This is a story about the allocation of $6.4 billion of public money and a Green Party that wants to cover up why particular decisions were made. It underlines that the Official Information Act (OIA) is broken.
The scandal concerns a Wellington transport package announced in May by Transport Minister Phil Twyford, he of KiwiBuild fame.
Contradicting the Wellington City Council, the Greater Wellington Regional Council and the NZ Transport Agency that had worked together on the plan for some years, Twyford's package delayed a new Mt Victoria tunnel until the 2030s.
Instead, the money would be allocated in the 2020s to — you guessed it — a billion-dollar-plus tram from the railway station to the airport. The tram would be slower than the airport bus, which currently takes only 25 minutes to the CBD yet is underused.
Inquiries by Opposition transport spokesperson Chris Bishop have revealed that the background to the changed spending priorities included a letter from the Associate Transport Minister, the Greens' Julie Anne Genter, to her senior minister, Labour's Twyford.
The letter was written on ministerial letterhead and signed by Genter as Associate Minister.
There is nothing special about this. Ministers and their associates should meet, discuss, correspond and even argue over major spending decisions.
A billion-dollar airport tram in a hilly city with a population of just 220,000 and only another 300,000 in its wider region would be globally unusual. We should expect to see detailed consideration of arguments and counterarguments as the two ministers debate whether the tunnel or tram should have priority.
While Twyford also prefers trams over cars or extending Wellington's or Auckland's existing rail networks, no one would be surprised were Genter even more strongly in favour of making it more difficult to drive to Wellington Airport relative to catching the proposed tram.
It has even been reported that Genter and another Green MP threatened to resign if the tunnel went ahead before the tram.
Under the OIA, the public has a legal right to see this to-ing and fro-ing about why their taxes will be spent on one thing instead of another. The Genter letter seems to have been pivotal.
The OIA was the crowning achievement in 1982 of Robert Muldoon's liberal Justice Minister Jim McLay, who two years later played a second important constitutional role in organising the Cabinet rebellion that forced Muldoon to comply with the instructions of the incoming Labour Government to resolve the post-election currency crisis.
The Act specifies that its purpose is to progressively increase the availability of official information to enable New Zealanders to more effectively participate in public affairs and promote the accountability of ministers and bureaucrats.
Its principle of availability demands all information be made available unless there is good reason for withholding it. Information must be released as soon as reasonably practicable, and in no case later than 20 working days after a request is received, or reasons given why it should be kept secret.
Parliament's intention in 1982 was clearly that, after 37 years, governments would be massively more open and transparent than before.
The law, though, is usually administered by the very politicians who hold the information. It contains no fines or threats of imprisonment even for those who most flagrantly breach it.
While ordinary bureaucrats initially took their legal obligations seriously, over the years the politicians have corrupted departmental processes using their so-called no surprises rule.
An eternal rule of politics is that, when it comes to ethical questions such as complying with the OIA, each Government is worse than the one before.
They adopt all the dirty tricks of their predecessors and invent new ones of their own.
Ironically, this is never an argument to change the Government, since it means Simon Bridges' National Government would be worse than Ardern's and Kiritapu Allan's Labour Government worse than his.
Ardern, though, promised to break this cycle.
Her confidence and supply agreement with the Greens' James Shaw promised to "strengthen New Zealand's democracy by increasing public participation, openness, and transparency around official information".
She appointed an Open Government Minister, Clare Curran, who declared the Ardern regime would be the most open and transparent in history.
The opposite has of course occurred. Hilariously, Curran was soon forced to resign for hiding information from the public, Parliament and the Prime Minister.
Even more comical, Genter now demands to keep secret her letter about the $6.4b funding package on the grounds that it would not be in the public interest for anyone else to see it.
She claims she wrote as one ordinary MP to another on an inter-party matter. If that rule takes hold, Finance Minister Grant Robertson and his associate David Parker could claim all their correspondence about next year's Budget is just two Labour MPs communicating about their re-election plans.
Fixing the OIA would appear to require a politician of McLay's integrity emerging, so is hardly likely in 2019. The poor Ombudsman is completely overloaded and successive Beehives have mocked that office anyway.
An intervention by the courts seems required, but that would require someone with the means to commit a decade to litigation. If that's you, please get the process under way by making an OIA request at fyi.org.nz, which is sponsored by the Herald.
Anything that would hold a minister to account or be more than mildly interesting is certain to be rejected and create a pretext.
In the meantime, Genter is a disgrace to her party and herself and should either release her letter in full or resign.
- Matthew Hooton is managing director of PR and corporate affairs firm Exceltium.