Thursday, September 20, 2012

National opposes transparency

I have a particular interest in freedom of information and public accountability, so I spent some time this evening watching the debate on Darien Fenton's Local Government (Council-Controlled Organisations) Amendment Bill. The bill would remove the exclusion of port companies from the definition of council-controlled organisations, thus making them subject to the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act and Ombudsmen Act, as well as applying various requirements around being a good employer, exhibiting a sense of social responsibility, and following sound business practice. These rules apply to every other company which is majority- or wholly-owned by a local authority - bus companies, airport companies, street-cleaning companies etc - on the basic principle of "we own it, so we can see how it spends our money". As I've noted before, there seems to be no good reason for excluding port companies from this regime.

During the debate, it quickly became apparent that National opposed the bill. Their reason? That wasn't so clear. Here for example is Jacqui Dean's speech on the issue, in full:

Mr Speaker, this bill is arrant nonsense, and I do not support it.
Yes, really [video, from 7:15]. And we're paying her $140,000 a year plus perks for this thoughtless arrogance.

Unlike Dean, former Local Government Minister Nick Smith [video] did give some reasons: that the bill was supported by unions, that Labour was left-wing, and that greater transparency over publicly-owned companies was somehow incompatible with sound business practice. Meanwhile, in the real world, our SOEs, who have been subject to exactly this regime on the same principles for the past twenty-five years, continue to make profits. Nicky Wagner [video] meanwhile seems to think that greater transparency and oversight reduces efficiency rather than ensuring it.

These are not the arguments of people interested in democratic, accountable government. They are the arguments of secretive authoritarians. And watching the debate tonight, I get the impression that if the OIA were introduced into the House today, the National Party would oppose it. We can only hope that Peter Dunne disagrees with them.