National security could trump the public's right to know
when the Office of the Ombudsman considers the case for
releasing emails about last year's visit by the Dalai Lama to
However, the Dunedin City Council has already been rapped
over the knuckles by the Ombudsman's Office for its handling
of an initial Otago Daily Times request for copies of
The ODT lodged a complaint with the Ombudsman's Office
in June last year, after the DCC and the Ministry of Foreign
Affairs and Trade both refused to release copies of the
The exchange between Mayor Dave Cull and Mfat officials
discussed the Tibetan spiritual leader's then-pending visit
to Dunedin, and came to light only after Mr Cull initially
denied seeking outside advice on the trip.
Ombudsman staff confirmed recently Chief Ombudsman Dame
Beverley Wakem would be investigating the ODT's
complaint, and was expected to meet senior Mfat officials to
discuss their reasons for withholding the emails.
However, ombudsman manager Janis Adair, in a letter to the
ODT, also confirmed the council had failed to take
''appropriate action'' in its initial handling of the request
for copies of the emails. The council had declined the
request, but should have transferred it to Mfat staff, who
were now the primary focus of the complaint, the letter said.
Council corporate services group manager Sandy Graham, in a
recent email, apologised ''for not doing so at the time''.
''Following discussion with the Office of the Ombudsman, we
now realise that upon receipt of your request council should
have transferred your request to Mfat ... I apologise for not
doing so at the time.''
Ombudsman investigator Kelly Stein said a decision on whether
or not to release the emails would hinge on the rarely used
section 6A of the Official Information Act. That allowed
information to be withheld if releasing it would likely
''prejudice the security or defence of New Zealand or the
international relations of the Government of New Zealand'',
In such cases, the public interest argument could not be used
against section 6A, meaning Mfat officials needed only to
convince Dame Beverley the provisions of the Act under that
section applied, she said.
It was rare for the chief ombudsman to have such a meeting
over section 6A, as only a few organisations used it,
including Mfat and the Ministry of Defence.
''I've only actually been involved myself in about one other,
and I've been here 14 years.''
Details of the email exchange emerged after Mr Cull last year
declined an invitation to introduce the Dalai Lama at a
public talk in Dunedin, prompting suggestions he was putting
Dunedin's economic links with Shanghai first.
Mr Cull later apologised, after describing the Tibetan
spiritual leader as ''a representative of a minority