Friday, September 19, 2014

Our democracy is at stake

Another day, another story about the National government's corrupt abuse of the OIA - this time from Customs:

A former high-ranking Customs lawyer says he resigned from his job after allegedly being told to bury information that could embarrass the Government.

Curtis Gregorash said he was told by senior Customs executives to refuse Official Information Act and Privacy Act requests, which he believed was at the direction of former Customs Minister Maurice Williamson.


"The direction came down (from the minister) through the CEO (Carolyn Tremain) and group manager (of legal services) Peter Taylor to me saying 'you don't release anything - I don't care what the OIA says, I'd rather fight it in the courts'."

Mr Gregorash said it was as if ministers were prepared to say: "F*** the OIA, I'd rather fight it through the Ombudsman because it takes three years."

Mr Gregorash said the alleged instruction came during a briefing from Mr Taylor to the legal team in which he referred to Ms Tremain and meeting with Mr Williamson.

"I resigned over it. I couldn't stare my staff in the face and say this is actually serious conduct that's being presented to you in a lawful way."

As the Ombudsman points out, our democracy is at stake here. The OIA is a vital tool for scrutinising politicians and holding them to account. But it, and its oversight mechanism, work on trust. As a requester, I have to trust that officials will apply the law and not ignore it. And the Ombudsman herself trusts officials to giver her the full information when someone complains, and to work in good faith with her in negotiating complaints. The idea that an entire department has been instructed by its Minister to just ignore the law strikes at the heart of that, and undermines the entire system. And what it shows is that a) we need a more robust OIA system, where agencies can be compelled to surrender information; and b) we desperately, desperately need to clean our democratic house.