Public deserves openness, respect

Elspeth McLean.
Elspeth McLean. PHOTO: ODT FILES
I want to say "I told you so" or claim soothsayer status, but that could be going a bit far.

A year ago, the headline on this column was "20/20 vision should focus on solidarity".

In that column I preached the gospel of the need for people to act together if we were going to fight our way out of the mess we have made of the world.

I was desperately clinging to the thought we could achieve much nationally and internationally to improve the environment and the way we treat each other if we could capture the spirit of Operation Tidy Fox. (That was the 2019 effort where volunteers, supported by the Department of Conservation, the defence force, and local businesses, responded to the call to pick up rubbish spewed from an old landfill after severe rain.)

The past year has shown the nation is capable of solidarity, although let’s bin the tedious "team of five million" expression. Call me picky, but it makes me feel like I am back in primary school.

That solidarity may be tested in the New Year. If this Government wants the team spirit to continue, it will need to look less contrived and more transparent.

Journalists are used to agencies dumping controversial documents in December in the hope most of the public will be too busy behaving badly at the office Christmas party, shopping up a storm or sneakily swigging the trifle sherry meant for Santa to care.

This year, however, the timing of the release of both the news of the outcome of the defamation action against the Speaker Trevor Mallard and the highly critical report on the implementation of the Covid-19 surveillance plan and testing strategy seemed more cynical than usual.

Whatever happened to the heady promises from the last term about transparency and openness? There was no mention of it in this year’s speech from the throne, although last time the Prime Minister said the Government would foster a more open and democratic society and strengthen transparency around official information. Maybe she considered it achieved that before the election. Yeah, right.

There have been too many instances this year when legitimate concerns over such things as the supply of personal protective equipment (PPE), the extent of Covid-19 testing and the distribution of flu vaccine have been initially pooh-poohed by ministers or the director-general of health Ashley Bloomfield, but later been shown to be true.

To me, the Ministry of Health has long been intent on playing down anything controversial, dragging out any response to any questions delving under the surface as long as it can.

Take the recent bowel screening programme glitch, where some people already diagnosed with bowel cancer were erroneously invited to participate.

When I posed some questions on this two days after the issued media release, those questions went through a formal Official Information Act process. The need for this seemed questionable as I would expect a communications plan to be developed before the media release went out, answering questions likely to be posed, so mostly they could be readily answered.

But no, I had missed the boat on the authority they put up for interview on the day of the media release (a Friday).

One question I asked was whether any of the more than 1200 people erroneously sent letters ended up participating in the programme. The answer I eventually received was "yes".

No doubt this fulfilled the obligation to answer the question asked, but an open and transparent response would have involved explaining it. In previous situations, I have noted the ministry is not averse to adding PR waffle to its responses. The lack of detail meant I had to ask more questions. I discovered four people received faecal testing kits, three were contacted before completing the test and the fourth could not be reached and had completed the test. (To give the ministry credit, it responded to these follow-up questions in four days.)

I look forward to seeing how the ministry’s official information policies and practices stack up when Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier completes his follow-up investigation of it as one of the 12 agencies which were the focus of his predecessor Dame Beverley Wakem’s "Not a Game of Hide and Seek" report five years ago.

He was to have reported by June this year, but Covid-19 has postponed that until the middle of 2021. His report will include how the agencies coped during the Covid response.

While we wait for that, it would be good to see some fresh commitment from the Government and the ministry to greater openness. If they expect our continued co-operation and trust, they must accept limited tolerance for them pretending everything is OK when it is not.

Elspeth McLean is a Dunedin writer.

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