21 May 2019

First batch of ministerial diaries due, but scepticism abounds

9:31 am on 21 May 2019

Today marks the deadline for the release of the first batch of ministerial diaries. But some, even within the government's own ranks, are sceptical that it will achieve anything.

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State Services Minister Chris Hipkins says the release of ministerial diaries are part of a drive towards greater transparency. Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

State Services Minister Chris Hipkins said it was part of a drive towards greater transparency and to provide an insight into who ministers were meeting - and about what.

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters said the jury was still out on whether it will actually achieve anything.

"I'll be honest with you - in coalition government there are some things which you enthusiastically support and there's some ideas that you just go along with."

Details of ministers' internal and external meetings have been proactively released, but much has still been omitted.

While lauded by some as a move in the right direction there are still large gaps, as the diaries are primarily limited to meetings with officials, stakeholders, other ministers and journalists.

For example, meetings between political parties on coalition matters are not included.

The extent of the exclusions is also demonstrated by the 13 line disclaimer, which lists the numerous meetings or circumstances under which details of the diary are not released.

Mr Hipkins said the line between ministerial and MP work could be blurry.

"If there is no relationship between the role as a minister and the person that they're meeting, then you really could argue that there's no public interest in that information."

However, the extent of lobbyists' influence is still a grey area.

There is an approved visitor list consisting mostly of lobbyists, industry leaders and former MPs' spouses.

But Exceltium consultant Ben Thomas said while the release was a "big step forward", it was nigh on impossible to capture all interactions.

"It doesn't get close to full transparency because without putting a GoPro on ministers' heads and recording all of their movements like an American cop in the deep south with a body camera on them, you won't know what they're up to every day, every minute of every day."

Another difficulty was that lobbyists were often at big events with hundreds of people, Mr Hipkins said.

"The reality is you never going to have a foolproof, absolutely robust way of recording that type of information," he said.

Saunders Unsworth lobbyist Mark Unsworth has spent decades in and around Parliament and he said he was all for greater transparency.

"However, when you have a new system coming into place like we have now it will take time to settle down."

Greens co-leader James Shaw said the effort to record and release the diaries was worth it but agreed the system would always have holes.

"Sometimes I end up conducting ministerial business when I'm going to get a sandwich and end up having a conversation which may be relevant."

Winston Peters

Winston Peters. Photo: Ana Tovey / RNZ

RNZ looked at who was the busiest, and the number of meetings disclosed by senior ministers from January to March this year.

Mr Peters did not feature in the top five, and in March Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern had four times the number of meetings her deputy did.

He said sensitivities around his foreign affairs portfolio and his role as party leader meant much of what he did could not be disclosed.

"I've had a job of Minister of Foreign Affairs extensively offshore, I will be going overseas three times in virtually a month which I'm doing at the moment, then I have my clinic responsibilities in terms of electorate meetings.

"Then I lead a political party, all of which meetings are not disclosable."