Ombudsman sides with Govt over coalition document

Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier has backed the Government’s refusal to release a 33-page coalition document, saying in a provisional ruling he is satisfied it has not played a role in policy decisions

The refusal of the new coalition Government to release a lengthy coalition negotiation document, despite promises of transparency, led to a complaint to the chief Ombudsman. Peter Boshier has now ruled that the Government was within its rights to withhold the material.

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters revealed the existence of the document in late October after signing his party’s official coalition agreement with Labour, describing it as “a document of precision on various areas of policy commitment and development”.

“These are directives to ministers with accountability and media strategies to ensure that the coalition works, not in a jealous, envious way, ‘We got this and they got that’, but as a Government successively, cohesively working.”

While Peters said at the time the document would be publicly released, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s office refused to release it to Newsroom under the Official Information Act, arguing it was not official information.

Ardern later described the document as “notes” made during negotiations that were yet to be finalised, not a formal government document.

“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.”

However, National leader Bill English called for the document to be released, saying it was “at the heart of the governing arrangements that New Zealand’s just signed up to”.

"It's a bad start for a Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister who have promised to be a more transparent and open government."

In a provisional opinion sent to Newsroom, Boshier said he had “carefully read and considered” the document, saying it was “clearly made for the purpose of assisting the parties with coalition negotiations”.

“It contains discussion points designed for negotiation and, despite certain public comments to the contrary, does not include information such as directives to Ministers,” Boshier said, in an apparent reference to Peters’ comments about the document.

Ardern’s office told Boshier the document had not been passed on to any ministers or government departments, or used by any ministers in carrying out their official duties.

“It has played no part in policy decisions, and is not available to Ministers as reference material when making official decisions.”

Boshier said he was therefore satisfied that the information had not used by Ardern in her role as Prime Minister, and was held “solely in her capacity as Leader of the New Zealand Labour Party”.

He said he would consider any comments on the provisional opinion before forming a final opinion. Newsroom has made further submissions to the Ombudsman, arguing for the document’s release.

A spokeswoman for Ardern said she could not comment until Boshier’s final opinion was released.

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