Thursday, July 27, 2017

Secrecy vs accountability

While we're on the subject, there's something else in the Ombudsman's report on Simon Bridges' bullying of Kiwirail which is worth discussing: Bridges (or his staff's) views on the "need" to withhold failed budget bids. The Ombudsman quotes these in full, because they're quite an eye-opener:

Noting that the project was highly likely to form a bid for Budget 18, the Minister’s Office formed the view that if the Business Case was released, then it would open the project up to undue influence and public debate which would more likely than not prejudice the path the Budget bid takes.

As the Budget process is a contestable process, negotiations should be allowed to occur unimpeded without any action that could influence the weighting of one bid over another.

This applies to both the future negotiations to be had at a departmental level in the initial stages of the Budget process, and in the subsequent negotiations between Ministers once a bid has progressed to this level.

A bid will be more objective at both stages of the negotiation process if it is on an even footing with other bids (i.e. that haven’t been publically debated). Public and media scrutiny could directly or indirectly influence the weighting of bids and decision making during the contestable budget process. This is the same principle that the Ministry of Transport advised the Office it applies when considering whether to release failed Budget bids under the Official Information Act.

Or, to put that in plain english: policy proposals must remain secret to prevent the public from telling us what they want.

Its an arrogant, undemocratic attitude, which primarily serves to protect those in power from accountability for their decisions. And in this case, there's a lot to be accountable for. The Spinoff has obtained an unredacted version of the Third Main business case, and it shows it to be the best of ten options considered. The option that National chose to fund - more freight by road - was the worst. If Bridges had succeeded in keeping this secret, then we would not know that he had chosen the worst possible option for freight in Auckland. I can understand why he would be interested in that. But we shouldn't be. While Ministers and sniffy public service technocrats may hate the idea, we live in a democracy, and that means making decisions in the public view. If they don't like that, they can fuck off to a country which better suits their preferred style of governance - like North Korea.