Dr Bryce Edwards’ Political Roundup: New Zealand’s closed government

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Prime Minister John Key. Image courtesy of Snoopman.net.nz.

Political Roundup by Dr Bryce Edwards.

Dr Bryce Edwards.
Dr Bryce Edwards.

While the Prime Minister is extremely open about his personal life, his government is increasingly opaque. 

John Key is the most open prime minister in New Zealand history. This was surely proven beyond dispute with his recent participation in an interview on Radio Hauraki in which he answered all sorts of crude personal questions not normally put to heads of government – you can watch the two-minute interview here: John Key – Thank You For Your Honesty

In response, US television host John Oliver discussed the clip and declared it The “greatest political interview of all time”. You can listen to Jeremy Wells’ one-minute parody of Mike Hosking reacting to John Key’s honest answers. Toby Manhire has also compiled John Key on the John Oliver Show – the Complete NZ Works (So Far)

There’s a serious side to the issue of John Key’s accessibility. It really is true that Key is more open to the media, and in particular more open about his personal life, than previous prime ministers. This is well explained by Tracy Watkins: “It is no secret that we press gallery hacks probably have more face time with John Key than most of our international counterparts get with their politicians.  We speak to him on his way into Tuesday caucus for about 30 minutes; we grill him most Monday’s at his post Cabinet press conference; we nab him on his way into the debating chamber and if not there we can usually count on catching Key while he’s out and about around the country to throw a few questions his way” – see: John Key – keeping it real is the Prime Minister’s secret weapon

Similarly, Newstalk ZB’s Barry Soper says: “The one thing that makes John Key stand out from other Prime Ministers in the broadcast era is that he, like no other, is fair game. You can ask him what you like and you’ll usually get an answer” – see: Key makes himself fair game. He compares Key’s responses to of the time Soper himself asked Helen Clark “whether she was a lesbian”.

Is the Government also open about serious issues?

The National Government claims to be open about less trivial matters as well. In April, Key told Patrick Gower, “We’ve been way more transparent than any other Government that’s been around”. This followed on from Bill English responding to the Dirty Politics scandal by claiming “John Key runs the most transparent government that New Zealand’s ever seen” – see Radio NZ’s Govt ‘the most open NZ has had’

Some media will be feeling less trusting of the Government after their involvement in the PM’s trip to Camp Taji in Iraq. Barry Soper went along and ended up feeling somewhat duped – see his report, Teflon John and the Taji report confusion. This relates to an official US report on problems in the camp that appeared to be withheld from the media, despite the government obviously knowing about it before arriving at Camp Taji. You can listen to a discussion about this on Radio NZ – see: Mediawatch for 18 October 2015

Official Information Act abuse

So is this the most transparent government ever? Multiple abuses of the Official Information Act (OIA) would suggest otherwise. This mechanism is the most important indicator of open governance, yet it appears to be being weakened by the current government – as was the case with previous governments. 

This was a issue highlighted yesterday by Russel Norman in his valedictory speech in Parliament, in which he said the OIA had become “relatively moribund”, which means “we’ve got a problem with accessing information in this country” – see Isaac Davison’s Green Party farewells Russel Norman

It was allegations in Nicky Hager’s Dirty Politics publication last year that seriously started calling into question how the government might be manipulating the OIA. Added to this, John Key admitted that his government deliberately delayed answering requests, stating “sometimes we wait the 20 days because, in the end, Government might take the view that’s in our best interest to do that”.

More recently the Government has been caught out on Murray McCully’s withholding of the Saudi sheep deal documents, and then on Tim Groser’s failure to provide TPP documents. On the latter, see Jane Kelsey’s blog post, My response to the Official Information Act win against the TPPA

But for the ultimate account of a journalist’s experience of OIA abuse, see David Fisher’s speech from last year: OIA a bizarre arms race

Failings of the Ombudsman’s Office

It’s the job of the Office of the Ombudsman to deal with complaints about how the OIA is being used. Beverley Wakem, the Chief Ombudsman, appeared on TV3’s The Nation in the weekend to deal with some of these issues, and declared that the Prime Minister’s attitude to the OIA is “cavalier” and shows “a disregard for the law” – see the NBR’s: Key shows ‘disregard for the law’ over the OIA, Chief Ombudsman says

The full 12-minute interview can be watched here: Interview: Chief Ombudsman Dame Beverley Wakem. For one of the most extraordinary parts of the interview, see the two-minute item: The Ombudsman on a TV3 producer’s complaint about Police Commissioner

In this, interviewer Lisa Owen raises allegations that police have also deliberately withheld information from the media investigating crime statistics: “I would like to take some time to just explain an example – one of the most interesting ones I think I’ve seen in recent times – which is a request from a 3D producer, Eugene Bingham, asking for information about serious allegations that South Auckland police were doctoring burglary statistics. Now, the police delayed him for about two years before they responded to him, and then a police job sheet surfaced, and I’ve got the job sheet actually here, and in this, an inspector has written down instructions that he says he received from the then deputy commissioner, who’s Mike Bush, who’s now the top cop. In this job sheet, that person states that he was told to let the request sit, and then he goes on to say that, ‘The direction to me was to not respond to the Official Information Act request.’ Let it sit. Not respond. That’s a really serious allegation, isn’t it?”

The Ombudsman’s Office has also just published its 2015 annual report. For Newstalk ZB’s summary of the report, see: Ombudsman struggling with significant workload

A much more critical account can be found on the No Right Turn blogsite – see: The continuing failure of the Ombudsman. According to this analysis, the Office’s failings are being obscured by a change to the way their performance is being recorded, and the public still cannot rely on having a “a well-funded, effective watchdog” to deal with the OIA, despite increases in government funding for the office.

According to analyst Paul Buchanan, “there is a sense that when it comes to the Ombudsman and other oversight agencies, they are more about whitewashing than honest scrutiny” – see: Confronting executive branch excess. He says, “Agencies such as the Ombudsman that are entrusted with overseeing the behaviour of politicians and senior state managers are seemingly subordinate (or at least submissive) to them”.

Andrew Little says that the weaknesses of the Office of the Ombudsman mean that government “can keep information that is potentially embarrassing to them away from members of the Opposition or journalists or members of the public if they really wanted to do so, and they’re doing that”, and he’s proposing reform – see Radiolive’s Labour proposes Freedom of Information Office

There are signs of progress elsewhere. Earlier this year the New Zealand Herald teamed up with software developer Rowan Crawford to re-launch the FYI.org.nz website which helps the public to make OIA requests and acts as a repository for them – see Caleb Tutty’s OIA requests website relaunched by the Herald

The Treasury has also started publishing its responses to OIA requests – see its disclosure log: Responses to Official Information Act Requests. This has won praise from bloggers No Right Turn (see: Treasury gets a disclosure log) and David Farrar, who suggests further ways of opening up government – see: Treasury leading the way with OIA

Open Government Partnership farce

The New Zealand government prides itself on being one of the most open government regimes in the world. But its current involvement in the global Open Government Partnership (OGP) project suggests that all is not so well. The National Government signed up to this coalition and is supposed to be launching new initiatives to make governance more open, participatory and accountable. But all indications suggest that the Government is merely paying lip service to the exercise, and its processes appear to epitomise the opposite of what is required. 

The most useful report on the Government’s involvement is Pattrick Smellie’s early article, Government transparency consultation period an ‘insult’. He suggests that the public consultation process is somewhat farcical. But he also criticises the wider approach of the Government to openness, saying “What we have is a creeping culture of political mercantilism – deal-making to solve problems in ways that skirt the boundaries of corruption in the otherwise admirable pursuit of improved economic outcomes.  That is a slippery slope for our reputation for trustworthiness.”

Lawyer Steven Price has been officially tasked with auditing the New Zealand Government’s recent involvement in the OGP, and his first public statement gives the impression that he is less than impressed – see: Open Government Partnership: Are we on the right track?

The lack of public consultation is particularly worrying. Price reports Geoffrey Palmer as saying “It looks more like a conversation the executive government is having with itself”. In this, other experts on public policy processes, such as Colin James, Cath Wallace and Graham Taylor, express somewhat disparaging reactions to how the Government is handling the process. 

Price also relays the feedback “that that the biggest open government problem is the culture of fear that prevents many experts – officials and people dependent on government funding – from speaking out in ways that the government might find uncongenial”.

Public policy expert Murray Petrie has also spoken out on how the Government is performing in the exercise – see: New Zealand and the OGP. His diplomatically worded submission is a scathing assessment of the lack of ambition involved in opening up government.

The No Right Turn blogger has been paying very close attention to the process. His most positive post is Open Government: Ways forward, in which some proposals are outlined which could easily open up government, but he admits that “any of these actions would require real ambition and a commitment to transparency from the government”. In other posts, the State Services Commission comes in for heavy criticism, ironically, for appearing to be trying to bury information about the OGP process – see: Open Government: Doing it really wrongOpen Government: Still doing it wrong and Open Government: SSC changes its mind on transparency and participation.

Do other government agencies lie to us? There will be continued suspicion of the military, especially following investigative journalist Jon Stephenson’s win in his defamation case against the New Zealand military – see Phil Taylor’s Defence Force settle defamation action with journalist

And suspicions will continue about the intelligence services, which are currently on a mission to convince the public that they are being more open, and are giving very high-profile interviews to the media. In the most recent, the GCSB boss Una Jagose was interviewed by Patrick Gower on TV3’s The Nation, saying that the public would know if their communications with any organisation or company was subject to the GCSB’s Cortex surveillance system because that organisation would let them know in the “terms and conditions” of service. This has been challenged by Graeme Edgeler, who has gone on a search to see if that is actually true – see: Crowdsourcing Project Cortex. He suggests that the GCSB’s promised openness in this regard appears to be a “smokescreen”. 

Finally, text messages are the latest Official Information Act battleground. And Key was said to be officially cleared over the deletion of his text exchanges with Cameron Slater – see Andrea Vance’s John Key cleared over deleted Cameron Slater texts. But we’re still waiting on a decision about whether the PM can withhold details of his correspondence with a gossip columnist – see Vance: Ponytailgate correspondence with gossip columnist probed. And now it seems we might never know the details of Key’s texts to Richie McCaw – see David Fisher’s Prime Minister John Key deleted text message to All Black captain Richie McCaw. But the best guess, according to Fisher, is: “Yo Rich m8, its JK 😉 chk out my cool flg vid on the FB. Go ABs!”

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Dr Bryce Edwards is a political scientist and a lecturer in Politics.

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