Government

The curious case of the ‘secret’ state gift

When is a gift to a foreign dignitary a state secret?

You might think never, but according to the Government that isn’t the case.

The latest release of ministerial expenses, delayed after an internal error meant all the figures had to be reassessed, included a purchase by Andrew Little - curious not for the information that was there but for the information that wasn’t.

Among Little’s receipts was a $178 purchase from BookPrint, a New Zealand book printing service.

However, the explanation for the purchase was redacted, with section 6(a) of the Official Information Act cited as the reason for withholding the information.

The section states that information can be withheld if it is likely to “prejudice the security or defence of New Zealand or the international relations of the Government of New Zealand”.

Little [said] his father and Zayed had worked together “to prevent the Saudis basically pilfering large tracts of land with oil deposits”.

Little’s office confirmed to Newsroom that the book in question was a custom-printed copy of a manuscript written by Little’s father, presented as a gift for UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan when he visited New Zealand earlier this year.

Little’s father Bill served as a British Army officer in the 1950s, in what was then Abu Dhabi and is now the UAE. He worked with Sheik Abdullah’s father, Abu Dhabi’s then-Emir, Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan.

Little told the NZ Herald his father and Zayed had worked together “to prevent the Saudis basically pilfering large tracts of land with oil deposits”.

"It was an observer role but he had to engage with the local communities … and the big issue was the way to stake a claim and exploit the oil deposits there."

Little’s father had written a book about his time in the UAE and work with Zayed, which had never been published.

Little’s office said there had been an agreement between his father and Zayed that the book’s contents would remain secret, with Zayed’s family allowed to retain copies of the manuscript for their personal use.

A copy of the receipt showing the book's title was redacted due to defence, security or diplomatic reasons. Photo: DIA.

The title of the book was redacted to respect that arrangement, as well as the diplomatic sensitivity of its contents, which covered historical border disputes between Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Little's office said.

New Zealand has been waiting to conclude a trade deal with the Gulf Cooperation Council, which includes both countries, since negotiations finished in late 2009.

The delay in ratification was believed by some to be due to Saudi objections about New Zealand’s decision to ban exports of live sheep.

The National government’s decision to establish an agribusiness hub in Saudi Arabia, intended to mollify critics, led to further controversy, with the Auditor-General describing “significant shortcomings” in the process used to complete the deal.

The Government has come in for criticism at points over its approach to transparency and official information, having set a high bar for itself upon taking office.

Little refused to comment to Newsroom about the decision to redact the information, saying Newsroom had received an “off-the-record briefing” from his office on the matter.

However, his office later confirmed the information had not been provided on an off-the-record basis.

The Government has come in for criticism at points over its approach to transparency and official information, having set a high bar for itself upon taking office.

Former Open Government Minister Clare Curran - who resigned from the role having failed to record a meeting in her ministerial diary for a second time - claimed it would be "the most open, most transparent government that New Zealand has ever had".

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