No government is innocent of these tactics

7:56 pm on 29 November 2017

Power Play - Neither National nor Labour can afford to be too self-righteous about open government and transparency.

Jacinda Ardern and Winston Peters signing the coalition agreement.

Jacinda Ardern and Winston Peters signing the coalition agreement. Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

Claims Labour has already adopted a secretive approach to governing have blown up barely a month after ministers were sworn-in, over 33 pages of notes taken by Labour and New Zealand First during their coalition talks.

The Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her deputy Winston Peters have performed semantic somersaults to justify their refusal to release the notes, ranging from the fact it is not a formal document, it has not been distributed to ministers, and it contains no live policy issues.

Mr Peters continued the verbal gymnastics after revealing the size of the document shrank from the original 38 to 33 pages.

The initial assumption was the document had been streamlined or edited but in fact the reason was much more practical - a font change: It had been blown up into a larger font so everyone attending the coalition talks could easily read and understand the documents.

Afterwards, one of Mr Peters' staff reduced it again, shortening the document.

Jacinda Ardern and Winston Peters at The House.

Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

This seemingly innocuous action has been seized upon by the National opposition, who spied an opportunity to challenge the excuse used to keep the document secret.

The Official Information Act is a tool used by the media and the opposition to pry out information, but it applies to ministers and those linked to Ministerial Services.

Many debates about whether information is subject to the OIA include whether it comes under the auspices of Parliamentary Services (exempt from the OIA), or is ministerial.

There have many occasions where politicians put on their different "hats" - claiming to have been communicating or acting, for example, as a party leader, as opposed to a minister, to avoid the OIA.

The gleam in the eye of National's Paula Bennett as Mr Peters described the 're-fonting' showed that was exactly the tack she wanted to explore, i.e. if the staffer was hired by ministerial services and amended the document after Mr Peters was sworn-in then any material they handled could be subject to the OIA.

However, it was not to be as Mr Peters deflected the question with further talk of fonts and locked safes, but Mrs Bennett has no doubt filed it all away for another day.

Often with stories pursued to this level of detail, the media and politicians can take it beyond the interest of the public, who are more worried about their jobs, the price of houses or getting their kids into a decent school.

But of more risk to the government - in this case Labour - is the message that can diffuse through the electorate that it's secretive, it's already trying to hide information, that it's not to be fully trusted.

This is the strategy of National Party MPs, who have taken every opportunity to drive the message home. Ms Ardern has started to look uncomfortable as her word is challenged in the House, while Mr Peters has deployed humour and levity to avoid direct questions.

But no government is innocent of these tactics.

Journalists have been frequently frustrated by OIA requests being declined, the release of documents extended past the deadline for no good reason, or pages so heavily redacted there is little point in actually having received it.

National Party leader Bill English (centre) and Paula Bennett (2nd right).

National Party leader Bill English (centre) and Paula Bennett (2nd right). Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

Political self-interest?

The former Prime Minister John Key received a slap on the wrist from the Ombudsman after admitting his government sometimes delayed releasing official information right up to the deadline if it was in its best interest to do so.

Governments of any colour tend to become more defensive, more insular, and less likely to be free with information the longer they are in power - a state that became evident with the previous two administrations.

In any government, some ministers are better than others, but there is a strong feeling among journalists that some politicians are using the OIA for their own political purposes, rather than for its intended principle of releasing official information, an approach that also appears to be taken by some government departments.

That's a categorisation rejected by the current National Party leader Bill English, who says during their nine years in power there was a much greater willingness to proactively release Budget documents and Cabinet papers that helped shed light on decisions.

All true but the real test is when journalists are seeking information that holds a real political risk, and that is when they tend to come up against a brick wall.

This coalition government has made much of being 'open and transparent'.

Mr Peters declared that was the government's middle name (if not somewhat tongue in cheek).

But it is clearly trying to ride out opposition pressure to release these notes, the main preoccupation of National this week, and likely to continue into the next.

The best way of course to blunt that attack, and live up to the promised transparency, would simply be to release the document.

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