Transparency for the people
How are you planning to celebrate 17 December? Are you throwing a party or spending the day in quiet but grateful meditation?
No, I’m not suggesting we start celebrating Russian Strategic Missile Troops Day, which falls on 17 December. Instead, I’m suggesting that we should take the time to stop and appreciate the Official Information Act 1982, which happens to turn 40 this December.
As the 40th anniversary of the O.I.A. rolls around, it is an excellent time to remember and cherish the importance of transparency in government.
The O.I.A. is an essential constitutional document which changed the relationship between the government and the governed (all of us). The O.I.A. starts from the presumption that each New Zealander should have access to government information unless there is a legitimate reason to keep that information secret. This presumption flipped the previous law on its head: before 1982, the government kept all information secret unless there was a good reason to disclose it. Not for no reason was the previous law called the Official Secrets Act 1951.
As the 40th anniversary of the O.I.A. rolls around, it is an excellent time to remember and cherish the importance of transparency in government. As one recent English jurist noted, “there can be no government by the people if they are ignorant of the issues to be resolved…there can be no assurance that government is carried out for the people unless the facts are made known…” Without transparency, the trust between citizens and state institutions breaks down.
This data allows New Zealanders to determine if the $20 billion spent yearly on health results in better services.
Unfortunately, examples of those in positions of power who seem to have forgotten this are not hard to find nowadays.
First, the governing board of Te Whatu Ora, the new Crown entity which recently replaced D.H.Bs around the country, has decided not to continue the D.H.B. practice of holding their monthly meetings publicly. Nor will board papers and documents be treated as automatically public.
This is important because board meeting documents and discussion, as the editors of the Dominion Post put it: “provid[e] a goldmine of unspun data”. This data allows New Zealanders to determine if the $20 billion spent yearly on health results in better services. But when pushed about this lack of transparency, the new board chair, Rob Campbell, argued that “…getting on with the work is more important to us than providing occupational therapy for journalists.”
We must remember that public officials (elected or unelected) serve the people.
Second, certain officials in the Christchurch City Council wished to keep the draft 30-year Christchurch Transport Plan secret during the “funny season” (aka local body elections!) They were concerned that the plan would be “presented out of context”. Thanks to public and media pressure, the plan was released—but the secrecy setting of these officials was concerning.
We must remember that public officials (elected or unelected) serve the people. We must demand accountability and transparency of those in power and let them know (ultimately through the ballot box) when they have failed in this regard. Voters knowing what those in power are doing is key for a well-functioning democracy.
As they say, knowledge is power.