Even Collins lacks steel to rattle MPs

TRACY WATKINS
Last updated 05:00 09/02/2013

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Tracy Watkins

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OPINION: Take your pick of cliches to describe Justice Minister Judith Collins. Steely. Doesn't suffer fools. A tough cookie.

She is certainly someone who is quite capable of staring down her Cabinet colleagues. Just the sort of woman to drive through long-overdue reforms to the Official Information Act, you might think - had there been any political will to do so.

But when it comes to the OIA there is a long history of political self-interest overriding the public interest. No surprises, then, that Ms Collins' response to a Law Commission call for reforms in favour of greater transparency was to cherry pick the ones that suited the Government and reject the rest.

There were two significant changes announced by Ms Collins. The first was to implement new protections, which will have the effect of making it harder to access financial and commercial information. This is despite Ombudsman Dame Beverley Wakem saying there were plenty of safeguards in the existing act to protect sensitive information - something those with experience of the OIA, and the catch-all use of "commercially sensitive information" as grounds to refuse a request, know only too well.

The second change announced by Ms Collins must have been an unintentional act of irony, since it extends the scope of the OIA to the administrative functions of our courts, which have been exempt up till now. Ironic why? Because the arguments in favour of applying the OIA to the court system are even more powerful when it comes to extending its sweep to Parliament. Yet that proposal has been rejected out of hand by the Government.

There is, of course, a grand history of ignoring any call to apply the OIA to Parliament. Like MPs' perks, it is one of the issues on which, in fact, there is broad consensus between the two major parties, National and Labour.

Between them they dominate the Parliamentary Service Commission which - take your pick - operates like either a hugely powerful trade union, or an immensely influential old boys' club in protection of its members.

Politicians will throw up a raft of excuses against coming under the scope of the OIA, all of which must be spurious by definition. Why? Because none of those excuses have stopped agencies like the police, schools, or the Ministry of Social Development for instance, from coming under the scope of the act. Good grief, even the Security Intelligence Service and Government Communications Security Bureau are covered.

What is the thing these agencies have in common? They hold and have access to hugely sensitive information. So what is it that politicians think affords them greater secrecy than any of those agencies? What information do they hold that they believe is so sensitive, so potentially damaging to the national interest if it got out, that it must be kept outside the scope of the act?

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In short, details of how they spend their taxpayer funding.

Of course, their objections will never be expressed as baldly as that. Instead, MPs blow smoke about private constituency details, confidential sources and phone numbers, and sensitive party policy documents getting into the public arena. What a load of, ahem, fairy dust.

Even a cursory skim through the Law Commission report should reassure MPs that the sort of exemptions it proposes show their excuses up as spurious.

Those exemptions included:

  • Information held by the Clerk of the House as agent for the House of Representatives.
  • Information held by members in their capacity as MPs.
  • Information relating to the development of parliamentary party policies, including information held by or on behalf of caucus committees.
  • Party organisational material, including media advice and polling.

As the Law Commission says, the effect of these recommendations would be, broadly, that "information which related to Parliament's use of public resources and its administrative functions would be subject to the OIA, while information that related to parliamentary proceedings, matters of political strategy or an MP's activities, for example in dealing with constituents, would not".

That would seem to exclude most of the truly sensitive information that MPs are worried about - and plenty that isn't particularly sensitive.

MPs would argue that there is greater transparency now than ever, and that they voluntarily relinquish information that they are not required to do by law.

They are right. Details of how much MPs spend on their yearly travel is now posted online for public scrutiny, for instance.

But they had to be dragged to the well kicking and screaming, and only after a succession of spending scandals sped up an erosion of public trust in politicians. Arguably it was a desperate rearguard measure to protect their other perks of office.

Without legislative backing, however, MPs could decide at any time transparency no longer suits them. The departure of Speaker Lockwood Smith, who has driven a culture of more openness, will be a test. And if MPs think the experience of disclosing their travel expenses negates the need for OIA reform, they should think again.

It has proved a powerful argument in favour of the old adage that sunlight is the best disinfectant. After a few negative headlines, the travel bill quickly dropped.

The Law Commission notes that it was always intended Parliament would eventually come under the act.

"There are legitimate and significant public interests that weigh in favour of a principle of availability of information held by Parliament and its administration just as much as in the case of the executive. These include the need to maintain openness and transparency in the expenditure of public money in order to maintain public confidence; to enable the public to hold elected representatives to account; and to allow for informed public debate."

When the OIA was passed in 1982 it was hailed as one of New Zealand's most significant constitutional reforms and praised as world leading.

It was a giant act of political courage by the third National government, even more so when weighed up against what it replaced - the Official Secrets Act, which underpinned a culture of secrecy throughout government and officialdom. Extending it to cover Parliament seems like small beer by comparison.

But it seems as if it will take an even bigger act of political will and a braver government and minister than this one.

- The Dominion Post

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