The announcement last week of State Services Commission inquiries into the leaking of Cabinet documents exemplifies all that is wrong with the way Government works in New Zealand.
I think those responsible for the leaks were doing a service in the interests of democracy. Despite the presumption under the Official Information Act that “information shall be made available unless there is good reason for withholding it,” this does not apply in practice to information being considered by Cabinet. That is because the Official Information Act provides as “good” reasons for withholding information “the confidentiality of advice tendered by Ministers of the Crown and officials” and maintaining “the effective conduct of public affairs through the free and frank expression of opinions by or between or to Ministers of the Crown or members of an organisation or officers and employees of any department or organisation in the course of their duty”.
Those provisions effectively permit Ministers to keep proposals under consideration by Cabinet secret until such time as the Minister decides to release them, and with whatever spin the Minister eventually decide to put in them and on them.
That is bad for democracy. In a democratic society the public should as a matter of principle be able to obtain and scrutinise information about what its elected Government is considering and have input into its decisions at all stages of the process. The “free and frank expression of opinions” exclusion from the Official Information Act frequently denies the public that opportunity, with the Cabinet’s decision often being a fait accompli before the public learn anything about it or the information that has been considered in making it.
Of course there will sometimes be genuinely good reasons, such as New Zealand’s national security, international relations, maintaining New Zealand’s law and/or economic stability, or commercial confidentiality, for withholding official information. But no genuinely good reason for secrecy appears to exist in the cases of the proposals for state sector restructuring or the proposals for mining in the conservation estate. Nor does a genuinely good reason exist in many other instances where Cabinet documents are kept secret.
Instead of engaging in a witch hunt to attempt to identify those responsible for the leaks, the Government should be reviewing the Official Information Act, and its own practices under it, to ensure that information is publicly available as a matter of principle rather than kept secret to give the public the mushroom treatment for Government’s own political convenience.