Freedom of information is the lifeblood of democracy. Allowing voters to know what elected representatives and their officials get up to behind closed doors is essential to ensuring they can be properly held to account.
New Zealand has, by and large, been well-served in that regard by the Official Information Act, which covers central government, and the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act, which covers territorial authorities. However, they could go much further to ensure more information about the machinery of government is in the public domain and that those seeking it are not frustrated by ministers, councillors and bureaucrats who would rather keep it secret.
The OIA in particular needs to be overhauled. It was passed 30 years ago, and is not suited to an age in which information can so readily be made accessible. It is also ludicrous that the Security Intelligence Service and the Government Communications Security Bureau are subject to the act, but not the Parliamentary Service or judiciary.
The shortcomings have been recognised in a Law Commission report which recommends a raft of changes to bring New Zealand's official information legislation into the 21st century.
Particularly welcome is the call for an independent body to oversee the operation of the acts. It is remarkable that New Zealand has an agency dedicated to protecting privacy, but not one dedicated to protecting the public's right to information that has a direct bearing on their lives.
The commission is also proposing ways to ensure more uniformity in the way OIA decisions are made by those ruling on requests. These would include a requirement for the ombudsmen, who will continue to investigate and rule on complaints, to keep a database of previous decisions and issue guidance on what is required of agencies subject to the act.
Another proposal would see a new duty for government departments to proactively publish information that should be in the public domain. That has already started to a certain extent - it is now relatively common for Cabinet papers relating to significant legislative changes to be issued by the relevant department - and more of the same can only be a good thing, especially in an age in which documents can be posted without cost, and are accessible to all, on websites.
Making the Parliamentary Service and judiciary subject to the act and spelling out more clearly the conditions under which requests can be refused, as the commission recommends, is also long overdue. The exclusion of the two agencies has never been justified and the often vague provisions allowing information to be withheld leave too much room for refusal on spurious grounds.
The commission has spent the best part of two years examining how important legislation that is a cornerstone of New Zealand's constitutional arrangements can be improved. Its recommendations provide a considered and balanced way forward. The onus is now on the Government to put them into action.
- The Dominion Post