Amidst the busy news week we have just had, full of the serious and the utterly silly, one story that did not get the attention it deserved was the testimony from the Chief Ombudsmen, Beverley Wakem at the Government Administration Select Committee.
The Office of the Ombudsmen is in “crisis”, says the Chief Ombudsman. Beverley Wakem says the public watchdog has a bulging backlog of cases because it lacks investigators, with underpaid staff leaving and in some cases literally being worked to death.
Saying this in such a public forum will not be something that the Chief Ombudsmen took lightly. Anyone who knows Beverley Wakem will know that it will not be grandstanding. This is a crisis- and it is one that really matters for all New Zealanders who care about the accountability of their government. Ms Wakem also told the Committee
The office, she said, was “sinking under the weight of the complaint burden. I’d say we are in crisis”. The public would suffer as a result from delays in handling complaints. “At the end of the day that isn’t acceptable. Justice delayed is justice denied and people are already distressed when they approach the office.”
And that is the nub of this. The Ombudsmen’s office plays a critical role in holding the government and its agencies to account. Its not just OIA requests, its also whistle-blowing on wrong-doing, conduct of insitutions that detain people such as prisons, refugee centres etc as well as our responsibilities under the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. They are essential to make our democracy function properly, whoever the government of the day is.
I have had numerous dealings with the Ombudsmen’s Office, and it is something that in the past you could simply not hide from. When I worked for Helen Clark we had a significant dispute over the release of material related to the so-called Corngate saga. The Ombudsmen’s Office was relentless in ensuring that the vast majority of the material was released. As an opposition politician I have taken a number of complaints to them. I have one that is still outstanding from May last year. We are anxious for them to take a look at the absurd deletions from the briefings to incoming Ministers this year. There are a number of cases relating to Christchurch pending as well.
This is not some backroom bureaucratic agency that can be shrunk in the name of public sector efficiency. The word Ombudsmen derives from a Norse word meaning representative. This is the agency that is the representative of the people charged with keeping government honest on all our behalf. It is an essential part of our democractic infrastructure, and the current government must finding funding to allow it to operate properly. At the moment they are starving it of funds, and that means they are not been hold to account to the degree they should be. If they do not move to resolve this crisis then they will lay themselves open to the accusation that this is a deliberate tactic to reduce their accountability.
At a time when the government is under scruitiny for its dodgy behaviour in being part of breaching electoral broadcasting law and for having the Prime Minister’s Electorate Chair on NZ on Air and involving himself in programming decisions this is a further black mark on their ability to play by the rules. This office must receive the support it needs- it is no exaggeration to say our democracy relies on it.