Complacency on Open Government a risk to democracy – Helen Clark

Building on our work on open government over the last couple of years, the Council helped organise a public discussion with Sanjay Pradhan, the CEO of the Open Government Partnership, the former Prime Minister Helen Clark, and others. The event was titled ‘Strengthening Democracy through Open Government’, and was held at Victoria University of Wellington on 13 April 2023. We have now published the video recording of the event – see links below.

There were useful contributions from all of the panellists who spoke at the event, and we have highlighted some of the most signifcant ones below.

Former Prime Minister – now Ambassador for the OGP – Helen Clark made several important points.

First, that people in New Zealand should ‘not think the pressures that democracy is under in our world are not pressures that affect us.

Noting that New Zealanders are complacent about these issues, Ms Clark continued, ‘Let’s face it, we’re always a bit prone to the “she’ll be right” attitude here. Well, she won’t be right unless there’s eternal vigilance, I guess is the message.’

Second, the former PM addressed the lobbying issues recently highlighted by the departure from government of Stuart Nash:

I think it’s got away from New Zealand, you know. Regulation is most definitely needed … We need a law.

I mean, we need legislation, we need cooling off periods, we need things that other democracies have put in place to guard against undue influence.

The third issue highlighted by Ms Clark was the progress finally being made on openness of beneficial ownership – knowing who really controls the companies, partnerships or trusts we deal with. Describing the absence of regulation on this as a ‘huge hole’, the former PM said that she is ‘glad to see’ a commitment on beneficial ownership in New Zealand’s current OGP Action Plan. However, this was tempered by the observation that,

If I look at the state of affairs in New Zealand, New Zealand would not be able to comply with the standard of the Extractive Industry’s Transparency Initiative, which I chair globally, and which I do think, by the way, New Zealand would benefit from joining.

The visiting Chief Executive of the Open Government Partnership, Sanjay Pradhan, began by highlighting the scale of the problem around the world:

Freedom House reports 15 consecutive years of decline in democracy and civil liberties. An astonishing two-thirds of the world’s population today live in countries that are non-democratic or where democracy is backsliding.

Mr Pradhan said the OGP was aiming to convene a ‘global coalition of nations and leaders that are renewing democracy, forging a countervailing force against the rise of authoritarianism.’ Saying ‘New Zealand has the international credibility to be a co-leader’, Mr Pradhan nevertheless highlighted that,

The flip-side of a strong international reputation is the risk of complacency.

Addressing one of the key concerns the Council has about work on OGP issues in Aotearoa, Mr Pradhan went on to say that,

It is vital that New Zealand has decided to reform its multi-stakeholder forum. We have credible, compelling, evidence from 10 years of OGP that robust and equal government and civil society collaboration, underpinned by strong leadership commitment and adequate resources, leads to ambitious reforms and strong results.

After acknowledging ‘the frustration that civil society have experienced’ Mr Pradhan said,

There is an unusual design in New Zealand which is on the Expert Advisory Panel, which are experts, advisors to government on a confidential basis. That needs to be opened up, because if civil society has to work on a confidential basis it defeats the purpose of their role in soliciting broader community input.

Mr Pradhan concluded that,

New Zealand really can be a global leader in democracy and openness that our world really needs today. But in order to get there, it needs to stretch in a few areas like lobbying, like beneficial ownership, and like improving its domestic co-creation process.

The third guest speaker was Helmut Modlik, CEO of Te Rūnanga o Toa Rangatira, an iwi based in Porirua. Mr Modlik spoke about the problems of our democratic system not delivering ubiquitous outcomes, and the need for ‘strengthening our democracy through subsidiarity’. Acting on Ngāti Toa’s belief in modelling the change you want to see in the world, Mr Modlik highlighted the work the iwi is doing, partnering with The People Speak, to champion a ‘safe-to-fail experiment’ in participative and deliberative democratic processes.

The Iwi and The People Speak have developed a Polynesian model for a participatory and deliberative process that adopts the idea of a talanoa – a community gathering to discuss any issue – with a wānanga or citizens’ assembly that would take the three houses form outlined in the Maitike Mai report:

Our proposition is that we’re repurposing the international model and applying a Treaty house model. Where we’ve got – the proposition is that we’ve got – a rangatiratanga house or assembly deliberating, and then we’ve got our tangata Tiriti house: they’re deliberating. And then once we’ve done that we’ll come together, and then we’ll compare notes and korero until we’ve exhausted ourselves or agreed, or both, and then we’ll go forward from there.

You can find out more about Ngāti Toa and The People Speak’s work on this here.

NZCCL’s Deputy Chair, and Senior Associate of Victoria University’s Institute for Governance and Policy Studies, Andrew Ecclestone went back to basics. Pointing out that the Public Service Act now makes it a statutory duty for the chief executives of government departments to ‘foster a culture of open government’, he said that it was crucial that we are clear on what ‘open governmment’ and ‘transparency’ mean.

Open government has three components.

It’s public participation in the development of policies and services.

It’s public accountability.

And both of those pillars are resting on a foundation of access to government information. Information that is held by public authorities in our name, and who act on our behalf.

So open government is fundamentally about the transfer of political power from executive government to the public and civil society so that they can participate in the governance of their own country and in the services they receive, and hold governments to account.

Open government, if it’s taken seriously – and that means far more emphasis on public participation in designing the policies and services – is about helping us overcome the fractures that we face in society.

Turning to the consistent claims of ‘transparency’ for publishing some Cabinet papers and briefings to ministers, Mr Ecclestone said that

Transparency is not an act of publication, it’s an act of communication.

For a government to be transparent meant making sure that when it publishes information it does so in a way that makes it easy to find, and in accessible formats, and in language that is understandable by the people the information is aimed at.

When asked at the end of the discussion to provide a final message, our Deputy Chair linked back to the speeches from Mr Pradhan and Ms Clark, and said,

Last week, the Prime Minister stood up and said ‘We’re going to do a policy review on lobbying law.’ The OGP has, in its rules, the ability to add a new commitment to an action plan after it’s adopted: they call them ‘challenge commitments’. The Prime Minister should say, “We will put our policy development on lobbying law into our open government action plan and develop it with deliberative public participation.”

Suzanne Snively, former chair of Transparency International NZ, and member of the government’s Expert Advisory Panel on Open Government, highlighted the lack of action on key issues identified in TI NZ’s major report in 2013, the National Integrity Systems Assessment.

Assessing progress after 5 years, in 2018, Suzanne said,

We had found that there were some changes made, but quite frankly the overriding perspective that was in this, is that New Zealand is far too passive and complacent about these things that matter. As Helen said, the amount of resources in New Zealand which are lost because of our inability to address beneficial ownership, are probably between five and ten percent of our GDP, at a minimum.

Why does this happen?

It happens because the nefarious out there love a vacuum. They love loose legislation. They love passive democracies.

Concluding with a call to action for all attending, Suzanne said,

We’ve now got to say, “It’s getting too late. If you want to strengthen democracy, you’ve got to … go away tonight and be effective, energetic, and – importantly – engaging, so that more people than just those of us here tonight can make a difference.”

Video recordings

We’ve published separate video recordings of the contributions made by the first three panelists, as well as the recording of the contributions made by our Deputy Chair, Andrew Ecclestone, and Suzanne Snively, a member of the government’s Expert Advisory Panel on Open Goverment. The latter also includes the question and answer session following the speeches.

We are happy with the event, which had lively and though provoking contributions from the panel members, and good questions from the audience. We are sorry the Minister for Public Services had a prior engagement, but are glad that he met with Mr Pradhan and Ms Clark earlier in the day.

Please share the videos with people you think will be interested in the discussion about strengthening our democracy and improving New Zealand’s performance as a member of the Open Government Partnership.

If you would like to get involved with work on delivery of the 4th National Action Plan, visit the government’s website and contact the Public Service Commission. If you would like to help the NZCCL work on this topic, please get in touch.

Sanjay Pradhan, CEO, Open Government Partnership

Rt Hon Helen Clark, Ambassador for the Open Government Partnership

Helmut Modlik, CEO, Te Rūnanga o Toa Rangatira

Recording of Andrew Ecclestone & Suzanne Snively, plus the Q & A

Recording of the complete event


  • Sanjay Pradhan, Chief Executive Officer, Open Government Partnership
  • Rt Hon Helen Clark, Ambassador, Open Government Partnership
  • Helmut Modlik, Chief Executive Officer, Te Rūnanga o Toa Rangatira
  • Andrew Ecclestone, Deputy Chair, NZ Council for Civil Liberties and Senior Associate, Institute for Govenance and Policy Studies
  • Suzanne Snively, Member, NZ Open Government Partnership Expert Advisory Panel


Dr Barbara Allen, Deputy Head, VUW School of Government

Event description:

Aotearoa New Zealand is regarded by others as being one of the most transparent, least corrupt, and most democratic countries in the world. But perceptions of these issues amongst people living in Aotearoa New Zealand can diverge, and there is a risk that governments have been resting on their laurels. What does ‘open government’ mean? What does it mean in the context of Te Tiriti o Waitangi and tino rangatiratanga? What lessons can Aotearoa New Zealand learn from democratic backsliding in other countries? How can we make progress on public participation beyond voting in elections? And what new opportunities and challenges await us on the horizon? Join this panel of domestic and international leaders as we consider these issues, in light of Aotearoa New Zealand’s recent fourth national action plan for open government.

NZCCL organised this event in collaboration with the Victoria University of Wellington School of Government, Trust Democracy, Transparency International New Zealand, and the Open Government Partnership.