Thursday, April 03, 2014

Time to see if the Ombudsman will keep their word

Last month, we learned that Judith Collins had taken time off a taxpayer-funded trip to China to endorse her husband's company - a company which had also donated significant sums of money to the National Party. The endorsement appeared to violate the Cabinet Manual, but John Key stepped up and claimed that the Cabinet Office said it was all OK. Then, just a few days later, he admitted that he'd lied about that:

Prime Minister John Key has admitted he misled reporters over Cabinet Office advice about a controversial visit by Justice Minister Judith Collins to a Chinese company associated with her husband while on an official trip to China.

On Monday Key told media the Cabinet Office had cleared Collins of a conflict of interest after translating comments on Oravida's website which stated that she had praised its products.

But today Key's office confirmed that the Cabinet office had only read the English language version on the website, which did not contain those references.

In the process, he implicitly raised serious questions about the quality of the Cabinet Office's advice.

The Ombudsman has previously ruled against the release of such advice, calling it "inherently confidential". But that ruling came with an important caveat:
I pointed out to the requesters and DPMC that if a Minister refers to Cabinet Office advice publicly in a way that is misleading or exaggerated, the countervailing public interest in disclosure is likely to outweigh the need for confidentiality

Once Key admitted misleading the public about the advice, I naturally requested it. And naturally, the Cabinet Office (one of our most secretive public bodies) refused my request. I've now complained to the Ombudsman. Let's see if they keep their word, or if they're just in the business of covering up for the powerful.