Thursday, July 11, 2024

A criminal minister

RNZ reports that cancer minister Casey Costello has been reprimanded and forced to apologise by the Ombudsman for acting "contrary to law" in her handling of an OIA request:

Associate Health Minister Casey Costello has been severely reprimanded by the Chief Ombudsman and forced to apologise for trying to keep information about tobacco and vaping policy secret.

Chief Ombudsman Judge Peter Boshier took the rare step of forcing Costello to apologise to RNZ and to Otago University Professor of Public Health Janet Hoek for her handling of Official Information Act (OIA) requests.

In his ruling, Boshier said Costello's actions in withholding the information were "unreasonable and contrary to law".

Contra RNZ, this sadly isn't a "rare" step. Ministers being ordered to apologise for their lawless behaviour is now the default remedy (there being little else you can do when a request is late or an extension has been granted unlawfully). What is unusual is Costello's outright refusal to cooperate with the Ombudsman: refusing to supply requested information and providing no explanation for her decision-making. That's not just a breach of the comity Ministers owe to an officer of Parliament; it is also a crime. OIA investigations are legally treated as investigations under the Ombudsmen Act. While there are some tweaks for the OIA regime, information is gathered using the Ombudsman's evidence-gathering powers - in this case, section 19(1) of the Ombudsmen Act. And failing to comply with a "request" for information from the Ombudsman is a crime.

The penalty for that crime is derisory (the law was made in 1975, and the sum has never been adjusted), but a conviction would be salutary. And when Ministers are routinely obstructing the Ombudsman, that is what needs to happen, pour encourager les autres.

(And of course we need criminal penalties for obstructing OIA requests, with a penalty sufficient to eject any convicted Minister from Parliament. Anybody want to take a Member's Bill?)