- Date published:
9:16 am, April 8th, 2016 - 15 comments
Categories: Gerry Brownlee, national, Parliament, same old national, the praiseworthy and the pitiful - Tags: ombudsman, peter boshier
One of the few things the Nats normally excel at, is selecting a suitably unqualified flunkey to ensure an office they have no regard for is suitably undermined – witness the Race Relations Commissioner.
Why then Boshier, whose only previous was an eight year stretch as a highly competent and effective Principal Family Court Judge?
One of National’s most important and successful techniques for keeping people uninformed about what they are really up to, and hence, staying in office, is their abuse of the Official Information Act.
National not only doesn’t want the OIA to operate as it was intended, if they had their way, they would abolish the irritating Act.
The aforesaid muppet has not just appointed Boshier, but he/she has increased the Ombudsman’s budget significantly starting next financial year.
John Key has publicly admitted his government illegally games the OIA to delay, or suppress information, something Boshier’s predecessor, Beverley Wakem, described as “cavalier disregard for the law”.
The media has become so accustomed to stonewalling by ministries and government agencies, some of which, it seems, would tell the public nothing if they could get away with it, that many have given up.
Wakem’s final task of her unimpressive stint as Ombudsman, was to publish a report late last year on an in-depth review of the Act. While she said she found no direct evidence of political censorship in OIA responses, she did find ministerial officials systematically tried to limit the scope of information within a request as well as attempting to influence what was released.
Under Wakem’s watch, there is no question compliance with the Act has weakened and the government has got away with it.
Anyone who has made requests under the OIA will know that procrastination, unnecessary redactions and refusal to disclose have been the modus operandi of most ministers and their departments and they have been allowed to get away it.
Despite Wakem stating that her office was not under-resourced, I know from personal experience that appeals to her office to review declines for information have taken over a year to be resolved.
If he stands by his words, things look like they will change markedly under Boshier.
One of his first acts was to order the Prime Minister’s office to disclose the text sent by gossip columnist Rachel Glucina to Key, where she described the waitress whose hair he repeatedly tugged uninvited, as a “piece of work” with a “massive political agenda.”
Ordering the release of the information, Boshier noted “there is no blanket exemption under the Official Information Act 1982 for ‘off the record’ communications between ministers and members of the media.”
He said each case must be considered on its own merits, and in this case, he was not satisfied there was good reason to withhold the text to protect privacy or any obligation of confidence as “I consider it is outweighed by the high public interest in the information.”
In Wednesday’s interview with RNZ’s Kathryn Ryan Boshier pledged to resolve 70 percent of disputes within three months.
Delays in dealing with disputes had been unacceptable. Coming into the office, he found over 650 cases that were over 12 months old and that was “altogether too long”.
He said that his experience in the Family Court taught him that people want to move on with their lives. With the extra $2.6 million of funding, new teams will be set up to clear the backlog.
At present, only a fraction of cases are resolved within three months and his target will be to resolve 70 percent within that time. He will do this through real time work and getting parties to agree to a resolution. Wide ranging requests will be narrowed. If a case takes longer, extra resources will be allocated.
He stressed information must be made available unless a good reason exists under the Act for withholding it.
He promised to compile and publish league tables for government agencies on how they deal with cases.
Boshier said Wakem’s report showed “there has been a drift away from the purity of this Act” and many agencies did not adhere to its spirit. Manly did not regard compliance as part of their mainstream business, rather they saw it as a chore. Compliance with the Act will become one of an agencies’ KPIs.
“I think we have gone backwards a bit and I think our job is to get the Official Information Act working as it should,” Boshier said.
“It is a fundamental, constitutional part of New Zealand that we should live in open government.”
He said there was definitely evidence of management of requests. That was in part due to the trend to appoint political advisers and public relations staff whose job was to protect the reputation of the minister, CEO or agency as well as the doctrine of “no surprises”.
The latter shouldn’t then result in management at the minister’s end, Boshier said, “and sometimes, we feel, it does.”
He also plans to appoint a permanent team that will educate agencies on OIA compliance – show how requests are dealt with, run seminars and so on.
He noted the definition for official information is very broad.
“We look at everything.” Including confidential texts if they are business-related.
“Official Information is any information held by a deparment or organisation, or a minister of the Crown in their official capacity. It is very, very broad. It can cover everything – photos, transcripts, emails, texts. So long as it is held, or has been held in an official capacity, it is official information.”
“If information is requested, the information must be released unless there is a reason why not and the Act tells us the circumstances in which they don’t have to release it. For instance just because a journalist gets a text from a minister, that doesn’t means it falls into an exception.”
“In Ponytailgate, the text was short and sweet, and I operate on the basis of common sense.”
“It was a gratuitous observation which probably the texter should have known would be official information.”
He noted that everyone in a formal position will want to think about the texts and the emails that they send – “they are OIA-able if they in an official capacity.”
Boshier also spoke out against the latest attack on the Act – the Reserve Bank’s insidious action to charge journalists for the time taken to comply with OIA requests. Other agencies clearly eyed this as another godsend method not to comply with the Act. Clearly, that’s not going to happen.
Simon Louisson formerly worked for The Wall Street Journal, NZPA, Reuters and was most recently a political and media adviser to the Green Party
And if you want to see what the Government thinks about Boshier’s performance so far …
And Trevor Mallard gave a very appropriate response.