Monday, 1 October marks the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Office of Ombudsman in New Zealand.
The Office provides Parliament and the New Zealand public with an independent and impartial check on the quality, fairness and integrity of administrative practices in the state sector.
We can proudly say that we were the first English speaking country to set up such an office, albeit long after the concept was first developed in Sweden in the nineteenth century.
It is a critical mechanism for ensuring the accountability of elected and non-elected public officials to the broader public.
Since 1962 its role has been extended to cover Local Government; the provision of official information on the principle that this should be publically disclosed unless there is a good reason specified for withholding it; and support for whistle-blowers who follow a specified procedure.
The Ombudsman’s Office has undoubtedly enhanced the quality of our democracy, and traditionally has received bipartisan support.
Sadly, on its 50th Anniversary, the office has more recently come under threat from a Government which has deliberately set out to limit and undermine its effectiveness.
A partisan statement?
No. Concern about Government actions come from the Chief Ombudsman, Dame Beverly Wakem, herself.
Dame Beverley is a formidable woman, determinedly independent and with an impressive track record.
Most recently, she warned of “highly dangerous” moves by the Government to keep information secret by drafting laws to avoid the Official Information Act (OIA).
She highlighted “reprehensible” attempts to remove from the Act state assets where there are partial share sales, charter schools and change to mining permits.
Earlier this year, Dame Beverly told a Parliamentary Select Committee that the Office was “in crisis.” An inadequate budget was incapable of meeting the Ombudsman’s work load, justice was being denied, and starving her Office of funding prevented the Office from ensuring that government spending was of high quality.
One reason for the Office’s excessive work load is the increasing arrogance of power by Ministers who deliberately ignore the legal requirements on them to disclose information under the OIA, and the Ombudsman has to be called in to put pressure on them.
Murray McCully is a prime culprit. The Auditor General revealed that he failed to meet the deadline for OIA requests on over 50% of the requests.
I have in front of him a number of requests that remain unanswered months after he was legally obliged to do so.
He was the only Minister to withhold Treasury budget information on his Ministerial portfolio and withheld two thirds of the briefing to him as an incoming Minister.
It’s absolute arrogance from a Minister who is a control freak who refuses to subject his performance to scrutiny and to be held accountable.
Little wonder when you consider the botched job he did on restructuring his Ministry.