Dr Bryce Edwards
Former prime minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer has written a scathing blog post about the state of democracy in New Zealand. Published a few weeks ago, the former prime minister’s critique should have been big news. Certainly, New Zealand should be having a debate about Sir Geoffrey’s assertion that democracy is under threat from politicians and a government that treats the public with disdain by withholding information and keeping them away from decision-making – see: Toothless Official Information Act needs overhaul and constitutional backing.
Official Information Act 'is outdated and increasingly toothless'
The introduction of Sir Geoffrey’s blog post is worth quoting at length: “Throughout the western world, democracy is facing challenging times. People are trusting politicians and political processes less than they used to. Brexit and Donald Trump are symptoms. New Zealand is not immune to these trends. We may be relatively free of corruption but our democracy is not as robust as it could be. Democracy and democratic processes involve much more than elections. They also involve ongoing dialogue and discussion between the governors and the governed. Here, New Zealand is falling short. We are a democracy but we are not a deliberative democracy. The public has few opportunities for deep involvement in political decision-making – at best, they are consulted, often after the government has already made up its mind. The result is alienation from and cynicism about political processes. Voter turnout declines from election to election. Many eligible voters cannot see the point. One important reason for this alienation is a lack of information.”
Sir Geoffrey’s says citizens are being manipulated and kept ignorant: “Public opinion is one of the most important checks on government power, but only if people know what is going on. In New Zealand, the media is becoming less interested in politics and government. It rarely reports in depth on parliamentary debates or lawmaking, even though these things deeply affect New Zealanders’ lives. The government, with its control of the policy and legislative agenda and its substantial team of Beehive spin doctors, has considerable influence over the political news agenda. And one of the most important safeguards of open government, the Official Information Act, is outdated and increasingly toothless.”
The main point of Palmer’s post is to advocate a major overhaul of the Official Information Act, and he argues that successive governments have deliberately resisted its reform.
Media complaints about the Official Information Act
Part of Palmer’s argument about the need for OIA reform is based on the latest World Press Freedom Index, which downgraded New Zealand’s ranking by eight places – see Reporters Without Borders’ 2017 World Press Freedom Index.
Here are the reasons given for New Zealand’s fall in the rankings: “The media continue to demand changes to the Official Information Act, which obstructs the work of journalists by allowing government agencies a long period of time to respond to information requests and even makes journalists pay several hundred dollars for the information. In August 2016, the government revealed a grim future for whistleblowers, announcing a bill that would criminalise leaking government information to the media and would dramatically increase the surveillance powers of the intelligence services. Journalists, bloggers, and civil society representatives would be among the potential targets of the proposed law, which could be adopted in 2017.”
Catherine Strong, of Massey University's School of Communication, Journalism and Marketing, commented on the downgrade: "Our lower standing is due to the growing list of government agencies trying to hide information by thwarting the Official Information Act, and these agencies are ruining our reputation” – see Susan Edmunds’ Press freedoms stifled by cynical use of Official Information Act: Report.
Also quoted is the chairwoman of New Zealand's Media Freedom Committee, Joanna Norris, who said, "Among the most serious of these is the consistent and cynical misuse of official information laws which are designed to assist the release of information, but are often used to withhold it.”
The latest OIA problems
This week it was revealed that the Minister of Transport is being investigated by the Ombudsman’s Office for alleged unlawful blocking of requests to KiwiRail under the OIA – see Matthew Hutching’s Simon Bridges under investigation over OIA block.
The saga began when “Transport Minister Simon Bridges' office discouraged the release of a report despite KiwiRail advising there wasn't a case to withhold it from the public” – see Nicholas Jones’ Emails show 'interference' to block KiwiRail report: Winston Peters.
This initially led Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier to write to the Prime Minister to get an assurance that ministers aren't flouting the law – see Craig McCulloch’s Ombudsman urges ministers to follow OIA rules. Judge Boshier is reported as saying “such incidents risked eroding public confidence in the government and democracy.”
Longtime OIA campaigner No Right Turn has blogged numerous times about the KiwiRail saga. In the post, National vs the OIA, he says “the minister was telling a Crown company to behave unlawfully. And that is simply unacceptable. More generally, this shows the danger of agencies consulting ministers about requests. While in some cases it is justified by the ‘no surprises’ convention, it clearly exposes agencies to improper pressure and harassment from ministers, and may result in unlawful decisions.”
Following on from this, another post, National vs the OIA 3, comments that “This is a perfect example of ministerial bullying, and of why we want ministers kept away from OIA responses as much as possible. Ministers are interested not in transparency but in whether information makes them look good. And they appear to be quite happy to break the law to suppress information which doesn't.”
But it’s actually the more sympathetic bloggers who have been a bigger problem for the National government – the ones that were shown by Nicky Hager’s Dirty Politics book to be in close communication with the Beehive. And when Newstalk ZB chief political reporter Felix Marwick sought to find out about any such communications between ministers and bloggers, he was generally fobbed off.
Marwick complained, and earlier this year he finally got replies but these merely confirmed that ministers aren’t covered by the act if they believe that they are wearing a different hat – say, that of a political party politician – when communicating – see RNZ’s John Key's blogger ties remain in the dark.
Government secrecy over relations with Israel
Secrecy seems to be the modus operandi of the current government. And this can be seen in its current attempts to mend fences with Israel, following the falling out from New Zealand’s sponsorship of a UN resolution last year against the Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territories.
It’s hard to know what New Zealand's representatives are saying on our behalf to Israel because they won’t tell us. For the best discussion of this obtuseness, see Toby Manhire’s Brownlee says a lot of nothing, and in doing so all but renounces NZ’s position on Israeli settlements.
Of course, there are parallels with 2005 diplomatic negotiations with Israel by Helen Clark’s Labour government, trying to fix a breach of the relationship. Audrey Young has written about this: “She eventually got an apology for the passports scandal but without any admission from Israel that the Israeli citizens were its agents. English back then demanded to see the letters with her Israeli counterpart but she refused. Labour and the Greens are demanding to see the letters between English and his Israeli counterpart. But he has refused. Plasticine politics at play” – see: New Zealand's apology to Israel that means never having to say you apologise.
Complacency about democracy and accountability
Writers considering the state of New Zealand’s democracy normally point to its strengths and weaknesses. One weakness that is often emphasised is that of complacency – the worry that New Zealanders think we have a strong democracy and therefore don’t focus enough attention on the need for protections against undemocratic behaviour and corruption.
This week Karl du Fresne also looked at complacency, saying: “One thing we do very well in this country, besides rugby, is evasion of responsibility. We get reports and inquiries, hollow apologies and hand-wringing … and then it's back to business as usual” – see: We're very good at skirting responsibility. Accordingly, we have an “accountability deficit” throughout New Zealand, du Fresne says. It’s “a stubborn unwillingness by people in positions of public responsibility to fall on their swords when they are found to have behaved either badly or incompetently.”
Although ostensibly, du Fresne’s column is about the judiciary – and how mistakes made by judges or court officials never seem to lead to accountability – he points to wider issues impacting on democracy: “the e-coli outbreak caused by contaminated tap water in Havelock North. No heads rolled, despite 5000 people getting sick. Pike River? The same. The collapse of the CTV building in Christchurch? Ditto. The builders of leaky homes have largely escaped punishment and no one seems to carry the can when supposedly state-of-the-art, earthquake-resistant buildings are rendered uninhabitable while much older buildings are undamaged.”
Elections are a good time to evaluate the major public policies of incumbent governments, and look at the alternatives. After all, there is no doubt that the 2017 general election will have pundits and the public thinking about key issues such as housing, immigration, healthcare, amongst others.
But there’s also a need to think about the integrity of the incumbents and their alternatives. We need to consider how well they govern, and how much democratic integrity they have. So, it’s important to evaluate how democratic the current National government has been over the last nine years, and to consider whether the opposition parties would do any better. And in addition, we must identify the various policies that can be implemented to make our political system more democratic.
This is the task of a new research report that will be published later today – Max Rashbrooke’s Bridges Both Ways: Transforming the openness of New Zealand Government. It’s a short report compiling a number of interesting proposals for improving democracy.
In the introduction to the report, which is published by Victoria University’s Institute for Governance and Policy Studies, Rashbrooke explains: “With the 2017 general election just months away, now is the perfect time for a discussion on what kind of government New Zealanders want. This report therefore surveys a wide range of pro-openness policies as an aid, and stimulus, to that debate.”
Rashbrooke puts forward some key ideas about fixing problems in the political system, not just in terms of making government more transparent, but also improving its capacity to involve more public participation – hence the title suggesting that the bridge between the public and the decision-makers needs to be a two-way bridge.
Finally, if you’re in Wellington today, you can go along to the launch of Rashbrooke’s report at 5:30pm – see: Bridges Both Way launch.
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