis was asked during an earlier interview if Labour would put the outcomes of its tax working group to the country at the following election – Davis replied: “I can’t answer that”.

Pressed again he said: “my understanding is we’ll campaign on it in the next election”. Asked to firm up that answer, on whether Labour would slip it during their first term or take it back to voters to decide, Davis reverted.

“Look, I’m not going to answer that question,” he said.

“Because right now I don’t know, we’ve got to have the working group make their decisions and we’ll come to the country with whatever they produce.”

Ardern said she had not seen the interview, but Davis was “now very clear on our position”.

Like the voters, as clear as mud.

And Ardern is likely to get hammered on this over the next three weeks unless she finds some different lines. Ones that demonstrate transparency rather than just claiming to be transparent.

As transparent as treacle.

Duncan Garner: Hey Jacinda Ardern, what’s your secret tax plan?

They’ll also tax. Tax, tax, tax. And repeat. On water, petrol and tourism. And maybe on capital gains.

If Ardern wants to be PM, she must tell voters more about this capital gains tax (CGT). Would it start in her first term? Would she seek a fresh mandate by putting it in front of voters in 2020?

Whatever she does she should keep her deputy, Kelvin Davis, away from talking about it. He’s a liability. Labour needs to get him up to speed quickly.

So, when, why, what? Would a CGT cover the sale of small businesses and farms?

Voters have every right to feel like there’s a secret agenda on tax.

Sam Sachdeva: Ardern again under gun over CGT

“I’ve been absolutely clear and have absolutely maintained my right as leader to make sure when that tax working group reports back that I am able to act in government in the best interests of New Zealand to try to address the housing crisis,” Ardern said.

Asked why she would not take the issue to another election for a mandate, Ardern cited National’s example when it came to power in 2008 and commissioned a tax review, ultimately leading to an increase in GST. “He [Bill English] saw fit to act on that as he saw fit in the best interests of New Zealand. The difference is that he wasn’t quite as open about intent before the election.”

Fair enough criticising National’s change of stance on increasing GST – but pointing out another party’s campaign deceit and subsequent u-turn is hardly a good way of giving voters confidence that Labour won’t do likewise, a similar somersault.

“I don’t want to be in a position where that working group comes back and there’s some ideas in there that could make a difference for that next generation to get into housing and to deal with some of the inequity in our tax system and to have to sit on that for another couple of years just doesn’t feel right to me.

“My view is though that certainly voters still get a way to feed back to us whether they think we are right or not. There will be another election probably 18 months within us acting on that review and if they don’t agree with what we’ve done, I’m sure they will tell us that.”

She denied it was a way of introducing a capital gains tax without having to say she was going to do so. “No, because I’ve been really clear with people. I expect to get scrutiny over that but I would rather be transparent around our direction of travel than say nothing at all.”

It was a government’s prerogative to act on the information a tax working group would give it. “But of course I’m setting out a few values, a few expectations going in; my expectation that it would never be on the family home and our major driver for this that it be around affordability issues, particularly in Auckland.”

Ardern is being clear in advance on the aspects of tax that suit her to be open about now, but refuses to be clear on others. This is cherry picking transparency.

Last week Alex Tarrant wrote about ‘Labour’s exclusion of family homes and income tax change aversion isn’t fit for a party wishing to fairly tax assets, wealth and income’

On Three’s The AM show on Thursday, Robertson was drawn into his views on whether New Zealand needs a better capital gains tax regime.

“I personally support a better balance in our tax system and I’m going to wait till we see the expert working group. But I don’t believe at the moment that someone who goes to work every single day, pays tax on every dollar that they earn, is being treated fairly compared to someone who flips an investment property and makes a profit on that.”

Robertson keeps repeating that. He must know that selling an investment property for profit is already taxable as income.

Take Robertson’s comment that the main cause of inequality growth in New Zealand over the past few years has been to do with asset inequality. Well, I’m sorry Grant, but New Zealand’s housing stock is worth $1.03 trillion. It’s the major component of our net worth. And about two-thirds of that housing stock is owner-occupied (which is the non-political way of saying ‘family home’).

If we want to ensure fairer tax treatment across assets, wealth and income, then you cannot just rule out capital gains or imputed rents made/unpaid on two-thirds of a trillion dollars’ worth of residential property holdings from the debate.

Perhaps Ardern needs to show some leadership and come out and be clear about Labour’s intentions on tax, some real transparency.

Otherwise she risks getting hammered on this in the remaining three weeks of the campaign, when voters start to look past her charisma and consider what a Labour led government would actually mean for them.

Claiming transparency when it is clear she is fobbing us off may be what ends up defeating Ardern and Labour.

Ardern has had a huge challenge stepping up in the heat of a campaign. I think many voters will be evaluating whether they think it is too soon for her to be Prime Minister or not.

Seeing through her claims of transparency could make the difference.

ODT: Transparency vital in a democracy

The Otago Daily Times editorial today is on the National Government and Transparency vital in a democracy.

Watching the Government’s desperate lolly scramble as it tries to shore up votes in the Northland by-election has made uncomfortable viewing.

The big guns are being brought out to bolster support for National candidate Mark Osborne, with visits by Prime Minister John Key and a raft of other ministers.

Critics view the Government’s sudden interest in the province with scepticism.

With good cause, what National are piling into Northland hints of abuse of power and misuse of taxpayers’ money.

Voters are left wondering what can be taken at face value, and some critics suggest obfuscation has gone beyond pattern to habit.

Yes, that seems to have become the expected norm. Not a good look for a Government in it’s third term.

The editorial details a number of examples of questionable actions and inaction over reasonable disclosure, then concludes:

There are times when information is genuinely required to be withheld to keep New Zealanders safe, some sensitive negotiations are required to be done away from the public, and some comments may be inappropriate to make in a police or legal case.

But regularly providing obscure, incomplete, or partly true answers to questions inevitably results in ”boy that cried wolf” scenarios.

Trust is fundamental to any individual or government, transparency essential for any democracy, and robust oversight mechanisms and a free and active press equally crucial (particularly when there are claims the former two are lacking).

Mr Key and his Government would do well to remember that as they ask Northland voters to trust them and make more promises for the future.

Trust can be difficult to maintain during an extended term in Government. It tends to get whittled away.

Once lost trust is much more difficult to get back. John Key is struggling with this.

He has to be seen to significantly change direction meaningfully towards far better openness and transparency or he will keep gradually sliding out of favour with voters.

Transparency is vital in a decent democracy.

Dunne demands transparency on Security review

Peter Dunne supported a review of our security legislation in his opening speech for the year in Parliament yesterday, asking for public engagement, openness and transparency.

This is not a political issue; this is a New Zealand issue. We are talking about New Zealand’s security interest—New Zealand as a nation—our domestic security and our international security.

It is not a game of political one-upmanship, but a game of ensuring that those who operate in that very peculiar world are accountable, are transparent, and have very clear lines of operation that Parliament has ordained for them.

Full draft transcript:

There is one other area that the Prime Minister touched on that is also extremely important, and I think we can actually start to make some progress.

There is to be a review this year of our security legislation. I think that is good. It is proper. But it needs to be conducted in a transparent and open way, and there are two steps I think that need to be taken sooner rather than later.

The review has to be established by 30 June this year. I think the form of the review needs to be made public well before its establishment, and I think the draft terms of reference need to be published and socialised around this House in the first instance and more broadly before they are adopted.

This is not a political issue; this is a New Zealand issue. We are talking about New Zealand’s security interest—New Zealand as a nation—our domestic security and our international security.

It is not a game of political one-upmanship, but a game of ensuring that those who operate in that very peculiar world are accountable, are transparent, and have very clear lines of operation that Parliament has ordained for them.

Last year the then-director of the Government Communications Security Bureau gave an extraordinary speech where he spelled out the objectives of his agency as he saw them. One of them was advising the Government on military strategy.

That is not the role of an intelligence agency.

It might be the belief of those who like wearing trench coats and walking around in the shadows and what they think is the role of an agency, but it is not the role of a responsible agency today, particularly against the backdrop of the revelations that people like Edward Snowden have made and various other whistleblowers around the world have shown about the way in which these organisations operate.

No one is actually saying you do not need them. Everyone seems to be saying they need a more open and accountable environment.

Some of the Greens and fringe left activists may disagree that no one is actually saying you do not need them.

The review this year provides that opportunity, and I sincerely hope that the Government takes the chance to ensure that what arises is a robust, credible set of organisations that can meet both the test of public scrutiny and the test of time, because increasingly as tensions grow, the challenges that they will face in terms of providing credible, independent intelligence to the Government of the day will also grow.

If there is any doubt about the competence of that, then I think we are in a very sad way.

Some things must remain secret and be done in secret, but it is essential that the New Zealand public has confidence in our security legislation and in our security services.

The importance of transparency

The Judith Collins and David Cunliffe issues over the last two weeks highlight the importance of transparency in politics. A lack of transparency has proven to be highly embarrassing – and career threatening – for both Collins and Cunliffe.

Collins failed to reveal having a dinner and a lunch with people connected to Oravida, a business run by a personal friend ,and her husband is a director of the company.  She didn’t mention them in her cabinet report of the trip and she didn’t tell the Prime Minister about the meal engagements until Tuesday.

As is common it’s not what Collins originally did that has caused the most trouble, it’s the arrogant and inadequate way Collins dealt with the story as it came out that is deemed serious enough by some that she should resign. Journalists and Prime Ministers have a strong dislike of information being withheld from them.

Collins claimed the dinner was a private occasion, but a Minister travelling overseas on Government business is representing the country at all times.

The solution is simple – full transparency. Ministers should include all engagements in their reports, nothing can be claimed as totally private. And they should detail any potential conflicts of interest. They’d be wise to do likewise in New Zealand for any engagements where they could be seen to be potentially acting as a minister.

Collins said on Campbell Live last night she would now be very wary and would include everything in her reports.

Cunliffe had a “week from hell” largely due to not being open and fully honest about the use of two trusts. Both Cunliffe and Collins have been stung by “dishonesty by omission”, they didn’t reveal important information up front.

Cunliffe was late filing advice to the register of pecuniary interests about an investment trust (as did other MPs, seemingly prompted by the revelation David Shearer had an undeclared US bank account). The default position for any MP should be to disclose anything that could possibly be seen as a pecuniary interest.

And Cunliffe hadn’t revealed that he had run a secret donations trust when he ran for the Labour leadership. He said it complied with rules, but it failed a hypocrisy test. If it had been known during the leadership contest it may have affected support for Cunliffe, but he should have either been open about using a trust or not used the secrecy of a trust.

Politicians are wary of revealing things in case information is used against them by opponents. But if opponents discover information that had been secret or not divulged the risks are greater. And the risk escalates if MPs deliberately try to keep things secret when they are asked about them.

Both Collins and Cunliffe should have learnt harsh lessons and their careers have been put on notice.

The importance of transparency should be very apparent to them now, and to all MPs. There may be justification for keeping some things secret but that should be in special circumstances only, and certainly not when trusts and businesses of friends are involved.

Disclosing things up front is far less risky than being found out. Transparency should be a top priority for MPs.