As clear as mud

Try to find the end of the rainbow and what happens? As soon as you seem to have caught up with it, it disappears, only to reappear a bit further away. It is the ultimate exercise in frustration, particularly if you are looking for a pot of gold to offset inflation and the rising cost of living.

The mischievous behaviour of the rainbow is a good parallel for all those hopes and dreams we have that somehow never seem to be realised, always remaining just out of reach. It’s certainly the case for the Labour Government when it comes to transparency. Despite its much-vaunted wishes and plans to preside over the most open and transparent New Zealand government in history, it has failed badly to deliver on that mission statement.

But is the obfuscation deliberate or just a case of bad luck for the Government and events not going its way? With very few days going by without another refusal to answer questions about matters in the public interest, and with unconscionable dragging of the heels when it comes to Official Information Act requests, it certainly seems more like something intentional on the part of government departments, crown research institutes and ministers’ offices.

This is a government well-versed in the spin industry made famous by New Labour in the United Kingdom in the 1990s through former prime minister Tony Blair and his public relations sidekick Alastair Campbell. It is easy to say one thing and do another, and vice-versa. Of course not all ministers and government departments deliberately set out to stymie the public’s right to information. Some officials genuinely believe the populace needs to know what is going on, rather than worry that telling people too much somehow erodes their own power base.

Nobody is better placed to know what is going on in this area, and who is doing what wrongly, than Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier.

It was great news for all who believe in real transparency to hear in the past couple of days that Mr Boshier has had enough of the behaviour of some local councils and their application of the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act.

Unfortunately, local government looks up to central government, a bit like an elder sibling, for its example. And it deserves a better role model.

Mr Boshier is about to take councils to task for the ease with which they slip into public-excluded mode. He is especially concerned at the use of behind-closed-doors council workshops and briefings, often held before full meetings, as a vehicle for setting directions without the public being present. He says councils must give appropriate notice of such meetings, provide an agenda of what will be discussed and ensure they are open to the public, unless a formal vote is taken to exclude them. Proper notes also need to be taken so they are searchable under the Act.

Automatically barring the public increases the risk they will become suspicious about council plans and activities, Mr Boshier believes.

He is focusing on eight councils in his investigation of the past three years, including the Clutha, Timaru and Waimakariri districts in the South Island. Not all are exemplars of bad practice, and he wants to understand how and why some of these local authorities are getting it right.

Mr Boshier’s move follows concerns voiced last year by media consultant and former New Zealand Herald editor Gavin Ellis that some councils are getting away with murder in terms of stifling public debate, especially around council-owned companies hiding activities behind the “commercially sensitive” excuse.

There is a view that only politicians, journalists and switched-on taxpayers and ratepayers care about government transparency and the two Acts.

But there is a wider concern here. If the next generations of New Zealanders grow up not knowing, and not caring, what transparency is and about its importance for the proper running of central and local government, then what hope is there for the survival of strong democracy?

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