Thursday, July 30, 2009

Subverting the OIA

A couple of months ago, the Herald reported that National MP Kanwaljit Singh Bakshi was suspected by the Immigration Service of paying off a woman at the centre of allegations he had made bogus job offers. The information - a report on the investigation from the Immigration Service - was obtained by the Herald under the Official Information Act. In response, Immigration Minister started a witch-hunt to find out why the information was released without his permission.

I was appalled by this outrageous attempt to limit OIA releases on political grounds, so I did some digging. Unfortunately, Immigration's parent body, the Department of Labour, would not release the report of Coleman's witch-hunt on a number of spurious grounds, including s6(c) (maintenance of the law) and s9(2)(e) (potential loss to the public, though given that no civil or criminal proceedings can be brought for a good-faith release under the Act, I am left wondering as to what that "loss" might be). They did, however, provide a summary [PDF], which listed the conclusions as:

The process followed was not as robust as it should have been. It was noted that there was:
  • little consideration of the reputational risk in dealing with this OIA request;
  • misinterpretation of the meaning of the legal advice received; and
  • no management oversight of the material released.
(Emphasis added).

It goes on to recommend establishing "a process for triaging OIA requests" - i.e. identifying those which might be "politically sensitive" and ensuring that they are appropriately buried. A briefing for the Minister [PDF] expands on this:

Immigration NZ has recently put in place a further OIA triage process. This includes a panel to decide how and by which workgroup each OIA should be dealt with and to provide advice.


All OIA requests, including those received in regional offices, must be registered centrally in the Government, Executive and Ministerial Unit (GEMS).

GEMS will allocate all OIAs to the relevant 3rd tier manager.

GEMS will provide advice, assistance and monitor timelines.

(The briefing also contains an Orwellian note that the Herald reporter, Patrick Gower, has since lodged six further OIAs in the week leading up to the briefing. because obviously, the Minister needs to know that).

All of this is contrary to the spirit of the Act. As the Danks report noted way back in 1980,

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.
The Department's own updated OIA policy agrees with this, listing political sensitivity and the potential for Ministerial embarrassment as unacceptable reasons for withholding information. But the processes the Department has established seem to be aimed at withholding or denying information on those very grounds. And that is simply unacceptable.