No legislation is ever perfect, the Law Commission says in its review of the Official Information Act, the law that changed public officials' attitudes to the information they hold. It nurtured a culture of transparency by obliging them to make that information available to the public, on request, unless there was good reason to decline.
Now it's time to update the legislation, along with the Local Government Official Information Amendment Act.
Information technology and information-management systems have changed enormously since the OIA was enacted some 30 years ago. By making information more accessible, new technologies have raised expectations of openness and made government information widely available.
The official information regime has been affected, too, by more recent laws like the Privacy Act and Public Records Act, and by the MMP electoral system.
The Law Commission has concluded that the fundamental principles on which our official information laws are based remain sound. But reform is “necessary”. Its recommendations include changes to complaints processes, extending the coverage of the OIA to embrace Parliamentary agencies, and an increased role for Ombudsmen to provide guidance for public agencies.
But the commission favours greater secrecy, too. It recommends clearer legislative protection for commercial interests, and it proposes new withholding grounds, such as the protection of “sensitive” cultural information.
Justice Minister Judith Collins happens to have had recent experience of a rebuff. On behalf of a constituent in her Papakura electorate, she requested the names and addresses of members of Auckland's Independent Maori Statutory Board. Two of the nine members gave only their tribal boundaries.
The Ombudsman recommended they comply with the request but the board says it supports their Treaty rights to provide only their whakapapa, or genealogy, and their tribal boundary.
The board's claim that Ms Collins is being pedantic and that it has more important issues to resolve is impertinent. Giving it a statutory justification to withhold basic information on cultural grounds would be preposterous.
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