Red Alert

Archive for the ‘Open government’ Category

Lockwood raises the bar, again

Posted by on January 22nd, 2013

At some stage over the next few weeks, possibly as early as next Thursday, parliament will elect a new Speaker. As an opposition MP I never thought I’d find myself saying this, but we’ll be sad to see Lockwood Smith go. As Speaker, he has raised the bar in terms of ministerial accountability in the House. His most significant ruling, that when asked a straight question ministers should give straight answers, has changed the whole nature of Question Time. That ruling will remain in place long after his departure, although whether the new Speaker has the ability to implement it with the same precision and diligence is yet to be seen.

Just before Christmas, Lockwood raised the bar again, this time relating to ministerial accountability outside the Debating Chamber. Under parliament’s rules MPs are also allowed to ask written questions of ministers. There are a lot more of these and they don’t always receive the same level of attention questions in the House do. But they’re a vital information channel for the opposition, and they’re another way we can hold ministers to account for their performance and the performance of their departments.

Late last year Labour asked a series of written questions about the Novopay fiasco. The Minister in charge Craig Foss tried to brush them off by saying they were ‘operational matters for the Chief Executive’. This reply has been used by successive governments to sidestep bad news. However, the days when Ministers could duck for cover in this way seem to be over. In replying to Labour’s complaint on the matter, Lockwood Smith ruled:

“I note that there is no convention that Ministers are not answerable for operational matters, but that a Minster is not prevented from replying in those terms. These rulings related to a minister being questioned on operational matters for which a crown entity had responsibility. I expect a higher standard for answering questions relating to a department for which the Minister is responsible. A minister should be able to give informative replies about the actions of such a department.”

“As you have noted, the record shows that the Associate Minister has provided the House with information on this matter in response to questions for oral answer. Ministers are no less accountable to give informative replies to questions for written answer.”

Craig Foss subsequently provided more fulsome answers to our Novopay questions. But the effect of this ruling will extend well beyond this one instance. If the new Speaker maintains this new high standard, the improved level of accountability we’ve seen at Question Time will extend beyond the walls of the Debating Chamber. That’s a good thing.

The new Speaker will have big shoes to fill. All the more reason for the government to nominate a candidate who will have the respect of all sides of the House.

Parata battening down the hatches

Posted by on November 11th, 2012

Hekia Parata now seems to be working on the premise that the less information she gives out, the less accountable she will have to be. After making such a hash of her proposals for school closures and mergers and Christchurch, Parata and her Ministry are now refusing to release the information and advice she received when making those decisions.

I understand officials presented the Minister with several alternative options, but requests for that advice to be released are being refused. That is wrong. In refusing to release that advice officials have argued it would compromise the consultation going on at the moment. How could releasing more, and extremely important, information undermine a supposedly ‘genuine’ consultation?

Similar requests directed to Ms Parata have not been actioned on the basis that she is too busy visiting schools in Christchurch to respond to them. That’s a bit rich coming from a Minister who has refused pleas from those very same schools to give them extra time to undertake consultation.

The Government should be approaching this process in an open, transparent and democratic way. Instead the Minister and her officials are promoting a culture of secrecy. In turn that cloak and dagger secrecy around the release of information is simply creating an atmosphere of distrust and suspicion.

That’s not a responsible way for the government to behave. I urge Hekia Parata to openly release all of the information and advice she has received regarding school reorganization in Christchurch. Any refusal to do so will leave people rightly asking what she is trying to hide.

Government says no to Ports transparency

Posted by on April 4th, 2012

Today I asked the House to agree to introduce my members’ bill, called the Local Government (Council Controlled Organisations) Amendment Bill and set it down for the next Members Day. The government said no.

The bill would have made information held by ports accessible under the Official Information Act and the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act.

Currently, Ports are excluded in the definition of CCOs under the Local Government Act.  An easy amendment to the Local Government Act, as proposed by No Right Turn, (thanks NRT) would have fixed this deficiency. 

Obviously, the costly dispute at the Ports of Auckland has highlighted the need for this bill. The way in which the Ports of Auckland board and management have acted without transparency and accountability has made it very clear there is a need to ensure that these publicly-owned businesses are opened to the same scrutiny every other public institution faces.

We can get information about the local school or a public library, or even SOEs, but we can’t get information about valuable assets like our publicly owned ports, that are worth millions of dollars.

It’s hard to believe any government that claims it cares about transparency and accountability would have a problem supporting a bill like this one.  But National is demonstrating that it’s all talk when it comes to open government.

So now the bill will go into the ballot. I’m not giving up.

Does my democracy look big in this?

Posted by on February 18th, 2012

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.

Open and shut

Posted by on February 7th, 2012

Every time there’s a new government elected, each of the Ministries and departments provide their new Minister with a briefing on the policy issues and decisions required in their portfolio. They are called Briefings to Incoming Ministers (or BIMs)

This year, some Ministers have chosen to withhold (or redact) substantial amounts of information in these briefings. The MFAT and Communications and IT portfolios are two examples. There are more.

To understand the importance of the BIM and the basis upon which information is withheld from public scrutiny it’s worth reading this thoughtful post from Lawyer John Edwards:

Briefings to the Incoming Minister – Going Backwards From Openness to Secrecy?

In the months leading up to a general election, officials start preparing their Briefing to the Incoming Minister (BIM).  In the months after the general election, these BIMs start getting released.

There are no strict rules about what goes into a BIM, and no special provisions about how or when they are released.  They are produced under a convention recorded in the Cabinet Manual that “when a new Minister is appointed, the chief executive of the department concerned must ensure that, as soon as the Minister takes up office, he or she is briefed on the department and the portfolio”.

They range in size and approach, from a comprehensive stocktake of what is happening in the department or Ministry to a manifesto of the ideological drivers of the officials favoured approach to the particular policy.

Edwards advises that:

Anyone who is interested in seeing more of the BIMs than the Government has seen fit to release should simply write to the Minister concerned, and if they stick to their predetermined position about the deletions, ask the Ombudsman to investigate.  Perhaps then we will have a clearer idea about the expectations next time around.