Sam Sachdeva: Government disappoints early on transparency

Comment: A month seems early for a new government to dash hopes of a fresh start - yet Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s team seems determined to break the speed record when it comes to disregard for public transparency.

The justifications the new Government has offered for keeping a coalition document behind closed doors, as first reported by Newsroom, appear flimsy at best and cynical at worst.

Ardern and Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters - who was responsible for revealing the document’s existence - made a joint appearance at the Prime Minister’s weekly press conference in an attempt to hose down suggestions of secrecy.

Yet the pair hardly offered a convincing argument for keeping the document away from the eyes of the public.

Ardern insisted the slender, publicly released coalition agreement between Labour and New Zealand First covered everything to which the two parties had formally committed.

The document Peters referred to, she said, were merely “notes” made during the course of discussions, yet to be finalised.

“Where we’ve committed ourselves to a piece of work and a policy piece of work, we’ve released that. Where there’s more work to be done, that will be released at the time when we’ve reached a conclusion.”

That’s a different tone to that struck by Peters on October 25, when he described it quite clearly as a “document of precision on various areas of policy commitment and development”, providing “directives to ministers”.

OIA guidelines back transparency

In any case, Ombudsman’s OIA guidelines state specifically that official information can cover draft documents. It makes no distinction between a “formal” document and an informal one that is still driving government decision-making.

Labour and New Zealand First sold their “official” agreement to the public as the sum total of the concessions that had been made to form coalition government.

As it turns out, ministers and their officials may be beavering away on dozens more policies as a result of horse trading, without any transparency over what they are or how much they may cost.

Ardern tried to argue it was right to keep that information from the public: “There are other areas that we may explore together that may be found to be unworkable, that may be found to just be fiscally irresponsible, that may never be progressed.”

But simply because a policy the Government is actively considering may turn out to be “fiscally irresponsible” is not a reason to keep it out of the public’s eye.

Ardern further sought to downplay the significance of the document by saying she had not had it in front of her since she was Opposition leader, and that it had not been distributed to ministers.

But the Ombudsman’s guidelines do not consider that to be a disqualifying factor when it comes to official information: they note that the definition can cover information known to a minister or agency yet not recorded in writing, “including knowledge of a particular matter held by an officer, employee or member of an agency in their official capacity”.

If it is in their heads, and they are using it to make official government decisions, then we are entitled to know about it.

Peters offered little in the way of support: his most notable contributions were to point out the document was actually 33 pages long, not 38, and make a reference to the Bible and a country with a fallen dictator.

"I mean Moses came down from the mountain, he only had 10 Commandments, right? But there's a lot in the Old Testament as well. Get it?

"I'm only here because the Prime Minister asked me to be here. This is not Zimbabwe all over again."

It was about as clear as the reasoning for keeping the document back in the first place.

High standards set

National leader Bill English has been quick to criticise the Government for a lack of transparency - somewhat hypocritically, some would argue, given his own Government faced criticism of its own for withholding some official information.

Yet English is right to point out that Labour has set a high standard for itself, pledging in its confidence and supply agreement with the Greens to “strengthen New Zealand’s democracy by increasing public participation, openness, and transparency around official information”.

Adding insult to injury is the Government’s approach to written questions lodged by opposition MPs.

As Newsroom first noted last week, National MPs have put forward over 6000 written questions to ministers in the weeks since Parliament has resumed.

Most initially blamed the Opposition for “spamming” the Government, but the reality seems a little more nuanced.

For instance, MPs have asked ministers for a list of their meetings over a three-week period, only to be asked to be more specific.

Reducing the request to a few days, they received a similar answer; reducing further to one day, the same again.

Now, Police Minister Stuart Nash has refused to answer a question on the grounds that “the time and hence the expense of answering this question cannot be justified given the nature of the question”.

As Wellington lawyer Graeme Edgeler has argued at Public Address, National is justified in asking for information about ministers’ meetings, and the Government’s response has been unnecessarily inflammatory.

For a Prime Minister who campaigned on relentless positivity, Ardern and her team may want to avoid resorting to the same old obstructionist tactics of Governments past.

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