Bryce Edwards: Jacinda Ardern's opaque government by PR

6:42 pm on 10 June 2021

By Dr Bryce Edwards*

Opinion - One of the most important, and scathing, critiques of Jacinda Ardern's government was published this week by senior political journalist Andrea Vance. She reveals how the current administration has become adept and determined at keeping information secret and the public in the dark about crucial issues. You can read her piece here: This Government promised to be open and transparent, but it is an artfully-crafted mirage.

Jacinda Ardern flanked by Grant Robertson, left, and Chris Hipkins, right.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern flanked by Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson, left, and Minister for Covid-19 Response Chris Hipkins, right. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

The gist of Vance's column is that this government portrays itself as open, and has promised much more transparency, but in reality is doing its upmost to prevent the media and public from having access to information and scrutinising what it is doing. She says, "In my 20-year plus time as a journalist, this Government is one of the most thin-skinned and secretive I have experienced."

Vance points to ministers such as Nanaia Mahuta who will not give interviews on important topics (except for exclusives with "cherry picked" journalists) and the refusal to reform the Official Information Act. She also says the government feeds journalists with virtually meaningless press conferences that do not serve the public interest and are distractions from what is actually important.

Her column follows on from several other highly-critical columns by Vance over the last year or so, in which she has challenged the popular narrative about the government's communication techniques. For instance, during the Covid-19 crisis last year, while many were in thrall to the prime minister's use of daily press conferences to convey information to the public, Vance pointed out how unsatisfactory the media events were for journalists who actually needed much more information, arguing that Ardern's forums left many questions unanswered - see: How Jacinda Ardern is using soft propaganda to beat Covid-19.

More recently in March, Vance criticised the government's communications about the Covid-19 vaccine rollout, arguing "the flow of information about the programme is tightly controlled, and heavily politicised" - see: Covid-19 vaccine rollout is a secretive, sluggish spin-fest.

In her latest column, Vance identifies a big part of the problem as being the increased number of communications staff hired by government to massage the media and produce good public relations: "We are up against an army of well-paid spin doctors. Since the current Government took office, the number of communications specialists have ballooned. Each minister has at least two press secretaries. (Ardern has four). In the year Labour took office, the Ministry for the Environment had 10 PR staff. They now have 18. The Ministry for Foreign Affairs and Trade more than doubled their staff - up to 25. MBIE blew out from 48 staff to 64." She points out that the rebranded NZ Transport Agency, now Waka Kotahi, has increased its PR staff from 26 to 72.

Vance's column parallels my own column for the Guardian, published about 18 months ago, in which I suggested that politicians on both sides of the divide had become too dependent on their spin doctors - see: New Zealand's year of style over substance.

I pointed to the rise of PR and communications as an industry that is overshadowing journalism: "New Zealand now has many more public relations practitioners than journalists. The latest census results show about 8000 people work in PR, greatly overshadowing the roughly 1600 journalists working in print and broadcasting. Other calculations have put the ratio of PR-to-journalists at 10:1. Many of the PR professionals work directly for the politicians, government departments, or local government authorities."

For more on the general increase in consultants and contractors in government agencies see Phil Pennington's Police, Defence Force and Transport Agency contractor spending up by at least 15%. According to this, "Oranga Tamariki's review shows its communications team exploded, from 16 staff to 35, with the salary bill doubling to $3.6m."

Ministry of Health public relations

The Ministry of Health provides an excellent case study in how government departments deal with the provision of information to the public. Vance writes that communications staff in Health are "notorious for stymieing even the simplest requests. Health's information gatekeepers are so allergic to journalists they refuse to take phone calls, responding only (and sporadically) to emails".

This week has seen the Ministry of Health told off by Public Service Commissioner Peter Hughes for damaging the department's public reputation in its handling of a report on mental health. Communications staff had removed important information from the report, and significantly delayed its release - see Henry Cooke's Public service watchdog won't hold inquiry into mental health report, but criticises Ministry of Health for harming public confidence.

This followed on from media investigations that revealed the quite extraordinary story of how senior officials battled for two years to remove data from a report on mental health, seemingly because it made the government look bad. You can see the original article by Henry Cooke here: 'A lot of data and negative statistics': Inside the battle behind dramatic edits and huge delays to a Government mental health report.

The restructuring of the health system means there is a greater need for information and debate. But current members of district health boards probably will not be participating, as they have been gagged by the Public Service Commission (previously the State Services Commission), which has implemented a new code of conduct to prevent health board members from making "political comment" - see Cate Broughton's Ban on DHB members making political comment may prevent criticism of health reforms.

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Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

Blogger No Right Turn has hit out at the ban, pointing to the fact that most of the board members are elected: "so political comment is literally their job, just as it is for local authority members. And this sort of gag order is simply completely inappropriate. It's like trying to gag MPs. But then, control-freak Labour is so afraid of criticism they'd probably try that if they thought they could get away with it" - see: An inappropriate gag.

The Ministry of Health is also criticised by the Otago Daily Times' Elspeth McLean, who at the end of last year, shared some of her experiences in trying to get information from the communications staff there, which she sums up like this: "the Ministry of Health has long been intent on playing down anything controversial, dragging out any response to any questions delving under the surface as long as it can" - see: Public deserves openness, respect.

Arguments against Andrea Vance

Not everyone is pleased with Andrea Vance's column this week. Labour Party activists and supporters have taken issue with her critique of Ardern's opaqueness, arguing it's not as bad as she suggests.

Writing on the Labour-friendly blog The Standard, Greg Presland chides Vance for not putting all the positive things about the government's record in her column, concluding "attacks on the Government without providing very important context is not something an independent media engages in" - see: Openness and transparency.

Nanaia Mahuta on Budget Day 2021.

Vance says Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta will not give interviews on important topics (except for exclusives with "cherry picked" journalists). Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

On issues such as Nanaia Mahuta not giving interviews about China, Presland argues: Vance "did not seem to comprehend that the same week that Mahuta was planning to release reports on the future of the country's drinking water may not have been a great time to seek time for an interview about China. I suspect it was not planned. It was just that Mahuta did not have enough hours in the day to contemplate an interview."

An even more hostile account is put forward by activist Gerard Otto, who concludes: "Vance wrote a lazy article for lazy minds who do not think critically and who are easily mislead by any old opinion from a bitter, twisted and vengeful media" - see: Andrea's artfully crafted mirage.

As well as putting forward several justifications for why the Labour government might not want or be able to be fully transparent, Otto provides some useful counter-evidence about compliance with Official Information Act: "Did you know that by the 2nd half of 2018 - 95% of all Official Information Act requests were completed on time under Labour, compared with only 91% in 2015/2016 under National?"

Finally, about a year ago, Stuff put together a useful article of who are the powerful comms staff behind the politicians in the Beehive - see: Inside the spin-room: Who is who in the Government's PR team.

*Dr Bryce Edwards is Political Analyst in Residence at Victoria University of Wellington. He is the director of the Democracy Project.