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New Zealand’s Right to Information Act, passed in 1982, is meant to provide citizens with greater access to government information. It grants individuals the right to access any information held by government agencies, subject to certain exemptions. This has enabled the public to hold the government accountable for its actions and decisions, as well as to participate more effectively in the democratic process.

It is a vital piece of legislation that ensures transparency and accountability in government operations. However, there are growing concerns, especially voiced in the past few days, since the Stuart Nash imbroglio, that the Act needs to be reformed to include Parliamentary Services under its purview to bring greater transparency on how members of Parliament spend taxpayer dollars.

It may be recalled that a request for information on Stuart Nash’s contact with campaign donors was made after which an email was found, but Nash argued it wasn’t within the scope of the request because the request only covered information held by him as a minister, not as an MP (who is not subject to the OIA). This means that MPs are not subject to the same level of scrutiny as other public officials.

The need for reform is particularly pressing in light of similar scandals in recent years, involving MPs. One of these was the expenses scandal involving a former National Party MP who was found to have used taxpayer funds to pay the salary of a staff member who did not perform any work. This was only discovered because of a leak to the media, highlighting the inadequacy of the current system of oversight.

The lack of transparency around parliamentary spending is a major concern for the public. Taxpayers have a right to know how their money is being spent, and this includes the expenses of members of Parliament. This lack of transparency has led to suspicion and mistrust of elected officials. Many who make Official Information Act requests know how frustrating it can be to obtain enough information from government departments and ministries under the Act. This is particularly true of media organisations.

Therefore, in addition to reforming the Act, there is also a case for making non-compliance punishable under the law with penalties, as has been suggested by certain opposition parties. Currently, there are no penalties for government agencies or departments that do not comply with requests under the Official Information Act. There are fears that this has led to a culture of non-compliance, with some agencies and departments refusing or delaying responses well beyond the stipulated period for responding.

When pointedly asked in Parliament if he would support such a move for penalties to be written into the Act, Prime Minister Chris Hipkins was non-committal.

However, there are challenges to implementing such reforms. Parliamentary services are traditionally seen as being separate from government agencies and departments, and there are concerns about the impact on the independence of the parliamentary system. There are also practical challenges around how to implement the Act in relation to Parliament, given its unique structure and processes.

But these challenges should not be used as an excuse for inaction. Legal professionals and academics have recently said introducing penalties into the Act would promote compliance.
Variations of such a law exists in as many as 72 countries including the UK, Ireland and Canada.

Making non-compliance punishable under the law would help to ensure that government agencies and departments take their responsibilities under the Act seriously. This would encourage greater compliance and reduce the time and resources required to obtain information. It would also send a message that transparency and accountability are non-negotiable principles of good governance.

First appeared in The Indian Weekender, April 7, 2023.