Editorial: Quashing our right to know a lame insult

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MPs shouldn't have secrets from those they represent.

The Minister of Justice, Judith Collins, wants MPs to remain in total control of their own information. Photo / NZPA
The Minister of Justice, Judith Collins, wants MPs to remain in total control of their own information. Photo / NZPA

How sadly predictable that this Government and this Minister of Justice should ignore much of the Law Commission's proposed overhaul of the Official Information Act.

The 21-year-old law, passed under a National Government with Jim McLay as its inspirational holder of the Justice portfolio, is revealed by the commission's review to be in need of reform, not least because of changes in technology and society's attitudes to accountability. From the submissions it received it is clear politicians and bureaucrats routinely breach the spirit of the law - that things should be available to the public as of right, unless there are good reasons to withhold them.

The report, entitled The Public's Right to Know, finds the act could better meet that right if changes are made. It recommended a new law, based on the same principles but with a new government office to ensure the "officials" holding information comply with it. It recommended information being released proactively - that is, without the need for someone to request it.

But the commission accepts in tight fiscal times a new agency might be out of the question. It proposed new grounds for complaint to the Ombudsman if officials withhold information wrongly, and wanted the Ombudsman's findings and orders to be given greater weight as "guidance" to state agencies of how to handle requests. Specifically, it urged guidance to clear up the roles of ministers and their departments in meeting the public's right to know.

It would tighten some aspects of the law to help state agencies put to great time and cost by broad or vexatious information requests.

Perhaps its most contentious recommendation was to make some aspects of the work of Parliament subject to Official Information Act requests. This would cover the work of the Speaker as the minister responsible for parliamentary agencies, and information held by the Office of the Clerk and the Parliamentary Service. It was careful to say proceedings of the House should not be impeded.

The Minister of Justice, Judith Collins, wants MPs to remain in total control of their own information. The Government's response to the report has shamefully and summarily dismissed opening Parliament to the act. "The government does not agree with the Law Commission's recommendation and supports the status quo". It also won't make the Officers of Parliament, such as the Ombudsmen, subject to the act.

There will be no "major reform" - the fiscal environment and the range of other urgent Government priorities given as reasons. No time here for the intangible luxuries of democracy.

There will be no oversight office, and no formal move to improve guidance, other than a lukewarm endorsement of the Ombudsmen's moves to be more explicit to agencies.

But wait. Some administrative functions of the courts could be subject to the act. And the Government will back the commission's "important" call for new commercial protections to protect business or financial interests. Action will be taken to restrict rather than make available public information.

Former Law Commission president Sir Geoffrey Palmer has rightly decried the refusal to open Parliament to OIA scrutiny as specious; the reasons a smokescreen.

The public has a right to know what lies behind the decisions and actions of its MPs and political parties. The Government's response is a lame insult to the visionary democratic advance of its predecessor.

- NZ Herald

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