Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Challenging Ministerial unaccountability

Last month, I highlighted how the Ombudsman has undermined Ministerial accountability to Parliament. The core problem is a 2002 Ombudsman's ruling, which basicly says that Minister's draft answers to oral questions will almost never be released under the OIA - effectively allowing them to lie with impunity. At the end of that post, I noted that I would be filing some OIA requests in an effort to challenge that ruling.

The first such request was to the Ministry of Justice, for draft answers to this question. Its particularly interesting, because while the Associate Minister professes ignorance of statistics about Christmas Island detainees in the House, the Minister he was answering on behalf of clearly was not ignorant, having briefed the New Zealand Herald about them that very morning. Which invites the obvious question: was the Associate Minister poorly briefed, or was he lying? And in both cases, there is clearly a significant public interest in that fact being revealed. The chief purpose of the Act is "to promote the accountability of Ministers of the Crown and official", thereby promoting good government. Exposing incompetent departments or deceitful Ministers is precisely what the Act is for.

At the least, this suggests that the Ministry of Justice got the public interest calculation wrong. But there's also the broader question of the 2002 ruling and the presumption against release. Insofar as it reduces Ministerial accountability, it seems contrary to the purposes of the Act. And from watching Question Time, there's no doubt that the behaviour it enables does exactly that.

The ruling is predicate don the assumption that

If draft answers were released, it was considered that Ministers would be less likely to seek the advice of their departments in the future, which would diminish the quality of information provided to the House.

But this is simply laughable. Are we really expected to believe that Ministers would deliberately make themselves look like fools before the House (and a live TV / internet audience) by avoiding being briefed on basic information? And given that the quality of information provided to the House is already being eroded by this very ruling, is the hypothetical evil of such childish Ministerial behaviour really greater than the one we see almost every day? I don't think so.

I've lodged a complaint to the Ombudsman making these points. I expect it to be a long investigation, so I'm not expecting a response any time soon. But I'll keep you updated on any progress.