Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Flouting the OIA

The Dominion-Post reports that Communications Minister Steven Joyce is withholding cabinet papers relating to the government's broadband policy because they might be "misconstrued" and "indicate favouritism towards some potential partners". Or, stripped to its basics, "because they might make the government look bad". But as any government Minister should know, that is not a reason for withholding information under the Act. Don't believe me? It's right there in the Ombudsmen's list of common misconceptions about the OIA [PDF]:

The comments will embarrass the government, therefore they should be withheld.

Correct Position:
The fact that information or comments may embarrass the government, or may be contrary to the position taken by the government, is not in itself good reason to withhold information. Each element of section 9(2)(g)(i), as discussed above, must be made out before it can be relied upon to withhold information. The Danks Committee emphasised that:

“The fact that the release of certain information may give rise to criticism or embarrassment of the government is not an adequate reason for withholding it from the public.”

Elsewhere in the same document, they note that
The fact that there is potential for the advice to be misunderstood by the public, however, is not good reason to withhold it in terms of section 9(2)(f)(iv). It is always open for the agency releasing such information to issue a contextual statement explaining the current status of the advice in terms of Government policy.
The purpose of the OIA is to make the government explain its policies. The fact that Joyce does not want to, or cannot in a way which does not make it appear they are engaged in dubious business dealings contrary to public expectations that contracts will be awarded on merit, does not mean he can simply refuse.

The case is apparently before the Ombudsmen, which means we'll have an answer in six months to a year. By which time the government will no doubt have completed its dirty deal, and it will be useless. A better resourced Ombudsman's office would help reduce that time, and result in better accountability. But what Minister is ever going to vote for that?