Hard News by Russell Brown


Media Take: The creeping politicisation of the OIA

Brent Edwards' story last week on official advice to ministers on child poverty was interesting not only for its substance, but its circumstance.

Edwards explained on Morning Report that he originally requested the first of the documents (some of them now nearly two years old) May last year.

It took a complaint to the Ombudsman's Office to force former Social Development Minister Paula Bennett to release the information - but even then she managed to delay the release:

" ... and even twice before the election I was contacted by the Ombudsman's office and told that the minister's office had … agreed to the release the information and asking if I had received it. Well I had not. And of course as you say child poverty was a campaign issue. But these reports were only finally sent to me well after the election."

This seems a clear and evident breach of the Official Information Act 1982, which requires such information to be released as soon as practically possible, and a decision to be made within a maximum of 20 days -- but carries no sanction for agencies that fail to comply.

On Morning Report the next day, the Prime Minister explained that the government deliberately flouts that law:

"Sometimes we wait the 20 days because, in the end, Government might take the view that's in our best interest to do that."

Things may actually be considerably worse than that in parts of the public sector. Shortly before the election, David Fisher reported this story for the Herald:

A former high-ranking Customs lawyer says he resigned from his job after allegedly being told to bury information that could embarrass the Government.

Curtis Gregorash said he was told by senior Customs executives to refuse Official Information Act and Privacy Act requests, which he believed was at the direction of former Customs Minister Maurice Williamson.

That has sparked a wide-ranging inquiry by an "appalled" Chief Ombudsman. But it seems it's just the tip of the iceberg of an increasingly politicised environment around the Official Information Act, one where it's the default to withold and delay. Check out the number of requests to Child, Youth and Family marked "long overdue" on FYI. Marvel at the correspondence around this still-unfulfilled request seeking details of the "coinciding requests" that supposedly prompted Cameron Slater's fast-track access to an SIS briefing.

Fisher gave a speech to around a hundred public officials in Wellington last week, in which he traced a change that he believes took hold in the last term of the Clark government and has created an environment dominated by media management, obstruction and political interference.

I'd post the whole thing if I could (and I reckon the Herald should, because it's great), but you can also see David Fisher discuss his conclusions, along with barrister and journalist Catriona MacLennan, on last night's MediaTake. Go have a look.

I realise that there is another side to this: the sheer weight of requests, often themselves highly political, or near-vexatious, that suck up resources. But I still think we have real problems with a transparency law that once proudly led the world.

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