The National Party’s Associate Minister of Education, Craig Foss, announced a deal yesterday for an outfit called Learning Infrastructure Partners to be contracted under a so-called Private Public Partnership (PPP) to build and maintain schools.
This may be good, or it may be bad. On the general evidence available, it is likely bad. PPPs tend to privatise profits, but socialise losses. As the Green Party’s Education spokesperson, I want to know whether a particular PPP deal such as the one Craig Foss has signed off on will be good or bad for education in New Zealand. Unfortunately, we are not allowed to know – we are told, in an unconvincing interview by Foss, we just have to trust him (MP3).
The problem is section 9 of the Official Information Act:
9. Other reasons for withholding official information:
(1) Where this section applies, good reason for withholding official information exists, for the purpose of section 5, unless, in the circumstances of the particular case, the withholding of that information is outweighed by other considerations which render it desirable, in the public interest, to make that information available.
(2) Subject to sections 6, 7, 10, and 18, this section applies if, and only if, the withholding of the information is necessary to—
(b) protect information where the making available of the information—
(i) would disclose a trade secret; or
(ii) would be likely unreasonably to prejudice the commercial position of the person who supplied or who is the subject of the information; or
(i) enable a Minister of the Crown or any department or organisation holding the information to carry out, without prejudice or disadvantage, commercial activities; or
(j) enable a Minister of the Crown or any department or organisation holding the information to carry on, without prejudice or disadvantage, negotiations (including commercial and industrial negotiations)
Those provisions allow a Government to decline to reveal almost every detail about the economic case for or against a proposed PPP. That is totally anti-democratic. It subverts the ability of New Zealanders to submit and lobby on PPP proposals, and it undermines the ability of MPs such as me who are sceptical about the cost-effectiveness of PPPs to adequately scrutinise them.
I would rather we don’t go down the PPP path, because the overseas experience shows they favour the corporate partner’s interests over those of the people. But if we are going to go down that path, as National seems determined to do, surely the Official Information Act needs to be amended to prevent “commercial sensitivity” being used as an excuse for Ministers to hide behind in their refusal to be accountable to those they govern.