Friday, August 22, 2014

This should not have taken five years

Back in 2009, after the Herald was given information showing 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, Immigration Minister Jonathan Coleman started a witch-hunt to find out why the information was released without his permission. When I read about this, I requested the report, but it was refused. As the reasons didn't seem very good, I appealed that refusal to the Ombudsman.

Five years later, I've finally received a response. Its not complete, but I have received a copy of the report, sans witness statements, one name, and a small amount of legally privileged material. Reading it, there seems to be nothing to justify Immigration's 2009 decision to withhold it. So what wasn't it released?

Here's a hint: my request was tagged as requiring Ministerial consultation (a decision which boggled at least one of the staff handling it). And the Risk Impact Sheet is pretty explicit:

Requestor is not a journalist, but is believed to be politically active. The information shows that the Department did not adhere to its own processes... if the media became privy to this information they may portray the Department as not being able to follow its own processes.

So, the information was withheld because it might embarrass the department. Which is not a lawful reason for withholding.

Getting a decision on a FAQ error should not have taken five years. But that's what happens when you starve the watchdog: they fall behind, and even simple complaints don't get processed. Which means that unlawful decisions by departments go unpunished, while the public loses faith in the OIA and in government as a whole.

Meanwhile, this also illustrates just how control-freaky National is about the OIA, and how they expect Ministers to have signoff over everyday requests to departments. Which makes John Key's denials that he ever saw Cameron Slater's expedited request to the SIS that much more unbelievable.