An information commissioner could be on the cards as a review of official information law is tabled in parliament today.
The Official Information Act was passed in 1982 and law commissioner Professor John Burrows believes that 30 years on New Zealand is no longer seen as an international leader in openness of central and local government.
Dr Burrows says the commission’s review – The public’s right to know – was needed in light of the act’s age.
“Over time, some problems have emerged… The most obvious one is technology. Now the great majority of information is held electronically – it’s easier to store and easier to disseminate," Law Commission president Sir Grant Hammond says.
"With that, public expectation has increased. The more information people have, the more they want and that is quite understandable and proper.
“It’s quite arguable that the Official Information Act is the most important thing in public life since the invention of democracy itself. And that’s because it has involved a wholesale change in culture, because it requires justification for the exercise of all public authority.
"Those of us who can remember back 50 years or so, will remember the blank ‘no’ we sometimes received from government in responding to a particular request,” he says.
The commission has made more than 100 recommendations in its review. The most notable is around the need for someone to oversee the business of official information.
“When the OIA was first passed in 1982, there was a body called the official information authority – and it lasted about five years and was wound up in 1988," Dr Burrows says.
"But it had a very useful oversight function and its job was to review the way the act’s working; make recommendations to government for its reform; recommend that agencies change their practices to conform with the act, to see how it integrated with other pieces of legislation.
"Now when that agency was wound up in 1988, it wasn’t replaced with anything. So currently the OIA has no champion.
"But we’re thinking, we’ve reached a stage now where there needs to be some sort of agency which oversees policy and development of the whole official information scene," he says.
"Other acts have got it, the privacy commissioner has overseen the whole of the privacy area; the human rights’ commissioner over human rights and advancement of policy in that area.
"But the OIA has nothing. So we’d really like to see functions created.
"An information commissioner would be 'nice' and they’ve now got those in Australia and the UK.
"This is not the best fiscal climate to be recommending that new agencies be set up, so we’re leaving it to the government, saying we think these functions ought to be created,” Dr Burrows says.
The Law Commission is also recommending a new statutory duty be placed on public agencies to take all reasonable steps to proactively release official information, with the consent of the relevant minister, even before a request for information is made.
Dr Burrows wants a clearer pricing structure and believes it is reasonable for some organisations, especially big corporates, to pay for information they require.
Sir Grant says it is now up to the government as to what happens next.
“The minister of justice (Judith Collins)has indicated to me this morning that both justice and the department of internal affairs have been asked to develop a cabinet paper responding to the recommendations that we’ve made…
"We have been asked to take part in assisting in the advancement of the recommendations we’ve had to make.”
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