I agree with Anthony Hubbard in today’s SST “Turning the spin around” – not yet on-line. The most outrageous piece of spin in the election was Chief Ombudsman Beverley Wakem’s justification for allowing the Treasury to refuse to release documents relating to asset sales as requested by TV1, the Greens and Labour. National’s arguments for its unpopular policy twisted and turned during the campaign, with Key promising that 85-90% of New Zealanders would continue to own the assets. Yeah right. The Greens and TV1 rightly asked to know what advice lay behind this claim.
The worst bit of spinning in the election campaign was arguably done by a bureaucrat, not a politician. Chief Ombudsman Beverley Wakem upheld the government’s decision t o suppress Treasury advice about the plane to sell down state assets. Wakem issued an astonishing 15-page document defending this indefensible decision.
Wakem faced the problem that her predecessor John Belgrave, had set a troubling precedent. Just before the 2005 election he ruled tha the government should issue official advice about the costs of Labour’s proposed student loans scheme.
Here was an exact parallel. Wakem weaved and spun for 86 paragraphs and decided that the two situations were different. Her action got the government off the hook and disgraceful decision but one that will be seen for what it was: a cop-out and a cave-in.
Wakem’s argument in dismissal of the public interest is here. 100448
The suspicion of course is that the politicians were just making it up as they went along. Treasury’s argument that the release of the information might prejusdice the price to be obtained for the assets has to be discounted – any specific provisions to restrict ownership will automatically affect their price.
Hubbard’s piece reminded me that in 1981 I wrote a script for Morning Comment about violence and the Springbok tour when Wakem managed Radio New Zealand. After I had refused to remove a direct and critical reference to Muldoon and substitute “some people” the script was not broadcast. I protested and met with Beverley Wakem and Geoffrey Whitehead in their office where they said my language was too vivid and my assertions exaggerated. I was shown my script – written in the margin were the words “politically sensitive.” That at least was the truth.
It seems to me that thirty years later nothing much has changed. It is a worry when those charged with safeguarding the public interest appear more concerned with safeguarding the political interest. New Zealand felt like Poodlestan under Muldoon; I don’t want us to go back there.
One thing is true though – just like the debate on the Springbok tour in 1981, the debate on asset sales in 2011 won’t go away.