Auckland University emails: what are they hiding?

A selection of emails released by Auckland University under the Official Information Act discussing the proposed Waikato ...
CHRISTINE CORNEGE FAIRFAX NZ

A selection of emails released by Auckland University under the Official Information Act discussing the proposed Waikato medical school.

Auckland University has handed over emails dissecting Waikato's proposed med school - but only after it was paid $570.

But the 132 pages of emails provided to Stuff under the Official Information Act give an incomplete picture of Auckland's manoeuvrings against its Waikato rivals, since an unknown number of emails were withheld and those that were provided had blocks of text blacked out.

The university's legal advisers say the censorship is necessary to protect the "free and frank" expression of opinion, but one legal expert says the university's actions highlight a shortcoming of the Official Information Act.

Otago University law professor Andrew Geddis said the structure of the Official Information Act means it's hard to know ...
SUPPLIED

Otago University law professor Andrew Geddis said the structure of the Official Information Act means it's hard to know if information is being wrongly withheld.

In October, Waikato University and the Waikato District Health revealed plans to create the country's third medical school, with a focus on meeting the health needs of disadvantaged and rural communities.

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Auckland University has publicly slammed the proposal, describing it as "ill-considered and expensive folly".

However, there's no sign of similar inflammatory language in emails penned by Auckland University medical programme head Professor Warwick Bagg discussing the Waikato bid.

While Bagg's emails reveal Auckland and Otago med schools' discontent with the Waikato bid, sections of text are blacked out.

Melanie Johnson, Auckland University's acting general counsel, said some of Bagg's emails were withheld to protect the free and frank expression of opinions, as well as information given in confidence.

Johnson said the redacting of information was done by a colleague in consultation with Bagg.

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Johnson declined to specify how long it took to collect and edit the emails, saying the university's handling of the OIA request is now the subject of a Waikato Times complaint to the Ombudsman.

No information was withheld on the grounds it could embarrass Auckland University or staff, she said.

"A lot of information was taken out because it was irrelevant, and that was personal stuff like what people were doing on their holidays."

However, some A4 pages were completely blacked out. 

Otago University law professor Andrew Geddis said the Official Information Act left it to agencies to determine whether there were grounds to withhold information.

"Because the person asking doesn't know what the information is, they can't judge whether the agency's decision is correct or not," Geddis said.

If someone is unhappy with an agency's response, a complaint can be made to the Ombudsman.

However, it was unlikely the Ombudsman could rule on the complaint quickly. Geddis said the Government needs to fund the Ombudsman to allow that office to respond to complaints in a timely manner.

"It would also be a good idea to look at some form of sanction for agencies that misapply the tests in an obviously wrong way, because at the moment, the only sanction is the Ombudsman may give them a ticking off, but that's it."

New Zealand Taxpayers' Union executive director Jordan Williams said universities are generally "very arrogant" in their handling of Official Information Act requests.

Academics typically don't like having their independence questioned, and that attitude can spill over into a university's business units.

"There's a culture of unaccountability among university staff, especially when compared to central government departments.

"There's sometimes a tension between academic freedom and accountability under the OIA. However, this, very clearly, isn't the issue here."

In an email sent from Bagg to Auckland University colleagues in July - three months before the Waikato med school bid was revealed - he suggested Auckland talk to senior staff at Bay of Plenty, Taranaki and Lakes district health boards to shore up support and "reinforce our commitment to placing students in those DHBs."

In another email sent to colleagues in November, Bagg asks if there are other ways or methods Auckland University can use to win hearts and minds.

 - Stuff

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