Let the little leaks become a flood

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.

The inquiries follow confidential Cabinet information about proposed state sector restructuring and mining in the conservation estate finding its way into the public domain.

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.

13 Comments Posted

  1. Thks for that, frog.

    fyi the US NAB was only ever likened to ‘secretive’ under the Bush II administration. And then, more as a matter of prudent managed constraint at times when the Administration was attempting undermine its authority at large. An instance of this was when Ebell (@ CEI) went after suppressing the NAB’s Synthesis Report team’s states-wide coverage on climate variability and impacts of climate change. Around 2003 as I recall. To the courts CEI argued it not being based on “sound-science”.

    I said undermine in the sense of CEI acting as a proxy for that Administration.

    This description would appear at odds with NAB in its kiwi context.. but who knows.. early days… and the litigiousness here is nowhere near US levels..

  2. tomfarmer: The OIA applies, at least technically, to the National Assessments Bureau, as it is part of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

    However, in practice I would expect that the vast majority of OIA requests to the NAB would be declined, just as those to the SIS and GCSB are declined, on the grounds that release would prejudice the security or defence of New Zealand or prejudice the entrusting of information to the Government of New Zealand on a basis of confidence by other Governments.

    While I am no fan of these various spook agencies, I think there is much more validity in them declining OIA requests for those reasons than there is in the sham of Ministers and Ministries declining requests for material before Cabinet under the “free and frank advice” exclusion, which is usually just a convenient excuse for maintaining secrecy over material that should rightly be subject to public scrutiny.

  3. Given the amount of public servants losing jobs in all these ‘reforms’ Key is initiating, I suspect there will be more whistle-blowing as disgruntled policy wonks head out the door with a decade’s worth of pent-up frustration to vent.

    Really, if he wants public servants to give lip-service to ‘secrecy’ clauses, he shouldn’t treat them as though they can be divested as easily as the cleaning contractors. (Not meaning any disrespect to cleaners, either!)

  4. Tell me guys: will the OIA apply to what NRT terms the PM’s “Private Spy Agency” – or that could be how one of The Standard bloggers describes (spin) it.

    Whatever, I’m trying discern whether Mr Key’s new bureaucracy (National Assessments Bureau) is in any way different to the one in the US. Aside from different countries that is to say.

  5. Oops, sorry frog, we are dragging this a wee bit off topic, and I admit to being complicit.

    How about a Green Member’s Bill to reform the OIA and stop this abuse of it by successive Government’s from happening?

  6. ‘fly, sprout: Could Steven Joyce really be an incarnation of Gollum? Joyce appears to be accumulating power in a very unnatural way.

    The jury is still out on whether he suffers from multiple personality disorder.

    Is his true allegiance to John the Keyman, The Don Brush, or The Elect Vessel? Or to himself, he who secretly craves for supreme power?

  7. A ‘gloat’ of gollums, sprout.

    Elsewhere, ‘Nazgûl’ has been used to describe the likes of Joyce and co.

  8. Greenfly-I think a hive of Gollums is more apt. Can’t you see them in their respective offices fawning over their little piles of perks and privileges muttering “my precious”.

  9. I quite agree, Toad. However I think the share volume of changes occuring at present, without due consideration, is extraordinary. I would also say that under the Lange government it was probably similar, but in that case there were real crises to respond to. The Ministers at that time also gave the impression (though not always true) that they had some understanding of their portfolios. Were you aware that current ministers have created another level of bureaucracy to act as a go-between between themselves and their ministries. I think there are two possible reasons for this, one to distance themselves from the damage caused and the other because they actually lack the depth of knowledge to engage directly.

  10. Not wishing to breach sprout’s opening paragraph above – actually I can’t imagine what is meant there 🙂 — might it not be that the government see the “witch-hunt” of your words as little more than a benchmarking for appropriate behavior. They are the government after all. At least in their demonstrable terms.

    Though else it might be fairly stated how government comprises all the interested parties. Participation-wise.

    Just a thought guys..

  11. Sprout, I think it is fair to say that the previous Government didn’t exactly cover itself in glory in this regard either – I recall the change from special benefit to temporary additional support being rammed through under Budget urgency with no public consultation or submissions even though it wasn’t scheduled to come into effect for over 18 months because they didn’t want public opposition to it to get organised.

    I do agree with you though, that the current Government is far worse.

  12. The fact that the current government have different definitions for common words has already been discussed under other posts. The definition for consultation is obviously “providing information on a prior decision”.

    The issue of withholding the release of what should be public documents for political purposes is dishonest and unethical. Another recent example of this was the ERO report “Reading and Writing in Years 1 and 2 December 2009” commissioned by the Minister earlier that year. It was sat on for some months then realeased to provide political support for the flawed National Standards. It also follows the current practice of creating a crisis, when none exists, then push through unpopular legislation.

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