Wednesday, June 07, 2017

National vs the OIA

During its time in office National has made it clear that it is hostile to transparency and the OIA. The latest incident? Transport Minister Simon Bridges trying to bully KiwiRail into unlawfully refusing information:

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters tabled an email trail in Parliament yesterday showing that Mr Bridges' office repeatedly urged KiwiRail last week not to release a business case on Auckland's proposed third main railway track.

Initially, his officials opposed the document being released, saying it was part of an unsuccessful budget bid, but were told by KiwiRail on Thursday that the law was clear it should be released.

After consulting its legal team, KiwiRail told Mr Bridge's office it would struggle to justify not releasing it.

But on Friday Mr Bridges' office again urged KiwiRail not to release the business plan.

This time it used a scatter-gun approach - arguing the report was only a draft, was on a misleading template and that its proposed release was making them "extremely uncomfortable".

None of which are lawful reasons for withholding (in fact, all of them appear in the Ombudsman's list of common misconceptions). So, the Minister was telling a crown company to behave unlawfully. And that is simply unacceptable.

More generally, this shows the danger of agencies consulting Ministers about requests. While in some cases it is justified by the "no surprises" convention, it clearly exposes agencies to improper pressure and harassment from Ministers, and may result in unlawful decisions. In fact, I think there's probably a very interesting research project around this: OIA every Minister asking for all correspondence and information on the last ten requests they were consulted on. I suspect there's a lot more dodgy email trails like this waiting to be found...