New Zealand needs transparency, not more delays

By Danielle van Dalen April 09, 2021

Unless you’re the Hermione Granger type, you’ll likely remember that parent-teacher interviews are not especially enjoyable. It can be a tedious process, with everyone (parent, teacher, and student) on show, discussing the highs and lows of the learning process. And yet, parent-teacher interviews are an important tool for ensuring parent, teacher, and student are all working together toward the best possible outcomes for the student.

While it may sound even less enjoyable, the Official Information Act (OIA) has similarities with this process. Rather than working to connect parents, teachers, and students, however, the OIA is an honesty tool for politicians and government officials. It gives us, the general public (usually via journalists), the power to request and receive official information on everything our Government is doing on our behalf, including how they’re working on issues like housing, the Auckland light rail, and COVID-19. Without this ability to see what our politicians are doing we have to rely on the PR spin machine of those same politicians – a little like parents relying on a student to explain why they were sent to the principal’s office, without the blunt transparency they’d get from the teacher that sent them there.

Just like teaching is a priority for schools, governing is a priority for governments

Last year the former Minister of Justice Andrew Little announced that there would be a rewrite of the Act seeming to recognise the importance of getting this process right. Public consultation had highlighted that people with official information requests were facing “excessive delays and deletions, overuse of vague withholding [of information] grounds, political interference and an ombudsman appeal process made ineffective by sometimes years-long waits.”

Just a few weeks ago, however, Stuff reported that the full review of the OIA that was planned had been “moved from promise to ‘potential project’ and it was not included in the policy work programme for 2021-2023.” It seems that the new Minister has decided, for now at least, he will ignore flaws in OIA processes.

I can understand why the decision was made. Just like teaching is a priority for schools, governing is a priority for governments – a priority that regularly competes with bureaucratic processes. Listen to any public servant complain about responding to OIA requests and it quickly becomes clear how frustrating this distraction from bigger projects can be. However, government transparency and accountability are essential to a free and functioning democracy, and if the tool used to maintain that transparency isn’t working, surely a review and reform process should promptly move from frustration to priority.

In fact, as Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier stated in his comments on reviewing the OIA “The Law Commission concluded [in 2012] that ‘significant legislative amendment’ was required, and recommended that the OIA […] be redrafted and re-enacted.” That was nearly ten years ago, and yet of the “considerable number of other changes” recommended by the Law Commission, most “were not accepted.” Moreover, Māori health researchers recently called for urgent “changes required to deliver on a modern approach to official information that ensures equitable, high-performing and truly democratic public administration.” Clearly time hasn’t erased the weaknesses of the Act.

Simply stumbling along and hoping for the best won’t just fail to bring about any positive change, ignoring the problems will also likely lead to long-term damage to our democracy. While it might seem tedious, reviews, reforms, and OIA requests themselves cannot be deferred or ignored. If we continue to do so the cost to our open and transparent democracy is going to be much greater.

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