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Posts Tagged ‘transparency’

TPPA : Will you make the TPPA process transparent? Labour Leadership Q&A #3

Posted by on September 11th, 2013

14 Questions for 2014

Virtual Hustings Meeting – Question 3

TPPA : Will you make the TPPA process transparent?

Explanatory Note: From September 10th to 14th 2013 as part of the official selection process for a new leader the New Zealand Labour Party is holding a “Virtual Hustings Meeting” hosted by Red Alert and organised by Scoop Amplifier. Over 7 days questions were solicited from eligible voters in the election. The questions and answers are now being posted as a set of 14 posts at the Red Alert Labour Party Blog starting yesterday (Tuesday 10th September), till Friday 13th September. At Red Alert all-comers are welcome to discuss the answers in the comment section of the blog. The three candidates are expected to participate in these discussions at times over the five days till Saturday 14th September.


Question : What are your views on the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement? Will you make the TPPA process transparent?

Submitted by : Cushla Dillon, Auckland



Answer from Grant Robertson

The TPPA is more than a normal trade agreement and needs to be treated as such, with caution.

I am a supporter of trade agreements that gain our exporters access to markets that will mean they can create jobs here in New Zealand. But we have to ensure that our rights to make laws, regulate and protect our people and environment is upheld.

In the case of the TPPA we must set clear bottom lines. No change to the PHARMAC model, protection of IP and copyright law, and ensuring our sovereign right to regulate and make policy is supported.

We do need more transparency in the way we deal with trade. I would set up an independent trade advisory group with representation from across the community to ensure there is public participation and understanding of our approach to trade agreements. We must be at the table for these sorts of negotiations, but it is vital that it is a Labour Government at the table.


Answer from David Cunliffe

I am concerned about the TPPA. We cannot trade-away our ability to set government regulation. I am worried that John Key and his Government will continue to keep us all in the dark about the text and its implications and I fear they will then present us with the final text some time near the end of this year and insist that we accept it otherwise we will harm our trading relationships.

This will leave us with little or no opportunity to consult with our communities about its potential implications.

We must protect Pharmac, ensure intellectual property provisions are suitable for New Zealand business, and we must not accept limits on our sovereign right to regulate. Any agreement must be in New Zealand’s best interest.


Answer from Shane Jones

A very challenging issue. It is vitally important we retain the capacity for our Parliament to regulate for public good.

It is essential that this deal does not hobble our technical industries through punitive patents. Ultimately however I do not want to see our Trade partners in a club without us.


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.

Ombudsmen (Cost Recovery) Bill

Posted by on July 26th, 2012

One of the Bill’s that was drawn from the ballot today is unlikely to gain as much attention as others, but it could have quite a significant impact on the way government operates. The Ombudsmen (Cost Recovery) Amendment Bill, in the name of Shane Jones, allows the Ombudsmen to set guidelines for recovering the costs of their investigations from the agencies being investigated.

Sound pretty uninteresting? Consider this: the Ombudsmen are the people who investigate alleged breaches of the Official Information Act (among other important roles). If the government is trying to hide something, they are the ones who can force it into the open. They play a vital ‘safeguard’ role within our governing system. But currently they can’t keep up with demand.

During the 2011 financial review of the Office of the Ombudsmen, the Chief Ombudsman stated that the office was ‘in crisis’ due to its high caseload and inability to meet demand. Only a minor increase has been recommended as part of this year’s Budget. This extra funding will cover increases in salary costs but will do nothing to address the more than 300 cases that are presently unallocated and awaiting further consideration.

This Bill allows the Ombudsmen to set guidelines for recovering the costs of their investigations from the agencies being investigated. This will ensure that resourcing constraints do not deny access to due process, and will promote greater compliance with legislative requirements by government departments and agencies.

Providing the Ombudsmen with the ability to charge those departments or agencies who are the subject of Official Information Act 1982 investigations is likely to improve compliance with that legislation (which currently contains very weak compliance provisions).

So, not the sort of stuff that’s going to set the political world alight with excitement, but a very important debate to have all the same.

A free, independent media. What’s it worth?

Posted by on March 11th, 2012

If you believe NZ should have a free and independent media, and that this is being eroded surely but steadily under this government, then it’s worth having a look at Broadcasting Minister Craig Foss’s responses to this question in the House last week.

I wasn’t inspired by the answers. Neither should any New Zealander be. Keep watching this space.

The Law Commission’s recent  and important report on the regulatory gaps in new media had this to say about the importance of free independent media:

An independent and free press, unfettered by political interference, was seen to be a necessary embodiment of an individual’s right to free expression and an essential condition for democracy.

Here’s the transcript for those who can’t access the video clip:

Questions for Oral Answer
Thursday 8 March 2012

Press, Free—Government Broadcasting Policy
12. CLARE CURRAN (Labour—Dunedin South) to the Minister of Broadcasting: Is he confident that current Government broadcasting policy upholds the standards of an independent and free press; if so, why?

Hon CRAIG FOSS (Minister of Broadcasting): Of course I have confidence in this Government’s policy, which upholds the standards of an independent and free press as established in the  Broadcasting Act 1989, and which provides a robust broadcasting standards and compliance regime.
Grant Robertson: I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. Well, it is a primary question and it does have two parts. The second part was not addressed by the Minister.

Mr SPEAKER: The member raises a fair point. It is a primary question that was asked, and the Minister answered the first part—that he is confident—but he did not actually say why.

Hon Phil Goff: Because he doesn’t know.

Mr SPEAKER: Order! I invite the Minister to clarify that part. The party asking the question did not perceive that to be answered, and I must confess I did not either.


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.

Transparency around lobbying important

Posted by on June 20th, 2011

I don’t think New Zealand politicians have anything to fear from more open and transparent rules around the activities of lobbyists. The lobbyists I’ve come into contact with in my short time as an MP have been decent people and shouldn’t have anything to fear from a more transparent system either. In fact, the natural suspicion that the secrecy around their current activity arouses would be reduced, potentially leaving them better off in the long run.

I’m pleased the Labour Party has decided to support the Private Members Bill introduced by Sue Kedgley at First Reading, should it be drawn from the ballot. The Bill does two main things. First, it establishes a Register of Lobbyists, to be administered by the Auditor General. Second, it requires the Auditor General to establish a Lobbyist’s Code of Conduct and ensure that it is enforced.

I’ve had a chance to have a quick read through Sue’s Bill and I think it’s a good start, although I’m concerned that it may go wider than necessary. For example, as I read it under the current wording of the Bill, a plumber who makes an appointment to see their local MP to complain that the registration fees imposed by their professional body are too high would technically be deemed to be a lobbyist and therefore be required to register as one or be in breach of the law. I think that’s going a bit far.

New Zealanders are fortunate that we have a form of government that is incredibly open and accessible. Anyone can make an appointment to see their local MP and I’d hate to see any moves to regulate professional lobbyists compromise that. But that’s a question of detail and I’m sure it can be worked through at select committee, should the Bill make it that far. This is certainly a debate worth having.

Transparency the best option

Posted by on June 18th, 2011

Am pleased and heartened to see that Rob at The Standard has outed himself as a blogger. Brave and wise I reckon.

I understand why some people blog under a pseudonym. I understand why some comment on blogs and in social media under one. It’s probably better all round if we were ourselves. Unfortunately, the world of politics encourages secrecy and intrigue, and can punish honesty and transparency.

I’m all for open-ness. Sometimes that may appear to be a naive position. But in the long run it’s better for us all.

If you are full of doubt, have a read of this. I think it’s the best example so far of how transparency reaps benefits.

Greg Jericho, also known as Grog’s Gamut is an Australian public servant, blogger, and journalist. He came to prominence during the Australian federal election in 2010 when Australian Broadcasting Corporation director Mark Scott referenced his blog during a speech.[1] He was subsequently outed by News Limited journalist James Massola, a move that provoked widespread condemnation and criticism amongst the Australian blogging community.[2] After a break from blogging following his outing, Jericho has resumed blogging and providing opinion items for other outlets, including the ABC.

I don’t like the way Greg Jericho was outed (I was in Australia when it happened) but I think the way he handled it was great.

Lobbyists and Transparency

Posted by on June 4th, 2011

Tracy Watkins has an interesting column in this morning’s Dominion Post about the rise of lobbyists and the lack of rules and transparency around them in the New Zealand political sphere. I agree with a lot of what she writes. Now unlike my friends and colleagues in the Greens, I don’t think a Minister’s decision-making is going to be swayed by a ticket to the rugby and a few sausage rolls, but I am concerned about the increasing number of lobbyists who seem to have unrestricted access to Parliament buildings and the lack of transparency around that.

I’ll be upfront right here and now and say that I’ve been to several sporting events at the invitation of corporate box owners, often joining MPs from other political parties. But I think MPs, and particularly ministers, need to be careful about which invitations they accept. For example, it would be a very bad look for Steven Joyce to be seen in a Telecom corporate box around the time he is making significant decisions on broadband. On the other hand, I can’t see there being any issue with National backbenchers accepting corporate hospitality from government banker Westpac. They’re not going to have any influence over whether the government banking contract is renewed anyway.

I think New Zealand has come a long way in recent years on issues around transparency. Our elected representatives are now subject to a quite stringent declaration of interests process, and some of the loopholes (for example the ‘annonymising’ trusts that Tracy refers to in her column) have actually been closed so that MPs can’t hide where they have their money stashed, unless they truly don’t know where it is themselves (in other words it’s in a blind trust, although I myself remain skeptical about just how ‘blind’ those trusts actually are).

However, I’d also point out that those who report on our activities aren’t subject to any such transparency, and I think that’s an area that we should also look at. I’ve met just as many press gallery journalists in corporate boxes at the Westpac Stadium as I have other MPs. Given they have huge influence over what the public get to know about the decision-making of elected leaders, why shouldn’t the journalists also have to be transparent about that? When journalists receive free travel, which they often do from the airlines, why shouldn’t they have to declare that? (I do acknowledge that many will put a small statement at the end of an article of someone else has paid for their airfares, but they are not obliged to do so by anything other than their own ethical standards).

With the government increasingly using military aircraft to get around the country and around the world, why shouldn’t the journalists who travel with them on those same flights have to be transparent about that? If we as the Opposition were to critiscise a Minister for using an airforce plane rather than a commercial plane, and the journalist covering that critiscism had also been a passenger on said military aircraft, surely their readers are entitled to know that?

I’ve had quite a bit to do with a number of press gallery journalists in my time working in politics and, for the most part, I think they’ve got incredibly high ethical standards. But I think most politicians do as well. If the fourth estate want to argue, as they do, that we can’t rely on a politician’s word and sense of ethics and we do, in fact, need more rigid and transparent rules around personal interests, why shouldn’t the same argument apply to those who report on our activities?

I think this is a really interesting area of discussion, and I congratulate Tracy for bringing it up. I’m looking forward to the phone ringing off the hook over the next 24 hours as her colleagues stampede to report my call of greater transparency on their part. Oh wait…

Crony Watch #2

Posted by on May 27th, 2011

A while back I asked why the NBR doesn’t run it’s ‘Crony Watch’ column anymore. When Labour was in government they were very quick to critiscise when anyone who had any connection to the Labour Party was appointed to any sort of board or committee. Strangely they haven’t been as vocal and vigilant since National came to power, but there are certainly plenty of examples they could be highlighting. For example:

  • John Key’s electorate chairman, Stephen McElrea, has been given a role on a working group selecting proposals for taxpayer-funded political documentaries about health, education, welfare and law and order. He is also the deputy chair of NZ on Air, who get to choose which Kiwi TV shows get taxpayer subsidies.
  • Richard Griffin, former press secretary to the last National government (and often confused for the former PM) has been appointed Chair of the Board of Radio New Zealand.
  • Former National MP and Cabinet Minister Roger Sowry appointed to the Board of the Electricity Authority and to Chair the Councils of two polytechnics.
  • Former National MP and Leader Don Brash appointed to Chair the government’s 2025 taskforce.
  • Unsuccessful National Party candidate, and next on their list, Conway Powell, appointed to the Health Research Council of New Zealand.
  • Alastair Scott, who unsuccessfully tried to roll John Hayes as National candidate in the Wairarapa, was rewarded with a seat on the Crown Health Funding Agency.
  • National’s candidate in Mt Albert, Ravi Musuku, was rewarded with a slot on the Human Rights Review Tribunal after being rolled in favour of Melissa Lee for the by-election.
  • Former National MP Ian McLean appointed to the Lakes District Health Board.
  • Another former National MP Margaret Moir appointed to the Podiatrists’ Board.
  • Yet another former National MP, Clem Simich, appointed to the Residence Review Board.
  • One of the authors of Don Brash’s Orewa speech, Michael Bassett, appointed to the Board of Te Papa.

I don’t think someone should be disqualified from appointment to a role just because they have been, or are, involved with a political party. But those appointments will always be, and should be, subject to greater scrutiny. That scrutiny should be no less just because it is a National government rather than a Labour one.

National backs their mates, again…

Posted by on May 26th, 2011

Last year the National government was roundly criticized for setting aside $4.8 million in the Budget to be allocated to the Pacific Development Agency (PEDA) without a competitive tender process.  Keep in mind that when first quizzed about it Bill English’s first reaction, as it so often is, was to deny the whole thing. It took months of investigative work by the NZ Herald to establish that in fact not only did English know all about it, it was inserted into the Budget at his behest and officials didn’t know what to make of it.

The NZ Herald also suggested at the time the funding was part of an English-inspired effort to secure greater support for National amongst pacific voters. In the end they were forced to back down and a competitive tender process resulted in PEDA missing out completely.

Did they learn their lesson? It seems not. This year’s Budget allocated $2.4 million to Parents Inc, once again without a competitive tender process. The chief executive of Parents Inc, Bruce Pilbrow, was the Deputy Commissioner of the Families Commission (appointed by Paula Bennett) until he resigned just two days before the Budget. Why wasn’t the contract put out for tender? When did Pilbrow find out Parents Inc was getting the funding?

At the very least it’s a bad look for the government to set funds aside for specific organisations without going through robust processes to ensure the taxpayer is getting value for money. It leaves them open to charges of cronyism and looking after their mates, but then again, there are plenty of other examples of where the National Party are doing just that!

Are the Nats dodging the OIA?

Posted by on May 22nd, 2011

The Official Information Act is a really important part of our constitutional framework. Passed back in 1981, it turned the old approach on its head. Before then, information was kept secret unless there was good reason to release it. Now State information is publicly released unless there is good reason to withhold it.

Government departments and agencies have pretty good processes for dealing with requests for official information. An important part of that is making sure information generated is captured and stored in the first place.

The world has changed a lot since the Official Information Act (OIA) was passed in 1981, one of the most notable changes being the emergence of email as a significiant means of information sharing and communication. The public service has adapted and information transmitted via email is captured and released under the OIA when requested.

Recently I was told that some staff working in National ministers’ offices have been setting up Gmail accounts in order to get around the OIA and to ensure that their communications aren’t captured. If they are transmitting ‘official’ information through Gmail and aren’t releasing it when asked, they are breaking the law.

I asked John Key whether he had a policy on the use by staff of Gmail. He is the Minister Responsible for Ministerial Services, so if staff working in the Beehive are breaking the law then the buck stops with him. He answered my question stating “The question the member asks relates to staffing matters which are the responsibility of the Chief Executive.”

Frankly, that’s just not good enough. John Key has a responsibility to ensure that the staff working in the Beehive are complying with the law and aren’t hiding official information. If they are using Gmail accounts to get around the OIA, John Key needs to crack down on that ASAP. Failure to do so suggests they have something to hide.

What were the other 3 trips?

Posted by on April 24th, 2011

John Key would have us believe that his jaunts on military planes and helicopters aren’t among the ‘nice to haves’ that Bill English says we’ll all have to learn to live without, but are essential to his ability to carry out his duties as Prime Minister. If that’s the case, then he won’t have any problem issuing a full list detailing his use of airforce planes and helicopters, including the important matters of state that he was attending to that justified their use.

Stuff reported last week that Key has used the helicopter four times in the past 3 weeks alone, including the now infamous trip from the V8 supercars to the golf club. So what were the other three trips? Looking on Key’s Facebook page, the possibilities are endless. Did he use Airforce helicopters to visit the Timaru skateboard park? Perhaps he used them to make a ‘cameo appearance’ at the NZ Shearing Champs in Te Kuiti?

The PM and other Ministers should be able to use the airforce where it is necessary to carry out their official duties. But there is a pretty clear distinction between attending to official matters of state and using them to jet between photo-ops that are clearly little more than campaigning.

Every quarter Parliament and Ministerial Services issue a breakdown of spending on air travel by MPs and Ministers, but those figures don’t include the use of military aircraft. That’s an anomaly that needs to be fixed. As a general rule, I believe that use of military planes and helicopters by VIPs should be disclosed and the public should be able to judge whether the matters that they were attending to justified their use.

Meantime John Key and his Cabinet should start practicing what they preach and stop splashing taxpayer cash on photo-ops for the PM. At the last election John Key chartered a plane so that he could flit from one photo-op to the next. He should stick to that approach rather than suck military resources into his campaign machinery.

What happened to crony watch?

Posted by on April 8th, 2011

When Labour was in government the NBR used to have a regular column called ‘Crony Watch’ where they would chronicle any government appointments that had any sort of political connection. Strangely, since National came go power it seems to have disappeared.

I’m wondering whether this is because they don’t feel that the National Party appointing their own activists and funders to taxpayer funded Roles is cronyism, or is it just that there are now so many of them they don’t have room?

I’m not opposed to political appointments based on merit, you shouldn’t be disqualified from public service just because you happen to have history with one party or another. I supported Labour’s decision to appoint Jim Bolger to head NZ Post and I support National’s decision to replace him with Michael Cullen.

But National’s appointments should get the same level of scrutiny as Labour’s appointments. Are we getting value for money from Don Brash’s task force given the govt reject his recommendations before they even read them? (mind you, Key doesn’t seem to be a particularly big reader of important documents).

Will ACT Party candidate Graham Scott add value to the Productivity Commission. Is Jenny Shipley the best person go head one of our largest energy companies? Should Steven Joyce have given massive taxpayer loans to a company he used to own that operates in direct competition with a government owned enterprise?

Is it a good thing that Murray McCully has decided to abandon past practice and hand-pick appointees for overseas diplomatic roles? Will that lead to cronyism? Given McCully has just appointed a sitting National MP to what should be an independent role, it’s fair to ask.

These are all legitimate questions that the media would have been asking Labour in the same circumstances. It’s a shame different standards seem to apply when the Tories are in charge.

Limiting big money in local govt

Posted by on December 11th, 2010

Campaign donation returns for the Auckland mayoral race were filed yesterday and Auckland Mayor Len Brown is taking a bit of heat here and here for channeling $499,000 in campaign donations through a trust. His unsuccessful opponent John Banks accepted $520,086 in anonymous donations.

I think there should be openness about donations to political campaigns. Local government electoral law needs to be changed so donations are transparent, there are sensible spending limits, and limits on third party campaigns.

The parties have argued over these issues in recent years in relation to central government but I don’t think anyone has worried too much about tightening up the rules for local government. With the creation of the Auckland Council the power and resources at stake make it essential there are rules to limit the influence of big money.

Local Government Minister Rodney Hide says he doesn’t want to see any transparency requirements.

To be fair to John Banks and Len Brown, they have both operated within the law. The National Party has a history of using secret trusts. It was pretty obvious John Banks would rely on big anonymous donors. Len Brown would have been tying one hand behind his own back if he hadn’t been willing to accept anonymous donations too. The rules need to be changed so there is a level playing field.

National should have included transparency for campaign donations when it passed the Auckland super city legislation, as well as a lower spending cap, and limits on third parties. Now would be a good time to review the Local Electoral Act to get this sorted out.

John Key is wrong

Posted by on November 16th, 2010

John Key has been totally wrong in his handling of the Pansy Wong issue. When questions were first raised in Parliament, he decided to personally attack Pete Hodgson rather than front up and deal with the issues. Now we learn that he has advised Pansy Wong not to front up and answer questions. That’s just not good enough.

Pansy Wong is answerable for her personal use of taxpayer funded international travel. She needs to explain herself. Refusing to answer questions makes it look like she is working with Key to prepare a cover-up.

Yesterday Pete Hodgson asked a fresh series of questions about the use of taxpayer funded out-of-parliament offices for private business interests. These are legitimate questions and she needs to answer them. If her taxpayer funded office has been used as the registered office for private businesses that is another clear breach of the rules.

John Key needs to show more leadership on this issue. It’s simply not good enough for him to advise her to duck for cover and avoid fronting. It’s also not good enough for him to claim it’s not his problem. He’s the Leader of his party. I know he prefers to smile and wave and have fun, but now it’s time for him to do some of the tough stuff.

Does Steven Joyce know the answers?

Posted by on August 4th, 2010

Note: My question is at 1 min 10 secs

Steven Joyce today ducked a question in parliament on why his government’s decision to regulate mobile termination rates contradicts its plans to provide its new fibre network with a ten year regulatory holiday on the pricing of fibre.

Was it because he didn’t know what to say or because he just didn’t want to raise attention to the contradiction. It’s the first time I’ve seen him actually stumped.

The question put to Mr Joyce in the House today was:

Given his logical decision to regulate on MTR, what is the basis of his illogical decision to give a regulatory free pass to the coming new fibre networks

In ruling out the question Speaker Lockwood Smith also refused to allow the following question:

Given the Government’s conflicting role as an investor and regulator of the new network, how will New Zealanders who take up fibre know that you are putting their interests first?

I think New Zealanders, who want ultrafast broadband and want a new network which delivers benefits for them using $1.5 billion in taxpayer’s money, would like to know the answers to both those questions.

Labour is glad the Minister decided today to regulate on mobile termination rates. But we’re not glad that the government could now derail the goal of affordable and accessible broadband services for New Zealanders with news that Local Fibre Companies, the private public partnerships set up to manage the $1.5 billion broadband project, will enjoy a 10 year regulatory holiday locking out the Commerce Commission from reviewing prices for fibre available to New Zealand consumers.

Instead, fibre prices will be set by commercial contract to be negotiated with Crown Fibre Holdings (CFH), the entity set up to evaluate the bids to run the network, and proofed against review by the regulator for ten years – a situation that applies to no other network industry in New Zealand.

There is a real of a lack of transparency, confused governance and increasing uncertainty about how the decision is being made to spend $1.5 billion of taxpayer money. All the players are saying this. Industry commentators are saying it.

That’s why Labour has called for the Commerce Commission to have an independent oversight role.

Broadband too important to muck around with

Posted by on August 3rd, 2010

Let’s see how much of this you agree with this.

New Zealand needs high quality ultrafast broadband. In principle, the goal of delivering this to New Zealand businesses, schools, hospitals and homes is the right goal.

Delivering high quality UFB is a core infrastructure priority for governments throughout the world and is in line with the US, Australia, Europe and many Asian countries. New Zealand is not leading, we are following many other countries in delievring on this goal.  It is likely to take (at least) 5-10 years to deliver.

Delivering high quality UFB is a complex undertaking to get good outcomes for our country. It requires transition for existing players. Including Telecom. But transition is about the whole industry not just Telecom and it’s a great pity that what happens with the UFB project and how it will be delivered, seems to be all about Telecom.

There is a view that Telecom is currently the most vulnerable telco in the world. I’m not sure about that, but it is important that Telecom can survive the next 3-5 years and make the transition. But it shouldn’t be able to demand the terms.

The next ten years are unknown territory for telecommunciations in New Zealand. The industry is poised to change forever and to become about fibre rather than copper.

Transition will likely require some changes to existing legislation, in particular the Telecommunications Act 2006.

Crown Fibre Holdings, the body charged with making a decision on the UFB contract, is an infrastructure company. It has no ability to determine a vision, no policies and no strategic element.

Telecom’s statement yesterday wanting to ‘integrate the UFB (overseen by CFH and a ‘co-investment’) with the Rural Broadband Initiative (a grant scheme being driven by the MED) and funded by the new look Telecommunications Service Obligations (overseen by the Commerce Commission) shows what a confusing regulatory alphabet soup the Government’s cornerstone broadband policy is becoming.

We need clear orchestration of all the elements in this process. It’s complex and it needs flexibility and transparency. It’s taxpayer’s money. That’s why it’s time to change the governance process.

And that’s why today I called for Telecommunications Commissioner Ross Patterson to be given an independent oversight role in the government’s ultrafast broadband (UFB) scheme.

Communications Minister Steven Joyce should now consider changing the governance process for the UFB decision and to involve the independent Commerce Commission ensure public confidence in the process. At the very least Steven Joyce should remove himself from decisions about Telecom’s requests for variations to its operational separation agreement with the government.

Dr Patterson has sufficient credibility and experience within the industry to bring independent oversight and objectivity into the process and to be mindful of New Zealand’s long term interests in developing our future in broadband.

Otherwise there is likely to be a cloud over the broadband decision. Whatever the outcome, how can the public have confidence that Telecom is not somehow holding our country to ransom with its bid to secure as much value for its shareholders as possible in securing the broadband contract?

“New Zealand’s interests are paramount, not the Telecom shareholders and the government should recognise this.

Open policy vs backroom deals

Posted by on June 24th, 2010

I am one of those people that tends to take people and their statements at face value. Mostly.

So I’m interested to know whether this government stands by its claims to be transparent. Or whether it becomes captive to industry lobbying and backroom deals. If you believe what’s being reported today, you’d think there was a major backflip on the cards.

I’m prepared to give the government and the Commerce Minister the benefit of the doubt.

When Simon Power appeared before the Commerce Select Committee a couple of weeks ago I asked him whether he stood by his previous statement that software would be excluded from the government ‘s  new Patent Bill.

He firmly stated “yes”. But added that there would be an SOP (Supplementary Order Paper) to “clarify the government’s intent”.

This is quite a big deal. I’m sure most of your eyes would glaze over if I explained the ins and outs. Here’s some background for the dedicated.

The point is that Simon Power, Minister of Commerce, has twice publicly said the government backs exclusion of software from the Patent Bill. The select committee recommended software exclusion because it said it will allow more innovation to our local software industry.

Why? Because computer software is like books, movies or music, based on a concept and should not be patentable. It would be like preventing anyone from using certain musical notes, or words, because they have a patent. Instead software should receive, as it already does,  protection under copyright. That was the select committee’s recommendation.

Today  it’s being reported that backroom lobbying by the organisation that includes major software patenters has resulted in the Ministry of Economic Development backing away from the Commerce Committee’s recommendation and instead redrafting the Bill along the lines of the European Convention.

The European Patent Convention on the face of it excludes software patents, but the European Patent Office has been granting them.

The purported flip flop has been revealed on an American blog post (fixed the link)  which reproduces an email from industry lobbyist NZICT Group CEO Brett O’Riley.

Neither NZICT nor Microsoft, one of it’s major members, put in a submission on this Bill at the select committee stage. The allegation is that  they were unhappy with the committee recommendation and have “gone around” it to try to undo it.

Do I sense another Section 92A situation brewing?

And more importantly, just how does policy and legislation get made? Do we do it after an open and transparent process via the select committee? Or are powerful interests able to sway the government’s mind afterwards?

Every organisation has the right to push its view. But this goes to heart of how laws get made. In the open or behind a closed door?

I reckon Simon Power’s word is pretty good.

“Substantial Collation and Research”

Posted by on June 17th, 2010

The Official Information Act is an important part of our democracy. It used to drive me insane as a Ministerial office worker, but  it is one of the key elements that ensures the accountability and transparency of government.  Another key element in this process is Archives New Zealand, and the Public Records Act that oblige the retention and deposit of government records.

Its with a sense of irony then that I am currently appealing to the Ombudsmen the government’s decision to decline my OIA request for documentation around the decision to merge Archives New Zealand and the National Library into the Department of Internal Affairs.   The State Services Commission (where requests to the actual agencies involved were referred) has declared that putting together papers on the proposals represents “substantial collation and research”, and has refused the request.  Other stakeholders report the same response. Instead they issued a Cabinet paper and minute, and some background material that was already publicly available.

This is just not good enough.  The proposal to merge Archives and Library into the DIA has serious potential constitutional consequences which have been discussed here previously.  From the Cabinet papers it is clear that both the Library and the Archives had serious misgivings about the proposal, and offered other options.   The public deserve to know more about the reasoning for this merger and the possible implications.

As has been reported the Official Information Act requests on Ministerial credit card bills came to some 7,000 pages and cost $50,000 to process.  Such is the price of democracy and accountability you might say.  But, in that context, surely the release of information about the merger of two small agencies into one large one could be managed?

As part of the OpenLabour process some people have raised with me a process whereby papers relating to a Cabinet decision are automatically released at the time of the announcement of decisions by Government or as soon as possible afterwards.  This deserves consideration. Of course there will be matters that from time to time might need to be witheld under the provisions of the OIA, but I think if the default position is that papers will be released it will make for a more transparent and efficient process.