I had a small but important victory with John Key's office last week for which many people should take credit, not least Bill English.

The Prime Minister's Office has finally agreed to release, as a matter of course, transcripts from the Prime Minister's post cabinet press conferences on a Monday.

Last week I described it as an "excellent" decision. I'll downgrade that to "very good" now I have discovered they are not searchable.

The importance of that may not yet be apparent but, for example, in the next election campaign, if the Prime Minister claims to have said something about the deployment of troops to Iraq, or MPs' pay, we will be able to quickly look up the transcripts and check the veracity of it against transcripts.


Releasing transcripts is done as a matter of course by many leaders and foreign ministers including Australia, Canada, Britain and the United States.

But in New Zealand it has been fought for years.

Helen Clark refused to release them under the Official Information Act.

And unbeknownst to Bill English, John Key had fought it, too.

That's why in complete ignorance, Bill English, on July 24 last year, made a grand speech stating: "This is the most transparent, most accessible Prime Minister New Zealand has ever had. I can recall Helen Clark, as the previous Prime Minister, fighting the Ombudsman for two years to prevent transcripts of the post-cabinet press conference being released. No one could imagine John Key doing that," English said. "He is very open and very transparent."

Magnificent but bulls***.

Within the hour I had sent an Official Information Act request to the PM's office, citing the Deputy Prime Minister's speech and before long I got back the answer from chief of staff Wayne Eagleson. No.

So I complained to the Office of the Ombudsman.


Other staff in the Herald office have made similar requests from time to time, to no avail.

The reason Helen Clark and John Key's Office had given - backed up in part by an opinion by former chief ombudsman Sir Brian Elwood - was that it would take too much time to take out the material the Prime Minister had given in his/her capacity as leader of the National/Labour Party.

Unbelievable but true. What they were saying was that they had to take out any statements he had made as National Party leader - no matter that all the press conference was made in public, publicly streamed by TV channels, is available on Scoop.co.nz to listen to again.

They said they were in draft form and that it would take up to 100 hours to go through all the post cabinet press conference transcripts of last term to remove such material [eg anything asked about National Party fundraising or byelection candidates.) My argument to the Chief Ombudsman was that there was no requirement to vet the transcripts in the way described.

"The argument of time being is being used as an excuse because having the transcripts in an easily searchable form leaves the Prime Minister more exposed to criticism such as when he takes new positions inconsistent with previous statements or is in error about things he has said in the past (eg saying he had never been briefed about an OIA request by Cameron Slater to the SIS.)"

The complaint to the Ombudsman is still being investigated and considered.

In the meantime, I had decided to request the transcripts on a weekly basis, the week after each press conference.

Then last week I got a note from Sia Aston, the PM's chief press secretary, saying they had addressed my queries by posting them on the Beehive website (www.beehive.govt.nz) down the right hand side.

When I asked why the transcripts were not searchable, Sia said it was decided that making them searchable was the "safest" way to present them so they could not be "manipulated."

There are elaborate ways to search the text of non-searchable documents using Document Cloud.

They have begun with the transcripts with this term only and my request for last term's transcripts remains with the Ombudsman's office.

Not a comprehensive win by me but it is a very good decision for which the PM's office should be congratulated.