Newsroom Pro's 8 things: Disappointing start on transparency; Very dry start to summer

In today's email, we cover look into how the new Government's early delivery on transparency has been poor, despite its promises.

1. A disappointing start

Newsroom's Sam Sachdeva set the news agenda yesterday with his story (first published on Newsroom Pro) on how Jacinda Ardern's office had refused Newsroom's request under the Official Information Act to see a 38 page addendum to the Government's official coalition agreement with New Zealand First. That's despite Winston Peters saying it would be made public.

The Prime Minister and the New Zealand First Leader appeared together at the post-cabinet news conference yesterday to again deny a growing public clamour to see the document.

The existence of the 38-page document was first revealed by Peters the day after Labour and New Zealand First signed a more slender eight-page public coalition agreement.

Speaking to media on that day after the allocation of ministerial portfolios, he described it as “a document of precision on various areas of policy commitment and development”.

“These are directives to ministers with accountability and media strategies to ensure that the coalition works, not in a jealous, envious way, ‘We got this and they got that’, but as a government successively, cohesively working. We’ve put a lot of thought into it, in fact day one of our negotiations that was the first subject we raised, how are we going to handle a cohesive coalition arrangement?”

At the time, he said the document was still being finalised, but would cover the appointment process for diplomats.

Peters said then the document would be made public, saying it was “for the province of the Prime Minister to release”.

In response to an Official Information Act request from Newsroom seeking the document’s release, Jacinda Ardern’s adviser, Heather Simpson, said “the Prime Minister does not hold any such official information” and refused to release any document.

Ardern again refused to release the document at the news conference. She insisted the eight page coalition agreement covered everything to which the two parties had formally committed.

The document Peters referred to, she said, were merely “notes” made during the course of discussions, yet to be finalised.

“Where we’ve committed ourselves to a piece of work and a policy piece of work, we’ve released that. Where there’s more work to be done, that will be released at the time when we’ve reached a conclusion.”

That’s a different tone to that struck by Peters on October 25, when he described it quite clearly as a “document of precision on various areas of policy commitment and development”, providing “directives to ministers”.

Sam rightly challenged that at the news conference and in his opinion piece first published this morning on Newsroom Pro.

He wrote that Ombudsman’s OIA guidelines state specifically that official information can cover draft documents. It makes no distinction between a “formal” document and an informal one that is still driving government decision-making.

Labour and New Zealand First sold their “official” agreement to the public as the sum total of the concessions that had been made to form coalition government.

As it turns out, ministers and their officials may be beavering away on dozens more policies as a result of horse trading, without any transparency over what they are or how much they may cost.

Ardern tried to argue it was right to keep that information from the public: “There are other areas that we may explore together that may be found to be unworkable, that may be found to just be fiscally irresponsible, that may never be progressed.”

But simply because a policy the Government is actively considering may turn out to be “fiscally irresponsible” is not a reason to keep it out of the public’s eye.

Ardern further sought to downplay the significance of the document by saying she had not had it in front of her since she was opposition leader, and that it had not been distributed to ministers.

But the Ombudsman’s guidelines do not consider that to be a disqualifying factor when it comes to official information: they note that the definition can cover information known to a minister or agency yet not recorded in writing, “including knowledge of a particular matter held by an officer, employee or member of an agency in their official capacity”.

If it is in their heads, and they are using it to make official government decisions, then we are entitled to know about it.

2. So what does Winston say now?

Peters offered little in the way of support for Ardern at yesterday's news conference.

His most notable contributions were to point out the document was actually 33 pages long, not 38, and to make a reference to the Bible and a country with a fallen dictator.

"I mean Moses came down from the mountain, he only had 10 Commandments, right? But there's a lot in the Old Testament as well. Get it?

"I'm only here because the Prime Minister asked me to be here. This is not Zimbabwe all over again."

It was about as clear as the reasoning for keeping the document back in the first place.

3. It was supposed to be different

National leader Bill English has been quick to criticise the Government for a lack of transparency - somewhat hypocritically, some would argue, given his own Government faced criticism of its own for withholding some official information.

Yet, Sam writes, English is right to point out that Labour has set a high standard for itself, pledging in its confidence and supply agreement with the Greens to “strengthen New Zealand’s democracy by increasing public participation, openness, and transparency around official information”.

Adding insult to injury is the Government’s approach to written questions lodged by opposition MPs.

As Newsroom first noted last week, National MPs have put forward over 6000 written questions to ministers in the weeks since Parliament has resumed.

Most initially blamed the Opposition for “spamming” the Government, but the reality seems a little more nuanced. For instance, MPs have asked ministers for a list of their meetings over a three-week period, only to be asked to be more specific. Reducing the request to a few days, they received a similar answer; reducing further to one day, the same again.

Now, Police Minister Stuart Nash has refused to answer a question on the grounds that “the time and hence the expense of answering this question cannot be justified given the nature of the question”.

As Wellington lawyer Graeme Edgeler has argued at Public Address, National is justified in asking for information about ministers’ meetings, and the Government’s response has been unnecessarily inflammatory.

For a Prime Minister who campaigned on relentless positivity, Ardern and her team may want to avoid resorting to the same old obstructionist tactics of Governments past, Sam writes in summary.

He is right on the money, in my view. The new Government promised better and its early delivery on transparency has been poor.

Ardern said yesterday the Briefings to Incoming Ministers, which give a rare and useful insight into the issues faced by the new Government, are likely to be released next week. That is six weeks after they were delivered and another poor performance.

4. Where to now for social investment?

It was Bill English's big new idea and helped him present a fresh face to voters in September with an intuitively clever solution to the big problem of entrenched inter-generational poverty.

However, the Social Investment approach was not new to Bill English. He had been talking up the idea inside and outside cabinet for more than three years and had begun in earnest over the last year to set up a specialist Social Investment Agency. He was trying to implant the DNA of the approach throughout Social Development, Health, Education and Justice, and had only just started to roll it out when the new Government was formed.

Perhaps surprisingly, the new Labour Social Development Minister Carmel Sepuloni has pledged to keep the approach and the new agency, albeit with a different emphasis on improving results for those in poverty, rather than reducing the long term welfare liability for all taxpayers.

Newsroom's National Affairs Editor Shane Cowlishaw has looked again in more depth at the issue in his piece this morning on the New Zealand Initiative's latest report on the future of Social Investment.

Bryce Wilkinson's full report, Welfare, Work and Wellbeing: From Benefits to Better Lives, is here. He will formally launch the report tonight at the NZ Initiative's offices in Wellington and host a discussion with Sue Bradford. There may be some heat and light generated at the event, which can be registered for here.

Wilkinson generally supports the approach, but makes the point that the welfare of those who have moved off the benefit and into work should be monitored better. He also pointed out the previous Labour Government used the idea without calling it Social Investment.

"The 1999-2008 Labour-led government promoted the social investment concept before the National-led government adopted the term," he said.

However, Wilkinson wants to retain the welfare liability measure.

"It is the only one that requires statistical assessments to be made of the sustainability of moves out of the benefit system. To not retain this complementary measure would be to throw the baby out with the bathwater," he said.

I've got a feeling the actuaries doing this work for the Government will not be out of a job.

5. Could a summer drought lead to recession?

I was surprised to find yesterday as I took off from Wellington Airport to go to Auckland that the grass around the runway and on the playing fields around Miramar and Kilbirnie were remarkably brown. There has been little rain in recent weeks, meaning the wet spring weather has quickly burned off the soil moisture.

Upon looking at the NIWA soil moisture anomaly map, I discovered this dry spell is worse than usual in many parts of the country and quite severe so early in the summer.

It shows the east coasts being very dry, with much of Northland, Taranaki, Hawkes Bay, Manawatu and Canterbury being particularly dry. But surprisingly, Waikato and Taranaki are also very dry. New Zealand often goes into a recession at the same time as a bad drought, including in the 2007/08 summer ahead of the Global Financial Crisis. It's still early days, but the map below indicates drought is imminent or close in Hawkes Bay, Manawatu and central Canterbury. The key dairying regions of Taranaki and Waikato, which are mostly not irrigated, are particularly vulnerable.

6. Briefly in the political economy

Crowd indebted - The Financial Markets Authority published its first set of statistics on the fast-growing crowd funding industry, including both equity funding and debt funding platforms. It reported the platforms had lent $259.9 million to individuals and $29.5 million to businesses. More than one in 10 of the loans were either in arrears or had been written off.

Operating Environment - Ministry for the Environment Chief Executive, Vicky Robertson, announced the appointment of Claire Richardson as the Ministry’s new Chief Operating Officer.

More milk from fewer cows - DairyNZ reported its national statistics for the year to June, including that the national herd fell to 4.86 million from 4.99 million the previous year, but that average production per cow rose to 381kg of milk solids from 372 kgs the previous year.

7. Coming up...

Parliament resumes at 2pm today for a four week session until the end of the year. The parties hold their weekly caucus meetings this morning.

The Reserve Bank is scheduled to publish its half yearly Financial Stability Report on Wednesday morning at 9 am. It is expected to detail the potential conditions for a relaxation of its Loan to Value Ratio restrictions.

Statistics New Zealand is scheduled to report building consent figures on Thursday morning at 10.45 am.

Finance Minister Grant Robertson is scheduled to give a speech in Auckland on Friday. Ardern said yesterday it would be a major speech where he would announce the date of the half year fiscal update and the Budget policy package (HYEFU).

8. The morning round up of links

These are available in the subscriber email