Wednesday, July 19, 2017

A game of hide and seek

Radio New Zealand reports on the Ministry of Transport's attempts to bury information about its resident fraudster Joanne Harrison:

Emails from the Transport Minister show he told his own ministry that its plans to withhold information from a Labour MP were at odds with its promise to be open and transparent.


Labour MP Sue Moroney used the Official Information Act to request information about taxpayer-funded flights to the Far North that Harrison had taken, and a restructure of the finance team that took place at the Ministry while she was employed there.

Emails obtained by RNZ show the Transport Ministry's chief legal adviser David Bowden knew the information existed but was going to refuse to release it.

Mr Bowden said the financial restructure happened just outside the timeframe the MP had identified in her request, so the Ministry would say the information did not exist.

He said the Ministry would not release the costs of Harrison's flights because the MP asked for information on flights to Kaitaia, whereas Harrison had flown to a different airport in the region.

In this case they were pulled into line by the Minister's office, who reminded them of promises to be open and transparent on the issue (not that this is the same Minister who himself tried to bury information about Kiwirail). But it illustrates the toxic culture of secrecy that same Minister has allowed to fester (and at times promoted) in his Ministry. Agencies faced with a request which is obviously for certain information should not be playing these sorts of games to pretend that it does not exist. That both thwarts the purpose of the Act and arguably violates the duty of assistance. It also makes more work for them, in that if specific requests are gamed, they will be replaced with broader, more general ones which require more work. Plus it undermines the reputation of the Ministry, and broader trust in government.

We need a complete culture change around secrecy in our government agencies. It needs to be made clear to Chief Executives and to public servants in general that failing to properly comply with the OIA is a career-limiting move. No government is interested in this, so it is only going to happen when Parliament itself takes an interest and defends our right to transparency.