Sir Geoffrey Palmer says the Official Information Act is showing signs of its age and it is in “serious need of refreshment”.
In an address to Transparency International New Zealand in Wellington this week, the former prime minister said very few changes have been made to the 1982 Act.
“Despite two Law Commission reports on improving the Act, there has been clear political resistance to making changes and freeing up further the release of information.
“There is disquiet about the administration of the Act within the journalistic community and the Chief Ombudsman conducted an investigation published in 2015,” he said.
Sir Geoffrey believes the Act is not doing what it was intended to.
“Despite the fact that New Zealand has had the Official Information Act since 1982, it is still often difficult to get information about public affairs in a timely fashion.
“With some ministers the Act tends to lack support and acceptance. Some simply evade its requirements.
“Successive governments have resisted efforts to improve the Act. Yet a strengthened Act would increase protection against corruption and questionable decision-making in both central and local government.”
In September last year Sir Geoffrey and Andrew Butler launched the book A Constitution for Aotearoa New Zealand which proposes a written, codified, Constitution for New Zealand which the authors have drafted and included in the book.
The work has sold out of its first run and is being republished.
Redraft the whole Act
Sir Geoffrey told Transparency International politicians needed to start at square one with the Official Information Act.
“We believe that redrafting the whole Act is essential if real progress is to be made in improving access to official information.
“Redrafting the Act is not a job for the Constitution. The work has been done and the Act needs to be reconstructed.”
Sir Geoffrey also told the meeting strong state institutions are critical to promoting the respect of the public.
“We think the constitutional position of the public service needs constitutional protection. The current state of the New Zealand public service is not satisfactory.
“I have been saying for some years now there needs to be a Royal Commission into it. But more than that there needs to be cemented into the Constitution some principles that protect it from total ministerial control.”
He added that there has been “an absence of free and frank advice offered to ministers in recent years”.
“If ministers do not receive free and frank advice there is a real risk that this will promote a tendency to politicise the public service and endanger its independence, thereby adversely affecting the quality of advice given and decisions taken,” he said.
“The public service should not be seen as a tool of the government of the day used to justify policy decisions; rather, an independent service working for the good of the country as a whole.
“The public service should serve up various options for dealing with issues and the ministers should choose between them. That is how a public service in the Westminster is supposed to work.”
Sir Geoffrey and Mr Butler are calling for further submissions to their draft constitution, with hundreds already being received. The deadline is 1 December 2017. Thereafter, the authors will produce a redrafted Constitution.