23 Aug 2022

PM's Office responds to accusations over Official Information Act

3:03 pm on 23 August 2022

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's office has publicly released a response to the ombudsman after Gaurav Sharma claimed new MPs were being taught how to avoid the Official Information Act.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at the post-caucus meeting conference on 16 August, 2022.

Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

The response, sent by her office and signed by her chief of staff Raj Nahna, includes details of an agenda for the workshop in question.

Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier last week sought assurances from Ardern and other government ministers after Sharma claimed 2020-intake MPs attended a workshop where they were taught methods for avoiding leaving a paper trail.

The response said Boshier's request for assurances was "based on allegations which misrepresented this panel discussion".

"This workshop was not dedicated to the Official Information Act, rather, it was about the roles of the Labour leader's office and ministerial offices and how these offices can assist MPs with various matters. More specifically, it set out how the leader's office can assist MPs with constituent queries, parliamentary matters like House debates, and other electorate matters."

The letter said an MP at the workshop had sought clarification over how to manage sensitive information about their constituents.

"It was explained that information relating to Ministerial responsibilities is covered by the Act, while information about constituent and caucus matters is not generally covered." (Emphasis included in original letter)

Some few details were redacted from the publicly released version of the letter and agenda, but the letter itself was otherwise reproduced in full.

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Peter Boshier Photo: RNZ /Dom Thomas

Sharma also published a screenshot of a message sent by Minister of Conservation Kiri Allan to the caucus reminding them all written correspondence was subject to the OIA, and "if we are being lobbied on issues by colleagues, especially where we haven't had a yarn, things unfolding through OIA process less than desirable".

He suggested this was proof new MPs were being taught methods to avoid the law, which enables journalists and members of the public to seek records of information held by the government.

Ardern yesterday argued the message was intended to serve as a reminder for MPs.

"We often can be judicially reviewed on the basis on which we make decisions, we do need to make sure that we undertake those decisions with due caution and it's important to make sure colleagues know how seriously we take that as well.

"What you can see there is a minister who is concerned - as a decision-making minister, minister of conservation, remember ... she needs to ensure that no one seeks to compromise that decision-making. It's only appropriate to remind MPs that it wouldn't be appropriate to lobby a decision-making minister."

It was important that MPs had knowledge about how to handle information, she said.

Sharma was today expelled from Labour's caucus for repeated breaches of trust, after he publicly shared information from caucus colleagues.

Ardern's position on the matter was echoed by other Labour MPs who were heading into the caucus meeting to vote on his expulsion, like chief whip Duncan Webb.

"Knowing OIA is an important part of the job and I think that's just a natural part of talking about it and just making sure people know what the rules are," he said.

List MP Ibrahim Omer said he was at the workshop and also backed up that position.

"The class of 2020 got together for the purpose of professional development and that was not the only one, that was probably about the third professional development session that we had and Gaurav was part of the first one that we had in Auckland. So this was really to help the MPs to get around," he said this morning.

List MP Helen White was also at the workshop and rejected the suggestion MPs were being taught to evade transparency laws.

"No, I think that by the time Gaurav was looking at those things he was probably looking through a lens, like, listening differently and that just happens. I've seen that in employment relationships a lot where people just can't, they are no longer feeling anything but looking for those defences so yeah, it's not something that I'm unfamiliar with as a process. People hear what they want to hear, especially when they're angry."

The letter from Raj Nahna also stood by the government's commitment to transparency and accountability.

"This commitment is evidenced through this government's decision to institute the proactive released of Cabinet papers and monthly releases of Ministerial diaries ... in the last Parliamentary term this government answered over 115,000 Written Parliamentary Questions, and over 90,000 this term so far, compared to 41,500 answered by National in their previous term in government.

"This government also ensures that staff understand their obligations and that of their Minister's (sic), to the Official Information Act through information included in induction packs and regular training courses run by DIA, and more recently by your office."

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