The Child Poverty Action Group, Greenpeace, Forest and Bird, JustSpeak, New Zealand Council for Civil Liberties and Amnesty International are calling for a comprehensive, independent review of the Official Information Act 1982 (the OIA) following growing concern that it’s not fit for purpose.
The OIA is used every day by journalists, charities, activists, the curious, and by people wanting to know about government actions and policies that affect their lives.
Submissions to a recent review by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) highlighted serious issues, including:
- Excessive deletions in released information. Although the OIA contains grounds for withholding information, there is concern information is withheld for reasons not allowed by the Act, such as when it is seen as potentially controversial or politically damaging.
- Delays – requests are meant to be answered within 20 days at the most. This is important; holding Government to account requires timely information.
- Investigations into complaints by the Ombudsman's Office taking a long time.
- The need to expand the OIA to include bodies carrying out public functions such the auditor-general.
Amnesty International Campaigns Director Lisa Woods says it is a crucial piece of legislation.
“It is a vital tool for holding government to account, and is sometimes the only tool available to bring to light concerning actions by those in government. However, there are serious problems with the OIA, and this is preventing the Act from doing what it was designed to do – make government more transparent.”
Thomas Beagle, Chair of the New Zealand Council for Civil Liberties says the MoJ Review threw up a range of significant issues.
“Given the number and seriousness of these issues it is essential any review is comprehensive, meaning that the whole OIA and the system it operates in is reviewed, rather than just a single part of the Act. It is also essential that the review is carried out by an independent body.”
Thomas also notes there are also practical considerations for a review due to changes in technology.
“When the OIA was drafted there weren’t the screeds of information there are today created by technology, such as email. Wading through this data to respond to even a simple OIA request can take considerable time. Emails have been around for some time, it’s time for an update to this legislation.”
And Lisa says Aotearoa isn’t living up to its global reputation.
“We are ranked one of the least corrupt countries in the world but our OIA legislation risks letting us down. If we are to have a well-functioning system where all people have equal access to information it must be readily available and openly given. We want a system where requests from all people and groups – whether from the perspective of a journalist, charity, business or government – is weighed fairly.”