The public's right to know

If the maxim "information is power" holds true, then the Official Information Act 1982 and the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act 1987 have helped increase power to the people. They should be acknowledged as part of the process whereby government has become more accountable and more open.

Despite their imperfections and their abuse, there is no way society would return to the days of the Official Secrets Act.

The Law Commission, a useful body that regularly and with relative impartiality reviews our laws, has just completed a review of the legislation, calling it The Public's Right to Know. Fundamentally, it is positive about what has been achieved, and its various recommendations are not radical. It believes the Act should stay reasonably general in its provisions, rather than be rules focused as is the case in some other parts of the world, notably Australia. For all the fuzziness of the provisions and for all the occasions when it fails to operate effectively or in a timely way, its "sophisticated, open-textured" nature, as Sir Geoffrey Palmer once called it, is preferable. The other way leads to loopholes and legal disputes.

Maintained always must be the "presumptions in favour of disclosure". Unless there is "good reason to withhold" information it must be released, and even then the good reasons have to outweigh public interest. It becomes a balancing act.

A review several years ago by Wellington lawyer Stephen Price revealed that, while there were no problems with straight-forward non-controversial requests, those that were politically charged caused suspicion and, often, flouting of the Official Information Act's provisions. Sometimes, information would be delayed in an apparent tactic to undermine the value of topicality. Sometimes, information would be lost, requests interpreted too narrowly or unreasonable charges levied. In turn, requestors resorted to "fishing expeditions" which might be beyond the resources of officials. Some tensions are, of course, inevitable.

Because of the lack of clarity over which organisations are covered, it is suggested a register be set up; making it clear universities, council-controlled organisations and school boards are covered.

Additionally, it is recommended coverage be extended to courts, tribunals and, notably, the Parliamentary Service. That last step is long overdue. Increased accountability over the spending of ministers shows what a difference public scrutiny can make.

An often underestimated effect of open information is in curbing corruption. The more sunlight shines into dark places, the less bad business grows. New Zealand's relative lack of corruption is one of its primary competitive - as well as moral - advantages, and everything possible must be done to retain our premier world ranking.

The report recommends government agencies should become more active in releasing information of their own accord, a worthy aim. It is useful, here, to remember the progress that has already been made.

Imagine Cabinet papers being released 30 years ago. Imagine councils releasing reports before the meetings at which they were to be discussed.

One of the keys to improving the way the Acts work is through resources. The Ombudsman's Office itself has been overwhelmed with appeals and must be properly resourced. The Law Commission's report goes further, and suggests a position of an official champion for open information, an Information Commissioner, could be created.

The report acknowledges this is a particularly poor time for any extra government spending, but other nations have someone with a statutory role for other than complaints.

There are also recommendations for redrafting the notoriously vague grounds for withholding information of "good government" and "commercial sensitivity".

The Government, and this was spelt out in a media release from Justice Minister Judith Collins yesterday, says it is committed to openness and transparency. It now has the job of working through the recommendations, while it and all public organisations - including universities, health boards and local authorities - live up to the ethics and ethos of the Acts. That is what the public must always demand if New Zealand's official information legislation is to be as effective as it can and should be.

 

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