Friday, April 24, 2020

A desperate grab for unaccountability

Correction (21 May 2020): The OIA has come back, and it is clear that the Newsroom story this was based on was not accurate, and misconstrued the Ombudsman's comments. I apologise for my role in spreading it.

Right at the beginning of the lockdown, the Minister of Justice made it clear that the OIA is a vital safeguard during this crisis. But some officials didn't get the message. Instead of accepting proper public scrutiny of their decisions, they launched a desperate bid for unaccountability, by trying to suspend the OIA:

Government officials proposed suspending the Official Information Act during the coronavirus lockdown - a suggestion that was headed off after the intervention of the country’s official information watchdog, Newsroom can reveal.

Ministers have denied any involvement in the proposal, saying the legislation is more important than ever at a time of crisis where they have been given extended powers.


“The OIA is an important check on the use of power and authority and that’s even more important in times of emergency where those powers are extended,” [State Services Minister Chris] Hipkins said.

I will rigorously oppose any suggestion the OIA should be suspended, and note that no such proposal has ever been put forward.”

The Ombudsman refuses to name and shame which agency wanted to use a crisis to grab secrecy, but later in the article it makes it clear that it was Little's own Ministry of Justice. Naturally, I'll be sending an OIA to them seeking all the documentation and correspondence on this, including whether any Minister was briefed. But given the Minister's publicly stated position in support of the Act, I hope there'd be some accountability over his agency attempting to go behind his back like this.