Friday, July 30, 2010

Still no transparency on Cabinet conflicts of interest

Back in June, I blogged about John Key's refusal to answer questions about conflicts of interest in his Cabinet. I thought this was unacceptable, so I asked him about it. DPMC refused to answer, on the spurious grounds that it would require "substantial collation and research".

That refusal is currently the subject of a complaint to the Ombudsman. But in the meantime, in the hope of getting at least some information out of them, I narrowed my request, asking specifically for information on the number of times the Prime Minister has been advised in writing of a serious conflict of interest that requires management, and for details on each instance. The number of times this has happened should be relatively small, meaning that DPMC couldn't refuse the request on the grounds that it required substantial collation and research. Some friends of mine made similarly narrow requests, seeking information on explicit declarations of a conflict, not receiving papers, and the transfer of decisions. Again, in a well-managed Cabinet, these should be rare occurrences, meaning no excuse that it was too much hard work.

All of those requests have also been refused. The reason is the same in each case:

No information exists in the form you have requested it. The Official Information Act does not require me to create information. Some information relevant to your request does exist, however, including advice provided by the Cabinet Office to the Prime Minister in his capacity as Chair of Cabinet. I am withholding this advice under [long list of OIA clauses]
Bluntly, this is bullshit. DPMC aren't being asked to "create" information. As they admit, the information already exists. What they are being asked to do is collate it. And they have a statutory duty to do so, unless it would impose an unreasonable administrative burden and a charge or extension cannot be agreed. As for the withholding reasons - privacy, confidentiality (yes, whether our Ministers are corrupt is "confidential"), Cabinet collective responsibility, confidential advice and free and frank expression - while some of these reasons may apply to specific cases (if, for example, a conflict was declared on a matter which has not yet been finalised and is therefore still under consideration), they must be assessed on a case-by-case basis and weighed against the public interest in disclosure (which is extremely strong). And there seems to be no good reason for not at least giving the number of occasions such events have occurred.

Naturally, this has resulted in another complaint to the Ombudsman. In the meantime, I have come up with another avenue of attack. Keep watching this space.