Our Right to Information

Our Right to Information

28th September was International Right to Know Day

This is the day when we celebrate our automatic right to access government information.

Our collective right to know promotes greater public participation in the democratic process, and has an important role in providing checks and balances on government.

There have been some occasions when information hasn’t been made freely available and in a timely fashion.

People that request information from government need to be reasonable and consider the balance between the right for them to obtain that information and the right of the government to withhold it.

In the current environment created by the Covid-19 pandemic, it is more important than ever that people are able to access official information and have the confidence and the tools to do so.

In the present situation with an absolute majority and where the Government is able to wield extraordinary executive power, accountability is critical.

The current Prime Minister has many times claimed that her government is the most open and transparent government we’ve had yet we have bureaucrats, insiders and politicians trying to stop us getting information we are legally entitled to.

In the 1980s television program Yes, Prime Minister, veteran bureaucrat Sir Humphrey Appleby has some wily advice for other bureaucrats preparing official documents.

“The purpose of minutes is not to provide an accurate written record of a meeting but to protect politicians, he explains to guileless colleague Bernard.

You choose from a jumble of ill-digested ideas, a version which represents the Prime Minister’s views as he would, on reflection, have liked them to emerge… You do not take notes if the Prime Minister says something he did not mean to say; particularly if it contradicts something he has said publicly.”

There are many examples where it is shown that Sir Humphrey’s crafty sentiments are still relevant in today’s public service.

A couple of classic examples of this are: “He Puapua” Report of the Working Group on a Plan to Realise the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in Aotearoa/New Zealand which was commissioned by Cabinet in 2019, produced by Te Puni Kōkiri, and sets out a 20-year plan to bring the UN declaration into effect.

It envisages that by 2040 – the 200th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi – the nation will be ruled under an equal power-sharing arrangement between Māori and non-Māori leaders.

This report was only released (in a highly redacted form – being 34 out of a total of 123 pages) by the government last October. The report had been completed almost a year before the highly redacted version was released last October. And;

The Three Waters Reform Project: The Three Waters Reform Project is stated as the Government proposing to build a better system for New Zealand’s drinking water, wastewater and stormwater—our three waters—networks, but what it actually seems to be about, is giving control of our three waters assets to Maori as was suggested in the He Puapua report.

These two examples alone have the ability to change the whole system of government in New Zealand by replacing free democratic principles of government with a race based tribal led brand of socialism.

The guiding principle of the Official Information Act (OIA) is that information should be made available unless there is good reason for withholding it. The OIA allows us to demand that those in power tell us what they’ve been up to and provides a system of checks and balances on government decision making.

When the OIA was enacted in 1980 it was stated: “The fact that the release of certain information may give rise to criticism or embarrassment of the government is not an adequate reason for withholding it from the public.”

But today the regime they envisioned is now marked by delays, obstruction and a presumption against releasing documents for fear it trips up ministers or discredits their departments.

The strategies used to prevent access to Government information are often simple but effective with many examples of resistance and avoidance.  Some subvert the spirit of openness and others appear to just contravene the law.

Members of the public often ask ministers for information on a particular issue as an effective way of learning what is happening with that issue and what government policy is in regard to that issue. But as in the case of the examples quoted above they receive a reply that is either highly redacted or that does not contain the full details requested.

This is what happens when the public’s right to know competes with the formidable political spin doctors that are at the heart of every government trying to control the public perception of the government rather than trying to provide full detailed answers.

Nowadays, every government department has a dedicated team of communications specialists whose job is to control the flow of information to the public.

“The OIA’s purposes say it is to enable people to participate in the making and administration of laws and policies. Now, that means that people should be able to participate in policy debates from quite early stages.”

“There is also the fact that in a democracy, if we want to be able to take informed decisions at the ballot box, we need to know what our officials and ministers have been doing or are planning to do.

There is an increasing urgency for the public to be able to gain information in relation to the really quite radical decisions that the government is taking at the present time in regard to both He Puapua and the Three Waters Project.

These two issues have the potential to bring about the extinction of democracy in New Zealand and replace it with a race based system of socialism and the majority of decisions around both issues have been taken behind closed doors and deliberately kept from the public of New Zealand. In fact most were also kept from the government’s coalition partner in the previous government.

They were not mentioned in any way throughout the last election campaign yet now that the government has been returned with an absolute majority they have become the subject of urgency within government, with many of the decisions being forced through the house under urgency.

Many of the decisions around the Three Waters Project (which follows the blueprint set out in the He Puapua Report) have not been publicly consulted or have had very short time frames for consultation that have precluded the public from indulging in meaningful consultation.

There have been many consultation meetings with Iwi and with councils and the instruction has been that the consultation information is to be kept confidential and not released to the public.

The government keeps stating that the case for change has been proven but in fact that is in some doubt when you take into account the reports from some influential consulting firms that have analysed the proposal.

The Australian business consultants Farrierswier warned, “the analysis is high-level and directional and should not be relied on to project actual expenditure, revenue and pricing outcomes.”

The engineering consultancy group Beca expressed concerns that it may underestimate the cost of reforms.

The economic advisors Castalia, warned, “The Government’s policy process appears flawed and is focusing on high-risk options that may not deliver benefits.”

Yet the Minister is still adamant that the project will go ahead and she has not ruled out the use of legislation to force councils to adopt the model proposed.

Surely it must be a great thing when you have to legislate to force the people to accept it.

Of course it is a great thing for the 16% of the population of New Zealand that, like the Minister, identifies as Maori and will receive 50% of the management rights in the proposed water entities and have this right protected by a requirement for a 75% majority to change any of the management structure of these entities.

This is democracy as interpreted by the current Labour Government (Yeah Right).

We may have a legal right to information but under this government it is a serious challenge to actually be able to implement that right.

Andy Loader

Co-Chairman P.L.U.G.

Primary Land Users Group