A little over three years ago the then Prime Minister, John Key, made an off the cuff comment at one of his weekly post-cabinet press conferences that he did have contact with bloggers. It was an interesting statement at the time as it was quite clear Government messages were being channelled directly to websites that were aligned with, and sympathetic to, the National Government’s agenda. I was curious to see what these contacts entailed so lodged a series of Official Information Act requests with the Prime Minister and several Cabinet Ministers to see exactly what was being passed on, and to whom.
Initially some ministers responded revealing minor interactions, while others said they’d had none at all. However some, including the Prime Minister and Ministers Judith Collins and Paula Bennett refused to disclose information. As a result of those responses in April of 2014 I lodged a complaint with the Office of the Ombudsmen to seek its intercession. Now, almost three years later, I have a result - of sorts.
The Office of the Prime Minister has consistently refused to release any of the details I have sought. Its position, via Chief of Staff Wayne Eagleson, has been the information sought fell under the Prime Minister’s position as Leader of the National Party so the information was not subject to the Official Information Act. Mr Eagleson’s position has also been that to provide the information, in the case of interactions with blogger and party pollster David Farrar, it would require the searching of a large volume of correspondence. In a nutshell, any information the Prime Minister’s office held, it was not willing to disclose.
On this point the Ombudsmen have accepted the view of the Prime Minister’s Office with Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier’s view that the threshold for him to check the communications in question has not been met.
Matters have also been further complicated by John Key’s departure from the office of Prime Minister. The Chief Ombudsman did approach Mr English’s office last December to see if he adopted the position of his predecessor. Mr English, via his chief of staff Wayne Eagleson, backed the position of his predecessor and also made the point that given Mr Key’s departure, and that of many of his staff, he couldn’t be certain in what capacity Mr Key made the communications and whether they were official information or not.
Add to this the fact that when a Minister or official ceases office, information that they alone hold stops being official information at that point, and it becomes immediately apparent any formal attempt to use the OIA to elicit details is a lost cause.
So what can we learn from all of this?
Well a lot of the material disclosed in Nicky Hager’s book Dirty Politics probably went through the exact same channels that I tried to use the OIA on. Hager came in for intense criticism, mainly from those who were front and centre in his book over their political machinations, for his ethics and the way he acquired his information. What my use of the OIA shows is that leaks and surreptitious acquisition of evidence is the only way you are going to get political material of this nature that is in the public interest. The Official Information Act won’t overcome political self interest as long as politicians are allowed to determine what hat they’re wearing when they’re using public information for their own political ends. Being a Minister and a Prime Minister is a full time job. Politicians shouldn’t get to finagle the system just so as to protect their political manoeuvring. Governments wield immense power so there need to be adequate checks and balances on those that exercise that power.
The other thing you can deduce from a three year battle over access to correspondence is that the most senior politician in the land probably had something to hide.
Felix Marwick is Newstalk ZB's Chief Political Reporter.