- Date published:
12:20 pm, June 8th, 2021 - 116 comments
Categories: chris bishop, democracy under attack, democratic participation, Media, national, Parliament, same old national - Tags:
On the weekend Andrea Vance gave the Government a bit of a serve about its openness and transparency. She said this:
In my 20-year plus time as a journalist, this Government is one of the most thin-skinned and secretive I have experienced. Many of my colleagues say the same.
Even squeezing basic facts out of an agency is a frustrating, torturous and often futile exercise.
She also said this:
Take the last week. Two senior Stuff journalists attempted to interview Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta, at a time when the China-Australia-New-Zealand relationship is under intense international scrutiny.
It didn’t happen. Not because of any geo-political sensitivities. Nor something as trivial as a diary clash. The paranoid and hyper-sensitive minister objected to taking questions from two journalists at once.
In the same week, Mahuta released detailed reports on the country’s creaking drinking, waste and stormwater infrastructure. They paint a dire picture and the issue needs urgent public debate.
She did not seem to comprehend that the same week that Mahuta was planning to release reports on the future of the Country’s drinking water may not have been a great time to seek time for an interview about China.
I suspect it was not planned. It was just that Mahuta did not have enough hours in the day to contemplate an interview.
Vance then complained that the Government wanted to shape the narrative about developing stories. Well blow me down but can anyone think of an instance in the past 100 years when this was not the case?
She then said this:
My OIA request – which by law should be answered within 20 working days – was delayed, and eventually took five times that length.
The Ombudsman agreed the hold-up was unacceptable, and I got an apology. It made no difference – MBIE still delivered the information on Wednesday, the date it had originally chosen.
I understand why it was obstructive. Hundreds of pages of emails reveal muddled, confused and dogmatic officials under pressure to justify a controversial decision. But much of the crucial information still appears to be redacted.
It’s now very difficult for journalists to get to the heart and the truth of a story. We are up against an army of well-paid spin doctors.
Since the current Government took office, the number of communications specialists has ballooned. Each minister has at least two press secretaries. (Ardern has four).
In the year Labour took office, the Ministry for the Environment had 10 PR staff. It now has 18. The Ministry for Foreign Affairs and Trade more than doubled its staff – up to 25.
MBIE blew out from 48 staff to 64. None of those five dozen specialists could give me those figures for many weeks – and again I was forced to ask the Ombudsman to intervene.
Vance does not mention the fact that Labour has proactively put a whole lot of information into the public domain. Like Ministers diaries. Previously this information had to be eeked out by way of LGOIMA.
She also does not acknowledge the huge stress on Ministers offices that has been caused by multiple questions.
The number of written questions put to Ministers from the opposition over the past few years have looked like this:
Anyone notice a pattern? See what happened when National was relegated to the opposition benches?
These are not simple questions to answer. A quick check through Chris Bishop’s 1,482 questions made so far this year include the following:
Turnaround for these questions is meant to be five days. No wonder the OIA system is under pressure or that extra staff are being hired.
Gerard Otto has an interesting take on Vance’s claims:
Did you know that by the 2nd half of 2018 – 95% of all Official Information Act requests were completed on time, compared with only 91% in 2015/2016?
Who would know that sort of statistic – unless you dug into the numbers and searched around for the overall context – about open and transparent government – and just exactly what Andrea Vance was complaining about in her article titled ” This Government promised to be open and transparent, but it is an artfully-crafted mirage.”
I have not been able to confirm his futures but Otto is normally a very accurate and careful commentator.
His conclusion is pretty scathing:
Vance’s article did not provide statistics – about all the state sector departments and how they are responding, nor what was redacted nor the reasons why information was redacted. She did not detail all the complaints made under this government – nor the answers to those complaints made by Peter Boshier.
In other words – it was Vance who was spinning an artfully created mirage in her article based on a few anecdotal experiences she had over the past year.
Some people say she made excellent points and it was a good read – while others said – it was not Jacinda’s fault – it was those idiots in the public service. Truth is – Vance wrote a lazy article for lazy minds who do not think critically and who are easily mislead by any old opinion from a bitter, twisted and vengeful media.
The overall facts were missing – but some readers formed a view without them.
The situation has been going on for a while. As noted by Radio New Zealand in 2018:
Auckland University Emeritus Professor Barry Gustafson said the exercise appeared to be more of a fishing expedition than anything to do with policy.
“They cast a hundred or thousand hooks into the sea and hope that they’ll pull up one fish.”
The opposition was searching for inconsistencies in ministers’ answers or something they could develop to embarrass the government.
“It’s getting well away, when you do that, from the original intention of written questions – which was to hold the government accountable on major policy matters and actions.”
A spokesperson for Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway said his office had requested additional staffing to deal with the high volume of written questions and official information requests.
“This was unavailable so the office restructured to employ a staff member to coordinate responses,” he said in a statement.
Housing Minister Phil Twyford said the KiwiBuild unit in the new Ministry of Housing and Urban Development had to hire someone with the primary job of answering opposition questions.
Mr Twyford said he was committed to answering questions properly as they were an important part of the parliamentary process.
But he said “there’s no doubt that the volume and the trivial nature of some of the questions is a deliberate tactic by the opposition to tie up government staff resources.”
If we are going to have a discussion on performance then more detail is required. And attacks on the Government without providing very important context is not something an independent media engages in.
Update: here is the confirmation of Gerard Otto’s statistics.