Editorial: The short arm of the law

Last updated 05:00 07/02/2013

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OPINION: It is no coincidence that the most stable and prosperous nations are also the most open. Think the United States, think Britain, think Western Europe, think Australia, think New Zealand.

Transparency promotes accountability. It makes decision-makers answerable to those who suffer the consequences of their decisions.

The benefits are not instantaneous. It can take years, sometimes decades, for incompetence and malfeasance to be exposed.

Here officials play a game with pesky inquisitors who demand information to which the law says they are entitled.

They delay, delete and obfuscate. It can take the Office of the Ombudsman years to sort out the confusion.

However, the knowledge that the information on which decisions are based may eventually find its way into the public arena is a vital safeguard in a democracy.

When Treasury and Education Ministry officials advised this Government on Wanganui Collegiate's bid to secure more public funding, they knew the advice they tendered would one day become public. Their reputations were on the line.

When ministers chose to approve the private school's application to become an integrated school, they too knew that the paperwork would one day become public.

The knowledge did not stop them overruling the official advice - as it should not (even, if in this case, the Cabinet got it wrong). The job of politicians is not simply to rubber-stamp official advice. It is to exercise critical judgment.

However, it is likely that before diverting scarce taxpayer resources from the public education system to a formerly private school, ministers thought longer and harder about the decision because they knew they would one day have to justify it.

The Official Information Act has significantly improved the quality of official advice and decision making since it was introduced in 1982.

For that reason it is regrettable that, despite being advised to do so by the Law Commission, yet another government has chosen not to extend the act's reach to cover Parliament.

Politicians claim that making the Parliamentary Service, the body that funds their activities, subject to the act would compromise their ability to represent their constituents. That is poppycock.

The act contains numerous protections to ensure that state secrets are kept and that genuinely private information stays private.

Had the Government accepted the commission's recommendations, politicians would not have had to disclose who they met in their electoral offices or what destinations they took taxis to. However, voters might have been able to compare the overall spending of individual MPs.

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It is for this reason, and no other, that MPs of all stripes, have steadfastly resisted making the body that funds them subject to the same rules as other state agencies.

When it comes to themselves, politicians do not want the public knowing how its money is spent.

- The Dominion Post

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