Keeping an eye on transparency

By Danielle van Dalen March 19, 2019

“Constant vigilance!” I’m finding that Professor Mad-Eye Moody’s childhood encouragement to be ever watchful still applies now to the way we engage with our politicians. Even though corruption doesn’t frequently surface in New Zealand, we need to recognise the danger of apathy and maintain constant vigilance in protecting the transparency of government.

While it may sound like a minor issue, corruption in our public institutions can have wide reaching effects. A lack of transparency leads to a disconnect between the “ruling elite” and the rest of us, where a select few make decisions that are good for them without the oversight and understanding of the public. For a healthy democracy, New Zealanders need to be able to actively participate and understand the decisions that are being made by our elected officials. This means, that “if we want to be able to make informed decisions at the ballot box, we need to know what our officials and ministers have been doing or are planning to do.”

Where a select few make decisions that are good for them without the oversight and understanding of the public

Over the past week we’ve seen the symptoms of failure. Minister Shane Jones was accused of misleading parliament for failing to declare the extent of his relationship with a project that received tax-payer funding, and police referred the National party’s election donations complaint to the Serious Fraud Office. Alongside all of this, an investigative series into the Official Information Act (OIA) has highlighted the flaws in this tool for ensuring Government transparency.

Anyone who knows a public servant will have heard grumbles from time to time about responding to OIA requests. I’m sure these can be tedious and frustrating tasks to complete, particularly when they take away from the other important work they are doing. But facilitating transparency for the people who elect the government must be seen as a key function of all government agencies, not just an optional add-on that can be done when there’s time.

These boundaries are there to show us the character of the people representing us.

Of course, just because there are issues doesn’t mean our government is rife with corruption. In many ways New Zealand is good at recognising and respecting the importance of government transparency. There may be problems with the OIA, but we are still fortunate have that mechanism of inquiry. It is heartening that our media are reporting stories like the ones we’ve seen about Shane Jones failing to declare his relationship with a project and the National Party being referred to the Serious Fraud Office, despite Minister Jones threatening a journalist to retaliate under parliamentary privilege.

But we must pay attention. Our politicians should know that we are willing to hold them accountable for the way they do the business of governing.

We need to make use of the machinery of accountability. It’s our responsibility to pay attention to these stories of politicians breaking the rules or overreaching their roles, and speak up when our politicians refuse to work within the boundaries they’re given. These boundaries are there to show us the character of the people representing us.

Mad-Eye Moody was right. We need to maintain “constant vigilance.”

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