Thursday, July 01, 2010

No transparency on Cabinet conflicts of interest

Last month I blogged about John Key's refusal to answer questions about conflicts of interest in his Cabinet. This was unacceptable. The Cabinet Manual lays out a clear standard for Ministers: they must "ensur[e] that no conflict exists or appears to exist between their personal interests and their public duty". But in order to ensure that that standard is adhered to, we need to be able to see that our Ministers aren't corrupt. And we can't do that if the entire process is cloaked in a veil of secrecy.

So, I filed an OIA request for specific information on the handling of Cabinet conflicts of interest in accordance with Cabinet Manual rules. Today, I got the response:

I am refusing your request in the first instance under section 18(f) of the Official information Act, as providing the information sought would require substantial collation and research. In supporting the Prime Minister and Ministers to identify and manage any conflicts of interest that may arise in relation to their portfolios, or ministerial responsibilities, or in the context of general decision making at Cabinet and Cabinet Committees, the Cabinet Office receives a relatively large number of queries and requests for advice on issues as they arise. For this reason, my concerns about substantial collation and research would not be any different were I to consider charging for the information.
On the one hand, this is just a blanket refusal, a more polite way of saying "fuck off and die". On the other, its also an admission. The barrier for refusal on the grounds of "substantial collation and research" is very high [PDF], to the extent it is considered by the Ombudsmen to be "a provision of last resort". Agencies have a legal duty to consult and see if the request can be narrowed, the timeframe extended, or a charge set - something they naturally failed to do here. But if we are to take their claim at face value - that it would require so much work that no amount of money could possibly enable them to do it - then we can only conclude that conflicts of interest and potential conflicts of interest are absolutely pervasive throughout the National Cabinet.

In fact, I think its more of the former than the latter, a conclusion backed by their providing a long list of reasons (privacy, confidentiality, Cabinet collective responsibility, confidentiality of Ministerial advice, and free and frank expression) for why they would not provide anything even if they did do the research. This suggests that they simply don't want to release anything, that they want to keep us from seeing and judging for ourselves whether our Ministers are clean. That does not build trust in government, and it does not promote the accountability of Ministers to the public. But it serves the interests of those among them with conflicts of interest very well indeed.

Naturally, a complaint has been filed with the Ombudsmen. In the meantime, I'm looking at other avenues of attacking this. Watch this space.