I move, That a respectful Address be presented to His Excellency the Governor-General commending to His Excellency the alterations to the appropriations for the 2010/11 financial year in respect of Vote Audit, Vote Ombudsmen, and Vote Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, and the appropriations and information for the 2011/12 financial year in respect of Vote Audit, Vote Ombudsmen, and Vote Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment.
In order to maintain the independence of the three Offices of Parliament the Public Finance Act 1989 provides for funding for the Office of the Controller and Auditor-General, the Office of the Ombudsmen, and the Office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment to be determined by Parliament through the Officers of Parliament Committee. The Officers of Parliament Committee has considered submissions from each officer detailing proposed alterations to their 2010-11 appropriations and their draft budget for 2011-12 and out-years, and has reached decisions on the funding required for the offices to carry out their duties.
The details for each vote are set out in the Officers of Parliament Committee report, presented to the House on 30 March 2011. Each of the three votes is to be increased in accordance with the Remuneration Authority’s determination. Vote Audit will receive $400,000 per annum from 2011-12 for the Pacific Association of Supreme Audit Institutions, funded through the State Sector Development Partnerships Fund administered by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. This will be focused on completing a Pacific Islands forum programme to develop the capacity of Auditors-General in the Pacific. Vote Audit will also receive a capital injection of $2.2 million in 2011-12 to bring together the Office of the Auditor-General and Audit New Zealand in one location.
Vote Ombudsmen will receive a number of increases, including $160,000 in 2010-11 to account for earthquake damage to the Christchurch office, $230,000 from 2013-14 to fund an ongoing monitoring programme to help meet the commitments of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, $38,000 in 2011-12 and $337,000 in 2012-13 to host the International Ombudsman Institute conference, $30,000 in 2011-12 to assess accommodation options, and funding of $50,000 in 2011-12 and $370,000 per annum in 2012-13 and 2013-14 to assist with a backlog of cases. On that last point I understand that the current backlog will be compounded by an expected influx of inquiries following the two Christchurch earthquakes and the Pike River disaster.
I was pleased to learn that complaints under the Official Information Act concerning decisions by Ministers of the Crown averaged 144 for the first 2 years of this Government, compared with 264 for the first 2 years of the previous Government. On a related matter, the Ombudsmen have noted that unlike other jurisdictions they are required to follow up all complaints, even those considered vexatious or frivolous.
The Officers of Parliament Committee is a very interesting committee. The Acting Leader of the House has quite rightly pointed out the three votes that were considered. Today I want to focus on the Office of the Ombudsmen, because I found the scrutiny of that office particularly interesting. It put the Chief Ombudsman, Beverley Wakem, who does a wonderful job, under quite substantial pressure. Those pressures are mounting, because it is a small office with an increasing workload. The Minister mentioned the Canterbury earthquake, and it was interesting that the Office of the Ombudsmen’s office in the South Island was affected by the earthquake. We had no problem with keeping the South Island office after some examination as to whether it was needed. We also looked at the Wellington office, as its lease is expiring and it will need to assess some other accommodation offers.
The most interesting aspect of the scrutiny of this vote was the increase of $50,000—from $320,000 to $370,000—to clear a backlog of inquires. The Minister alluded to the fact that the Office of the Ombudsmen must investigate all complaints, even if they are vexatious or frivolous, and I think that requires, as the committee agreed, a legislative change. I hope that the Minister, before he goes, gets that piece of work finished for the Office of the Ombudsmen. It is crazy that it has to open all inquiries and complaints, then scrutinise all inquiries and complaints to see whether there is substance to them. That wastes a lot of the Ombudsmen’s time. It is not a “nice-to-have”; it is something they must do, so the backlog, the tail, of complaints blows out. I think this legislative change is an initiative that the Government should undertake.
It is also interesting to look at the parallel with other commissioner offices and their ability to resolve complaints. There are some concerns coming back to us in Opposition about the Health and Disability Commissioner, who has put out only five reports in the first 10 months of his new term of office, compared with an average of 50 under the previous Health and Disability Commissioner. We want to look at relativity in the ability to resolve complaints, and there is definitely a blowout in the decisions pending that did not sit comfortably on the shoulders of the Chief Ombudsman.
I think the Minister should also look at a closure target for closure of complaints for these offices, because they are charged with promoting the public’s rights and with getting answers to inquiries. The Office of the Ombudsmen is the one place the public can go to get closure on their complaints. The office looks at complaints from Government departments, and every electorate MP knows that we receive these complaints from city, district, or regional councils; from school boards of trustees; from universities, polytechs, and other tertiary education initiatives; and from district health boards. Heaven knows that those complaints will be a measure of how the present Government is starving these departments of funding over time. We want to know that we close that loop of investigations and get feedback very quickly about budget constraints that will impact on those departments, especially with the Budget that we will no doubt have to face next week. I think the Minister should look at a closure target for these offices and make sure that the public know that if they complain to the Office of the Ombudsmen, there would not be a blowout of over 2 years to resolve some of those complaints.
I also want to mention the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. That was a convention signed in September 2008 by Ruth Dyson when she was the Minister for Disability Issues, and I want it on the record that I congratulate Ms Dyson on her work. But that work has put some more pressure on the Office of the Ombudsmen, because now it must monitor and report back to the United Nations. That increased the pressure on the office, and it needed more funding for that. I am more than happy with that; it is not a “nice-to-have”. It is part of our article 33 that we must report on, and $230,000 was allocated to that task from this Government.
There was another interesting aspect in that the existing scope for the Office of the Ombudsmen was changed by this committee to look at an appropriation limited to the investigation and resolution of complaints, the provision of advice relating to central and local government administrative actions, and monitoring compliance with international conventions. We brought that more up to date than the current scope.
This work is very important. I want to congratulate the Office of the Ombudsmen on undertaking its duties with limited resources, I have to say, and with few staff. They do a remarkable job, but I think there are some changes the Minister in the chair should take notice of. Thank you.
I rise to convey the support of the Green Party for this motion. I will not take up too much time of the House; I want to make just a couple of points in particular reference to the role of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment. When we look at the financial allocations that are conveyed to the Auditor-General, the Ombudsman, and the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, we find a certain asymmetry with due regard to the different work that is required to be undertaken by those officers. One might say, in an evolutionary sense, it speaks volumes for the priorities that this country and this Parliament place on those aspects. The audit, for example, absorbs $65 million roughly. Of the total amount allocated annually, the Ombudsman absorbs $9 million and the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment absorbs $3 million—that is to say, $65 million, $9 million, and $3 million.
I mentioned this time last year that the amount allocated for environmental work in this respect is very modest and could be increased. I understand that in a time of fiscal retrenchment there would have to be triage; we would have to find the money from elsewhere, and I believe that needs to be done. I submit that $3 million is not sufficient. The quality of the work of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment remains untrammelled, but the amount the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment could undertake without question could be increased. I also note that the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment budget is held constant over the next 4 years, thereby signalling no change in priority between the environment and other issues. In our view that is unacceptable and the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment should be allocated more than $3 million a year.
We want to commend the Office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment for the truly excellent work it has done over the years, but particularly over the past year. The six or so reports it has submitted have been of a very high-quality indeed, well researched, and well reasoned to logical conclusions. There have been reports on the emissions trading scheme, on the emissions reduction target, on lignite and climate change, on mining the conservation estate, on the draft energy strategy, and on thinking strategically about biofuels. That is not to say the Green Party agrees or agreed with every judgment and every conclusion entered by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment; in fact, we took quite definite exception to one of them—the last-mentioned one on biofuels. But, objectively speaking, we commend the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment and her office for the quality of the work they do. One could almost say it is outstanding.
Before I conclude, I want to propose an undertaking. I would like the House to reflect on this comment, which I also make to the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment and to the academic community in general. There are two proposals I would like to make. The first is essentially that the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment should undertake a new study. I look at the Environment Act 1986 under which the commissioner is appointed in her functions, and I see that the primary function out of seven is the following, as stated in section 16(1)(a): “With the objective of maintaining and improving the quality of the environment, to review from time to time the system of agencies and processes established by the Government to manage the allocation, use, and preservation of natural and physical resources,”. I repeat: “With the objective of maintaining and improving the quality of the environment,”. We then look within the same Act to section 2, “Interpretation”, and we find that “Environment” is defined as the following: “Environment includes—(a) Ecosystems and their constituent parts including people and communities; and (b) All natural and physical resources; and (c) Those physical qualities and characteristics of an area that contribute to people’s appreciation of its pleasantness, aesthetic coherence, and cultural and recreational attributes; and (d) The social, economic, aesthetic, and cultural conditions which affect the matters stated …”. On the basis of that, I would propose for reflection by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment that a study be undertaken by her office and advice submitted independently to Parliament—a study of the economic conditions in New Zealand that affect New Zealand’s ecosystem and its constituent parts, New Zealand’s natural and physical resources, and the physical qualities and characteristics of areas that contribute to the New Zealand people’s appreciation of its pleasantness, aesthetic coherence, and cultural and recreational attributes. The reason I make that proposal is that from the Green perspective, there is a very close and intimate causal relationship between the environment and the economy, and vice versa, between the economy and the environment. I submit to the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment that it undertake a study of the economic conditions of New Zealand essentially that affect the environment and New Zealand’s appreciation of the environment in its aesthetic, cultural, and other dimensions.
The second study I recommend is of a broader matter of interest, but I think it is of considerable interest, we might say, to the integrity of Government. The principal purpose of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment is as stated: the Commissioner has “a unique opportunity to provide Parliament with independent advice in its consideration of any matters that may have an impact on the quality of the environment.”, and we have just defined “environment.” It is further stated that the mission is to “maintain or improve the quality of the environment by providing robust independent advice that influences decisions.”
I have already said that we get very high-quality advice as a Parliament from the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, but I think a question is left hanging in the air as to the extent to which that advice influences not only Parliament but also the Governments of the day. I do not necessarily mean only this current Government; I am talking about Governments since the late 1980s, when the Office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment was established. It would not be appropriate for the Office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment to undertake such a study, but I would like to see a broader, independent academic study undertaken by a university, perhaps, or a group of universities acting in consortium, on the assessment of what advice to Parliament submitted by the Office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment has been adopted by successive Governments since the establishment of the office. Those are my two proposals in the context of my comments on the motion. I reiterate that we support the motion.
Tēnā koe, Mr Assistant Speaker Robertson. In these times of fiscal constraint it is somewhat unusual to speak to a motion in which the appropriations for each of the three votes—Vote Audit, Vote Ombudsmen, and Vote Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment—are to be increased, in accordance with the determination of the Remuneration Authority. These are relatively minor increases in expenditure in the grander scheme of Government spending, but there are some important items in the list that the Māori Party will mention.
Firstly, we welcome the increase of $400,000 to Vote Audit to fund the Pacific Association of Supreme Audit Institutions. We see the support being provided to the Pacific forum to develop the capability and capacity of Auditors-General and their offices in the Pacific as absolutely in keeping with the concepts of manaakitanga and whanaungatanga with our relatives across Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa. It is therefore a pleasing gesture on behalf of the Government.
We note too the need for an additional $160,000 in 2010-11 to Vote Ombudsmen for the re-establishment of the Christchurch office, which was damaged during the quake. The continuing trickle-down effect of the quake is being reflected in every vote, in every appropriation of Government, and, of course, in every home throughout Canterbury. For those of us who live in the Christchurch electorates, I can say only that when we were woken at about 3 this morning by a violent 3.5 magnitude earthquake—
—sorry, I got it the wrong way round; a 5.3 earthquake—we wondered when the rumblings of Rūaumoko would quieten down and allow us to live in a way that resembles normality.
The quake this morning was also the 25th earthquake that Canterbury has had measuring 5 or more on the Richter scale since the 7.1 magnitude earthquake on 4 September. Put that into the total picture of some 5,490 aftershocks in less than 9 months, and is it any wonder that a survey released today from the Southern Cross Healthcare group revealed that 46 percent of Christchurch respondents reported high levels of stress? When one is stressed it is important to have a forum to address concerns and to seek the benefit of advice.
It is this next area of funding, $50,000 this year and $370,000 over the next 2 years, that speaks volumes about the role of the Ombudsman. As electorate MPs we have many cases of constituents who think they have been treated unfairly by a central or local government agency and turn to an Ombudsman for assistance. The extra funding to Vote Ombudsmen is required to clear a continued backlog of cases. I understand there has been some suggestion of a review of the functions and legislation in respect of the Ombudsmen, because the workload is never-ending. I am interested in the views of the Minister on that particular issue, as it certainly reflects the concerns that we get across our table.
Another injection of funding into Vote Ombudsmen that warrants special focus is that related to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which has been mentioned already. This is a new pūtea, an investment of $330,000 in the ongoing programme that my colleague Tariana Turia introduced last year in her capacity as the Minister for Disability Issues. Article 33 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which New Zealand ratified in September 2008, requires the designation of at least one mechanism to monitor the rights of disabled persons. In Budget 2010 Minister Turia secured $2.34 million for the independent promotion, protection, and monitoring of the UN convention. The measures included the establishment of a Disability Rights Commissioner within the Human Rights Commission, a protection and monitoring role for the Office of the Ombudsmen, and resourcing a formalised vote for disabled persons organisations. This vote addresses the enhanced capacity of the Office of the Ombudsmen to monitor disability issues.
I congratulate Tariana on the efforts that have been made in the implementation of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, efforts which have been reflected well in New Zealand’s very first report to the United Nations on that issue. The work she has done is a major step in the measurement of progress in achieving New Zealand’s vision of full participation and improved well-being for disabled persons and their families.
Finally, I signal the Māori Party’s intention to appoint as an officer of Parliament a Parliamentary Commissioner for the Treaty of Waitangi, to proactively promote the Treaty’s commitment to partnership. We have been researching a number of avenues by which to make this possible, either by a member’s bill, which we have drafted to this effect, or indeed as a result of the process in relation to our constitutional review. This motion is ostensibly about ensuring that Parliament is held to account, and about the strength of democracy generally. To this end, we believe that the Treaty commissioner proposal is one that aligns well within the context of this motion.
I am very happy to speak on this motion before the House today. I am particularly happy to speak on it given the constitutional significance of the role of the people we are talking about, particularly the Ombudsmen and the Auditor-General, in determining that public money is spent wisely and prudently, and that the activities of the Government are transparent. It is incredibly important that the activities of the Government are transparent.
The Ombudsmen’s role is never more important than at the times we have a National Government. It is never more important than when we have a National Government, because National Governments do not like being transparent about what they are getting up to. We can tell that by looking at the Ombudsmen’s annual report, and the number of complaints there are about this Government and its failure to release information.
When members of this Government get a tricky question and when they are asked about tricky issues—about what they are actually getting up to behind the scenes—their gut response is to deny, deny, deny. That is why there has been such an increase in the number of complaints being investigated by the Ombudsmen, and that is one of the reasons the Ombudsmen need extra resourcing, which is what this motion is all about. This Government does not like being transparent about what it is getting up to.
I look particularly at the numbers in that report, and why the Office of the Ombudsmen need that extra resourcing. The number of complaints received by the Ombudsmen under the Official Information Act in the past year was 920, which was a 12 percent increase on the year prior to that. The office ended the year with 643 complaints on hand. Fourteen percent of complaints overall were against Ministers of the Crown, which is a significant proportion of the complaints received under the Official Information Act by the Ombudsmen. A significant proportion of complaints were against Ministers of the Crown.
I quote particularly from the Ombudsmen’s report: “People usually require official information for a specific purpose, and often it will lose value over time. Overall, we took on average 120 working days to complete OIA cases,”. That is 4 months or more before people are getting the information, although there is no guarantee they will get the information at the end of that time. It is 4 months in which the office will investigate whether the people should, in fact, get the information.
This Government is using the provisions of the Official Information Act to deny the release of information; it is using those provisions as a blanket rule. If the information is tricky or difficult, or if the Government does not want to release it, the Government simply refuses the request for it. A complaint then goes to the Ombudsmen, and Ministers know they have 4 months. They know they have another 4 months. By basically not complying with the law they can buy themselves 4 more months, in the hope that the issues will go away. That is not democracy in action, and we as a Parliament need to make sure that the Office of the Ombudsmen is adequately resourced to investigate complaints adequately and thoroughly, and ensure that transparency and democracy, and the principles we hold dear in this House, are upheld. They are not being upheld under the current National Government.
I also quote from page 31 of the Ombudsmen’s annual report: “the impact of an increased workload is visible in the age profile of open investigations.” The Office of the Ombudsmen aims for 80 percent of Official Information Act complaints to have been completed at the end of a year, yet in the last year only 45 percent of the Official Information Act complaints it received had been concluded. That means that more than half of the Official Information Act complaints received by the Office of the Ombudsmen had not been finished—had not been completed and had not been fully investigated within the year in question. That figure is of significant concern to this Parliament because it says that the activities of this Government are not being transparently scrutinised. The information about what the Government is actually up to is not making its way into the public domain. Of course, that is not surprising when we find out what Government Ministers are getting up to, and why they do not want to release that information.
There are other avenues, of course, under which members of Parliament and members of the public can obtain information apart from the Official Information Act, but that Act is critical because it is independent of Parliament. Often we have an issue with the interface between written parliamentary questions, for example, and the Official Information Act. This Government refused to release huge amounts of information under written parliamentary questions, in situations where the information would have been released by the last Labour Government. Therefore, the only recourse we have to obtain that information is through the Official Information Act. Of course, Ministers use other excuses as well. John Key’s latest one is to say that an issue is a security issue, and he will not therefore comment on anything, at all. Particularly if it is to do with him, it is just a security issue.
The Office of the Ombudsmen is the body we can go to if we do not agree with something, and if we want a matter investigated. We need to make sure that the Office of the Ombudsmen is adequately resourced to do that. That office, for example, is looking at the moment into whether information about Cabinet Ministers’ conflicts of interest should be publicly released and publicly disclosed.
That is a very interesting topic at the present point in time, because the Government has refused to release information on Ministers’ declarations of conflicts of interest. Therefore, the Ombudsmen have to investigate whether that information should be released. The most recent advice we had from the Ombudsmen—and I am talking of August 2010—was that they thought the information about a Minister’s perceived or potential conflicts of interest should be released. Yet the Government still has not done that. In August 2010 the Ombudsmen said that, yes, in principle they believed that some information about ministerial conflicts of interest and declarations of interest should be released. But the Government has still not done so.
We can say that we want the Office of the Ombudsmen to be resourced adequately, and we can vote it more money, but if the Government then turns round and continues to ignore the office, democracy is not being served. The public of New Zealand have a right to know whether Ministers have interests in the business entities they are dealing with in their ministerial capacities. The public have a right to know that; this Government does not seem to think they should. The reason the Government does not think they should is that John Key set the bar incredibly high for that declaration. He did not declare that he had an interest in Tranz Rail when he was a member of Parliament and was asking questions about Tranz Rail, so that is the standard the Government has adopted: there can be conflicts and there can be private interests, but Ministers should not tell anyone about them, and whatever they do they should not release information about them. That is the standard that has been set by John Key’s Government.
We have seen it time and time again, whether it concerns John Key trying to hide his interest in his so-called blind trust, which can actually be seen through by just about anybody with an interest, Bill English trying to hide the money he was receiving in his housing allowance; Tim Groser having shareholdings in a South American farming company; or Chris Finlayson and matters to do with the judiciary that I will not go into in any greater detail. Clear conflicts of interest exist, yet this Government does not want to tell the public of New Zealand about them, even though the Office of the Ombudsmen said that in principle it thought information in relation to conflicts of interest should be released into the public domain. Pansy Wong is another example of a potential conflict of interest. Members of this Government do not think that that information should have to be released by this Government. I think they are wrong, and the Ombudsmen think they are wrong, yet the Government continues to ignore that advice.
The Office of the Ombudsmen does an absolutely fantastic job on behalf of the people of New Zealand in ensuring that our democratic institutions function properly in upholding the Official Information Act, in particular. I am disappointed that members of this Government seem to think they are above the law when it comes to honouring Official Information Act requests. They seem to think they can simply ignore Official Information Act requests and wait until the Office of the Ombudsmen has time to investigate. That process takes 4, 5, or 6 months; therefore, Government members buy themselves time. They are making decisions on behalf of the New Zealand taxpayer that are potentially worth tens or hundreds, if not billions, of dollars.
This Government wants to hide what it is up to by denying the public the right to have access to that information, and by declining Official Information Act requests and leaving it to the Ombudsmen to determine whether that information should be released. I think this Government should set itself a lower bar than that for the release of information. I think the presumption should be that information is released unless there are very good reasons to withhold it. That is what the Official Information Act says. It is not the principle being applied by members of this Government, but I think they should start adhering to it. Thank you.
It is a pleasure to address this Government motion No. 5 in the House today. I say at the outset how much we on the Opposition benches appreciate the work of the Officers of Parliament. As my colleague Chris Hipkins just said, essentially the work we are talking about here, particularly of the Office of the Ombudsmen and the Office of the Controller and Auditor-General, is the transparency of Government and the accountability of Government, which are critical elements in our democracy. The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment also plays, as my colleague Kennedy Graham noted, a very important role in making sure that issues of a fundamental nature to our lifestyle in New Zealand are raised inside this Parliament.
I note with interest Rahui Katene’s comments in relation to the possibility of an Officer of Parliament to deal with Treaty-related issues. From time to time these ideas arise. Another idea that has been debated in this Parliament recently was the question of whether the Chief Archivist should be an Officer of Parliament, particularly given the changes that the current Government has made to bring Archives New Zealand inside the Department of Internal Affairs. I can absolutely understand both the point Rahui Katene made and those who want to see someone like the Chief Archivist brought in as an Officer of Parliament, because of the independence that being an Officer of Parliament provides, because it is a fundamental check on Government. Constitutional roles to do with the Treaty and Archives New Zealand play such an important part in our constitutional and democratic infrastructure. I think those ideas are worthy of consideration, because we need that independent check within our unicameral system and the Officers of Parliament play an excellent role in that. There is a limit, of course, to what we can cover under an Officer of Parliament - type role. I am not necessarily agreeing with the proposal Rahui Katene put forward, but I think when we look at our overall democratic infrastructure we need to look seriously at the role that Officers of Parliament can play.
The offices we are dealing with today in this particular notice of motion are, as has already been pointed out, the Ombudsmen, the Controller and Auditor-General, and the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment. My colleague Chris Hipkins just finished talking at some length about the Ombudsmen. I will add a couple of points to that. I re-emphasise that it is always quite easy to look at statistics in different ways. The Minister who introduced the motion today, the Acting Leader of the House, proudly stated the difference in terms of the number of complaints involving Ministers, but, as my colleague Chris Hipkins pointed out, there have been 920 complaints about the Official Information Act in the last year of the annual report for the Ombudsmen, which is up from 809. That is 111 extra complaints about the Official Information Act. At a time when there has been a review of the Official Information Act, that is something the Government should be taking seriously. Its responsibilities are to adhere to the law as it stands today and to ensure that information is available as freely as possible. Those delays in responding to Official Information Act requests are nothing to be proud of. It is something we need to do far better on and it is something where technology should allow us to be far better.
I note also that in the annual report of the Ombudsmen over half of the overall complaints dealt with by the Ombudsmen relate to the Department of Corrections. I think we are about to see in the Budget next week the Department of Correction becoming our largest Government department. Therein lies the Government’s economic plan: to make the Department of Corrections the largest Government department. I think that shows that there are some wrong priorities in our society. I think we need to ensure that the Department of Corrections is not our largest department, that we do not have to build ever more jails in this country, and that ever more complaints do not find their way to the Ombudsmen’s office.
In relation to the review of the Official Information Act, it would be good to know from the Government when we will see a response to the Law Commission’s report on that topic. It is a very good report. Sir Geoffrey Palmer released it last year. It is called The Public’s Right to Know, and it is a very important report because the Official Information Act, which came in in 1982, did not foresee the internet and did not foresee the way in which information is now distributed in our society. Although, as the report notes, the fundamentals of the Official Information Act are sound, a number of things could be done to improve it.
I mention one of those now: the issue of the proactive disclosure of information. I strongly believe that that is something that Government agencies can do far better. I simply cannot see why, when a major decision is announced after a Cabinet decision, the relevant documents are not released at that time. Those documents are still subject to the withholding requirements within the Official Information Act, but the fact is that they could be disclosed when a decision is formally announced by Cabinet. I think that that would increase people’s confidence and trust in the institution of Government. It would also save a lot of wasted time for people who make requests for Cabinet papers and background documents if those documents were released at that time. I believe that is the kind of open Government that any party should want to be part of, because it would increase the confidence of the public in our decision-making process. Obviously, the role of technology can assist. We have the situation now where emails, tweets, and text messages are now a part of the record of Government. Ensuring that we have an Act that makes sure those are captured where appropriate is important. There are recommendations within the review about that.
The review also makes another important recommendation, which I would like to think the Government could implement soon. That recommendation is the question of the overuse of the provision for saying that information will soon be publicly available, then for a long period of time to elapse before that information is actually released. I believe—and it is not simply confined to this Government—that stating that information will soon be publicly available is being used as an excuse by the Government and it is not in line with the spirit of the legislation. There are some recommendations in the Law Commission’s report in relation to tightening up that provision. I do not believe that that issue will increase the trust and confidence of the public. The review of the Official Information Act is an important part of the ongoing work of the Ombudsmen. On this side of the House we strongly support the Office of the Ombudsmen in the work it is undertaking, but we need to ensure that the legislation that that office administers is appropriate to modern times. I encourage Mr Power, before he leaves us, to give us some response—I do not mean today, I tell Mr Power, but before he leaves us generally—on what we can do to ensure that the Official Information Act meets the requirements of the modern age and that the Ombudsmen’s office is able to implement it.
The other aspect of this motion that I want to refer to today is the work of the Office of the Controller and Auditor-General. We know that National has kept that office busy—we know that. We have had Pansy Wong and her husband, Sammy Wong; we have had Phil Heatley’s ministerial credit card; and we have had Bill English’s use of his ministerial home. The office has been kept busy. It is a good thing to be able to say today the National Government is contributing to economic growth in this country. The Auditor-General’s office needs a bit more money because National has been keeping it so busy. The Auditor-General’s office has a number of other important inquiries that it would be nice to see it make progress on. The office recently reported on after-hours medical treatment in New Zealand, which is a very important issue. Within that report the office made note of the fact that the accessibility and affordability of after-hours medical treatment are major issues in New Zealand, and they are not getting better under this Government.
Other reports are coming to us in 2011-12 from the Office of the Controller and Auditor-General. There is one on public-private partnershipsand the risks for New Zealand’s public sector. That will be interesting. The main risk of public-private partnerships for New Zealand comes from the National Government wanting to get in and open up schools and the health system to the private sector—
—and prisons—and privatise core Government responsibilities. I look forward to the report of the Auditor-General on the risks of privatisation to New Zealand, because we know there are many risks, particularly under a National Government that is determined to privatise within education, health, and the correctional system. We also have a follow-up on ONTRACK’s maintenance. That is important because we need to look back to when National privatised our rail system and show how poor the infrastructure became, and how when the rail system was bought back enormous amounts of money had to be invested because the privatisation of that core Government asset did not work.
I congratulate the work of the Officers of Parliament. They do an excellent job for us. We need to ensure that they are able to keep up their work, keep up with modern technology, and keep up with the devious actions of the National Government.