Secrecy shows ‘lack of respect’ for taxpayers

Pou Whenua Tāwhaki at the University of Otago. PHOTO: STEPHEN JAQUIERY
Pou Whenua Tāwhaki at the University of Otago. PHOTO: STEPHEN JAQUIERY
The University of Otago’s secrecy about the cost of its pou whenua shows disrespect for taxpayers money, the Taxpayers’ Union says.

The comments come after the conclusion of an investigation by the Ombudsman into the university’s conduct when questioned about the sculpture’s cost.

The sculpture, Pou Whenua Tawhaki, was commissioned to commemorate the university’s 150th anniversary by the office of Maori development.

In response to an Official Information Act request by the Otago Daily Times in May, the university refused to detail the costs of the sculpture and said any ongoing inquiries would be "of a vexatious nature and culturally insensitive."

The ODT complained to the Ombudsman about the university’s secrecy around the figure, with Chief Ombudsmen Judge Peter Boshier saying it should not have withheld the costs.

After the complaint was lodged the university revealed the cost of the sculpture totalled $112,523.71, including GST.

Taxpayers’ Union policy adviser James Ross said the university’s initial response to the inquiry not only showed disrespect for taxpayer money, but also highlighted larger issues across the public sector.

"Otago Uni refusing until pressured to share how it spent over $110K on a sculpture clearly shows a lack of respect for the taxpayers’ back pockets, but the issues go far beyond that.

"The way in which this ... was dealt with hints to much deeper problems across the public sector."

When approached about the union’s comments, a university spokeswoman said it did "not have anything further to add".

Mr Ross said public bodies could refuse to release information that may be embarrassing despite a legal requirement to do so. If this was referred to the Ombudsman, judgement may take six months to over a year.

"By this point the story has more often than not died and those bureaucrats ... get away with their ploy scot-free," he said.

Mr Ross called for more accountability by the Ombudsman’s office and major reforms to the Official Information Act to stop departments "from being able to hide behind the curtains". , PIJF cadet reporter