Denying scrutiny

Something doesn't add up in the ongoing saga of Dunedin's historic courthouse.

A draft business case apparently details why the building will cost more than $15 million to meet earthquake-strengthening standards.

That business case will now go before Treasury and Cabinet where a decision on the building's future will be made.

But despite Dunedin civic leaders and engineering experts demanding an explanation about how that $15 million figure has been reached, no information has been given.

Denying the release of that information, and the public scrutiny that goes with it, cuts to the core of what New Zealand's government is based on: openness, freedom of information and public accountability.

An international movement called the Open Government Partnership was founded in 2011 to encourage governments to be more accountable and responsive to citizens.

Its membership totals 66 countries, including New Zealand. Our membership is co-ordinated by the State Services Commision, which this month released its September ''Draft Open Government Partnership New Zealand Mid-term Self-assessment Report''.

That report states: ''New Zealand places trust in government at the centre of our democratic system. It does this through a culture of openness, freedom of information and public accountability, while protecting personal and confidential public information.''

The question with the historic courthouse and its future is whether the information leading to the ''more than $15 million'' assessment sits under the need for ''a culture of openness, freedom of information and public accountability'', or whether it should be kept hidden to protect ''personal and confidential public information''.

If decision-makers control the flow of information, and choose to deny that flow, they deny scrutiny.

In this case, a lack of scrutiny makes it impossible for the public to know whether the $15 million argument being put to Treasury and Cabinet is fair and true.

Surely, if the argument is fair and true there would be nothing to hide, other than certain commercial sensitivities which can be redacted from a public release - the nuts and bolts of the argument doesn't need the commercially sensitive information.

The community can only know the truth by having the business case released.

It is for that reason the Government's steadfast refusal to divulge any details around the $15 million figure is so worrying.

Dunedin's construction and engineering experts say the $15 million figure is either overkill, an exaggeration, or both.

They claim a ''straw man'' fallacy is at work, and have demanded proof it is not.

The Minister of Justice has simply refused.

That doesn't prove she's hiding a straw man.

But it doesn't prove she isn't, either.

Which brings us back to New Zealand's inclusion in the Open Government Partnership.

There are fears the Government has no intention of retaining the building as a courthouse, as it moves to centralise court services around the country.

There are fears regarding Justice Minister Amy Adams' repeated assertion that it is her ''desire, intention and expectation'' that court services return to the building.

The release of the business case and its scruntiny might appease everyone, from the public, to Dunedin's mayor and the city's engineering and construction experts.

Dunedin's legal community should know exactly how unsafe the building they wish to return to is.

And New Zealand's Government would be, with actions and not just words, improving our ''culture of openness, freedom of information and public accountability'', as it aspires to.

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