Sue Kedgley: Future of open government eroded by secret squirrels

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Governments have found ways to reduce the amount of official information that is released to the public. Photo / Getty images
Governments have found ways to reduce the amount of official information that is released to the public. Photo / Getty images

The Government's decision to remove state-funded charter schools and partially privatised state-owned enterprises from coverage of the Official Information Act is an alarming move, and sets a dangerous precedent.

It nibbles away at our democracy and threatens to roll back our culture of openness and transparency. If these state-funded organisations are allowed to make all their decisions behind a cloak of secrecy, what other agencies will be next? And if they are able to keep their decisions secret, how will they be held to account?

The ability to access information from government agencies under the Official Information Act is the cornerstone of our claim to have open, transparent and accountable government.

But once access to information is denied, we are on the slippery slope to closed government and secret and unaccountable decision-making.

And that's why the decision to remove these organisations from the Official Information Act is such a concern.

You can understand why the Government dislikes the Official Information Act, and wants to remove areas of government decision-making from its scrutiny. The act forces it to reveal information and processes it would far rather keep secret.

The Hobbit saga is a case in point. The Government didn't want us to know it was pressure from Sir Peter Jackson and Warner Brothers that forced it to change our employment law, against the advice of Crown Law.

So it refused to release 60 documents that Radio New Zealand had requested under the Official Information Act.

Radio New Zealand appealed its decision to the Ombudsman's office, and to his great credit, Ombudsman David McGee insisted the Government release 18 of the withheld documents.

So it's not surprising governments are often reluctant to release information under the Official Information Act, or that ministers' offices have become adept at withholding, rather than disclosing, information from the public and the media.

So many official information requests are turned down on specious grounds that I suspect ministerial staff are given training in how to avoid releasing information that could be politically damaging or controversial.

Certainly, most of the information I have requested over the years has been withheld.

Ministers' offices have either refused my request, or engaged in another ploy - they have sent me the documents in question, but with so much information blanked out they are useless.

I have a file of Official Information documents I have received over the years, which have most of their contents carefully erased. Most were straightforward requests for information the public should be entitled to access.

There are 12 blank pages from Jim Anderton's office that were supposed to explain why our Government had made submissions to the American Senate opposing its decision to require mandatory country of origin labelling of meat. There are half a dozen blank documents from Annette King's office that are supposed to explain why the Government opposed mandatory country of origin labelling of food, and a blank, 12-page document from Kate Wilkinson's office that should have explained why our Government opposed most of the recommendations of a recent food labelling review.

This tactic, of erasing potentially controversial paragraphs from documents, has become routine, as have other tactics governments use to subvert the act and withhold information.

It has reached the point where lodging an Official Information request can turn into something akin to a protracted guerrilla war.

First, the minister's office will procrastinate and refuse to answer the request for months.

Eventually, it will inform you that the information is being withheld - usually on the grounds of commercial sensitivity.

If you challenge their decision, months of fighting through the Ombudsman's office will ensue before documents that should have been immediately released are finally extracted.

It's no wonder the workload of the Ombudsman's office has been increasing exponentially, as more and more New Zealanders make complaints about the way information has been withheld by the Government.

This is not how the Official Information Act was supposed to work.

The intention, when the act was introduced, was to progressively increase the availability of official information to the people of New Zealand.

But the reverse has happened, as successive governments have found ways to decrease the amount of official information that is released to the public.

That's why it was so good to see the Ombudsman's office stand up to the Government and insist it release politically sensitive information over the Hobbit affair.

Now it's time for New Zealanders to insist the Government abandon its proposals to exclude state-owned charter schools and state-owned enterprises from the Official Information Act.

If we don't, and the Government is able to get away with this dangerous precedent, then I fear for the future of open government in New Zealand.

Sue Kedgley is a former Green MP.

- NZ Herald

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