Scoop Election 08: edited by Gordon Campbell

On Information Shearing

November 25th, 2011

“If God did not want them to be sheared, He would not have made them sheep”
— Calvera, the bandit leader, explains the nature of campaign politics to Yul Brynner in The Magnificent Seven

In the end, those tired old rugby analogies turned out to be relevant to this election campaign after all. Thanks to the abysmal standard of the refereeing, John Key – the Richie McCaw of New Zealand politics – was allowed to trap the ball and get away with murder. On (a) asset sales, (b) the Epsom tape and (c) the employment (non) effects of raising the minimum wage, the Key government did not release information – including Treasury advice and research paid for by the taxpayer – highly relevant to the main issues of trust and substance in this campaign, and yet no-one penalised them for doing so.

In the end, the watch-dog agencies (the courts, the media, the Ombudsmen’s office) were caught flat-footed. Thanks to them, voters will be casting their votes tomorrow in a deliberately induced state of ignorance about their current leaders, and their intentions.

The Epsom tape affair was bad enough. Safe to say, the media in Australia, the United Kingdom and the US would have decided that the contents of the tape had an over-riding public interest and would have published them, regardless of how they were obtained – and especially in this case, where a plausible defence exists that the taping was not illegal.

At crunch, the mainstream media in New Zealand decided to play ball with the government. One can understand the incredulity of the Australian reporter interviewed by Mediawatch recently, at the sight of the Herald on Sunday editor choosing to ask the Prime Minister for permission to publish the tape’s contents, or not.

If anything, yesterday’s decision by the Ombudsmen’s office not to release the Treasury papers on the asset sales was even worse, and Beverly Wakem’s decision brings her office into disrepute. Contrast her decision to keep the Treasury papers under wraps with the contrary 2005 ruling – also on the eve of an election – by her predecessor John Belgrave.

Back then, Michael Cullen was trying to keep Treasury data about the student loan scheme hidden, and it was John Key who was trying to get the information out into the open. In the light of Wakem’s decision yesterday, John Armstrong’s NZ Herald commentary in 2005 (headlined “Figures Let Key Turn Tables”) makes very interesting reading:

Belgrave’s instruction to the Government is a rare example of a public watchdog’s bite matching his bark. Noting that the public interest was best served by the reports being released before the election, he flexed his limited muscle to compress the traditional 21-day period within which the Government had to respond to his recommendation to a matter of hours.

The Finance Minister had no option but to release the reports. Not to have done so would have exposed Labour to the charge that it was hiding something until after election day. The story would have turned into one of “who can you trust?”

Indeed. And who can you trust on asset sales? In case you’re wondering how David Farrar reacted in 2005, he was all in favour of transparency back then – “Ombudsman Kicks Ass” was his headline – although he didn’t regard the info as being a game-changer. Maybe the Treasury info on asset sales wouldn’t have been an election game-changer this time either, but thanks to Wakem, we’ll never know.

We do know there is one major difference between the two situations. In 2005, interest free student loans was a highly popular policy, sufficiently so as to over-ride the warning signs disclosed in the Treasury forecasts. In 2011, the asset sales programme is a highly unpopular policy with the public, and thus, full disclosure would be far more likely to be politically damaging. For that reason, Wakem’s collusion with the government’s desire for secrecy seems more likely to damage the validity of tomorrow’s election.

Wakem was well aware of the comparisons between her stance on the eve of the election and the one that Belgrave had taken in 2005. At para 82 of her report, she addresses it in this way:

In respect of Dr Norman’s argument, I acknowledge some apparent similarities between this case and the student loans costing case, where my predecessor, the late John Belgrave, formed the opinion that the information at issue should not have been withheld. Both occurred in the run-up to a general election, and both raised the public interest issue of access to official information to promote an informed electorate. In both cases, Ombudsmen agreed to conduct urgent investigations to determine whether the requesters had received the full information to which they were entitled under the OIA.

However, there are some key differences between this case and the 2005 case, the outcome of which was summarised at pages 29-32 of our 2006 annual report. First, and most significantly, the Chief Ombudsman did not accept that sections 9(2)(f)(iv) and 9(2)(g)(i) of the OIA applied in the 2005 case. Secondly, the information at issue in that case, being costings of a specific policy, was fundamentally different in nature to the information at issue in this case. Thirdly, the nature of the then Government’s public statements about the costings and the assumptions on which they were based gave rise to a particularly strong public interest in disclosure.

It is a fundamental principle of the legislation that each case must be considered on its own merits. My decision in this case is based on the specific information at issue; the stage reached in the advisory and decision-making processes; and the information that is already publicly available. Taking these factors together, and for the reasons I have given, my view is that the applicable withholding grounds are not outweighed by the public interest in disclosure.

OK, lets start with that “most significant” key difference. The OIA section 9 subclauses to which Wakem is clinging refer only as to whether the material is deemed – by the Crown – to be part of the confidential advice stream between departments and ministers. In essence, it is an administrative convenience. It is up to Wakem to assess whether maintaining that claim of confidentiality is – in the circumstances – in the public interest. That’s her job. It is not her job to genuflect to the definition and head for the exit.

The rest of her argument is laughable. Costings were at issue in the election of 2005, she says, but this time the information being sought was “fundamentally different” in nature. Yep, that stuff in 2005 was about student loans, this stuff in 2011 is about asset sales. That’s a difference, alright. But surely, not different enough to over-ride the public interest in disclosure on the eve of an election, one would have thought.

Wakem’s third argument is simply outrageous – her claim is that in 2005, the then-Labour government had made public statements about the costings “and the assumptions on which they were based” sufficient to make Belgrave conclude that full disclosure was imperative. Okay but… how can there be any difference in 2011? Hasn’t the Key government also been making claims all year about the costings on asset sales “and the assumptions on which they were based?”

Wakem’s third rationale is actually an argument for full disclosure, and not for continued secrecy. The only conclusion than can be drawn from this decision is that the Ombudsmen’s office operates with one set of rules when it comes to a centre-left government, but has a different set of rules for the Tories.

Try and have a good election tomorrow, regardless. Lets all hope we don’t wake up on Sunday with the trifecta: National with a mandate for asset sales, Banks and Dunne back in Parliament, and MMP down the gurgler. There’s no rational reason for thinking Winston Peters won’t make it over 5%, but it will still be a surprise if he does.

Against the odds, Phil Goff ran a reasonably good campaign without ever looking like a potential winner. Calvera had some advice for him, too: “Your friends, they don’t like you very much anymore. You force them to make too many decisions. With me, only one decision : do what I say.”

Thanks to everyone who clicked on to Scoop for the coverage, and hope to see you again.

********

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    1. 39 Responses to “On Information Shearing”

    2. By Elyse on Nov 25, 2011 | Reply

      A big thanks to you, Gordon, for fantastic coverage. I have learned so much from your posts.
      Anyone who votes for the Nats’ agenda, because of ideology, ignorance, or stubbornness in face of the facts will get the country they deserve, but unfortunately, so will we.
      I’m still hopeful that they won’t get away with the theft of our country.

    3. By D Jones on Nov 25, 2011 | Reply

      Beverley Wakem = PG Wrightsons = Fletchers = Business Round-table = Asset sales. Just a theory.

    4. By richarquis on Nov 25, 2011 | Reply

      Ditto. Election or no election, this is a great place to learn. I’ve been reading your columns consistently for a few yeas now, and will continue to. Always a pleasure.

    5. By Uilleam on Nov 25, 2011 | Reply

      Have just found your blog after a recommendation on FB. Always considered you to be one of the best journos that the ‘Listener’ put in print. Gave that ‘fallen from grace’ rag away once the Editor/APN made their slant obvious. ‘The Press’ is just another unFairfux load of regurgitated codswallop. So, where to for quality reportage/comment? Ha – the Internet and Bloggers, and there you were! Its great, like finding a spring in the Atacama. All power to your pen/keyboard Gordon. As an unemployed teacher/ex journo myself I can’t contribute the $$ but can certainly spread the word. Now to find the others that disappeared from hard copy print!!

    6. By Matt on Nov 25, 2011 | Reply

      Superb stuff. Thanks for the coverage. It has been extremely informative and a pleasure to read. If only mainstream media was this clear on the real issues that matter. Go the Greens!

    7. By Joe Blow on Nov 25, 2011 | Reply

      Thanks Gordon. Your coverage of this election has been wonderfully informative! Much appreciated.

    8. By Tim on Nov 25, 2011 | Reply

      Thanks Gordon- you are always great to read. Keep fighting the good fight. Hope the left wins tomorrow but regardless of the outcome, at least we can vote. Let’s all spare a thought for the Syrians and others who live in dictatorships.

    9. By donna on Nov 25, 2011 | Reply

      Thanks for all the excellent posts. The perfect antidote to the sycophantic Key coverage in the mainstream press. Hopefully the long-term result of teapotgate is that the media start to be more critical of this National government than they have been at any time in the last three years. Remember, John Armstrong, just because Mr Key says something doesn’t mean it’s true.
      Make sure you vote, everyone.

    10. By Jesuswept on Nov 25, 2011 | Reply

      2468
      now we have a banana state

    11. By Ed on Nov 25, 2011 | Reply

      Can I add a voice of thanks too Gordon. Best analytical journalism in NZ hands down. And producing pretty much one piece a day every working day of the election period at this standard too. Amazing. Hope you can get a good rest and come back firing….on Monday!

    12. By lyndon on Nov 25, 2011 | Reply

      Testing/self-promotion
      “Gordon Campbell has been one of the most vigoruous and forensic bloggers through the campaign.”
      http://www.listener.co.nz/nz-election-2011-live/friday-24-november-jack-bauer-v-jed-bartlet-sort-of/

    13. By Anya on Nov 25, 2011 | Reply

      Kia ora Gordon for your all of your insights over the last weeks. You really deepened my focus on the election. Chur

    14. By Andy on Nov 25, 2011 | Reply

      Kia ora Gordon,

      I want to add my praise to the comments above. I appreciate your output which is prolific, informative and of a standard above much of what I read elsewhere. Thank you very much and please keep up the good work!

    15. By Alastair on Nov 25, 2011 | Reply

      Thanks Gordon! As always, your in-depth analysis and focus on the important issues has been second to none!

    16. By Patrick on Nov 25, 2011 | Reply

      Thanks Gordon, great stuff,keep them looking over their shoulders.It’s bad enough that the smug bastards don’t have to account for their deeds but enlist the help of public servants to achieve it.

    17. By Wiremu on Nov 26, 2011 | Reply

      Your diverse and well researched articles are the NZ equivelent of George Monbiot’s writing. Deserves (needs) to be read much more widely.

    18. By jackp on Nov 26, 2011 | Reply

      I think Labour should have been more vocal about the Ombudsman decision. Your right. It is our report, not National’s. It’s also great to get a kiwi’s perspective rather than from a foreign owned newspaper which 80 percent of the newsmedia in New Zealand is from. I listened to a APN reporter living in Epsom and he was so arrogant and had a reason to say the things he said that wouldn’t benefit us. Let’s hope most will see through John Key’s hype.

    19. By Rich on Nov 26, 2011 | Reply

      … so do we conclude that the OIA has become politicised?

    20. By Leon Henderson on Nov 26, 2011 | Reply

      Where the hell in this country, apart from Werewolf, is there any Election Coverage???

    21. By Leon Henderson on Nov 26, 2011 | Reply

      This is a test to see if I am banned.

    22. By Leon Henderson on Nov 26, 2011 | Reply

      Why am I banned???

    23. By admin on Nov 27, 2011 | Reply

      You weren’t banned, i’d just turned off comments during the voting period so we didn’t get in any trouble with the election rules.

    24. By Leon Henderson on Nov 27, 2011 | Reply

      Thank you Admin. I love Werewolf and was Freaking Out of my nutcase thinking I had been banned!!!

    25. By Leon Henderson on Nov 27, 2011 | Reply

      Please Gordon, write us an analyses of the Election Result, and in particular what can be expected to happen now: your pre-Election predictions were breathtakingly precision-accurate, and so we want you to tell us more.

      I personally am absolutely shitting myself with dread.

    26. By Leon Henderson on Nov 27, 2011 | Reply

      Good on ya Billy, Thank You.

    27. By Leon Henderson on Nov 28, 2011 | Reply

      Wiremu, no truer words than what you have written could be said: we are very, very fortunate to have a Thinker and Writer like Gordon Campbell.

      Napoleon said that he was far more afraid of articulate writers than he was of any army, no matter how big the army.

      Gordon, please give Joyce, Key, and their equally montrously hideous pets William English and Peter Dunne both barrels continuously from your literary shotgun!!!

    28. By Leon Henderson on Nov 28, 2011 | Reply

      Gordon, according to a news bulletin of only a few moments ago, John Key is going to recall Parliament before Christmas.

      I feel Sick!!! People, in control of New Zealand/Aoteoroa is literally the Nazi Party!!!

      The New Zealand public have elected a Monster, along with a gang of rotten capitalist crooks, and enormous numbers of the mindless imbeciles who voted for them are definitely going to brutally suffer!!! You Arseholes who voted for them are going to get zer Gummermin that you deserve. Better watch yer putrid backs!!! You filthy Effing Traitors. Remember what happened to the stupid Pensioners after the 1996 Election you Stupid Suckers???

      An English immigrant (he came here in the early 1990′s) who was being interviewed on the James (“Jim”) Mora programme (National Radio) in 2008 expressed absolute amazement that the National Party had been elected. He said: “By God, the New Zealand public have got short memories”, and Mora burst out laughing and said “Yes they have!!!”.

      The rotten, putrid, bags of Utter Scum, the “Swing Voters” have condemned us all for the next three years to have to somehow endure and try and survive the slimy John Key and his mob of extremely dangerous Ratbags.

      One thing is for sure: Australia is going to rapidly get a humungously immense population increase – even far vastly bigger than already every year under the Nazi Party is the case: Boat and Aeroplane People Mass-Exodus!!! People desperately attempting to row bathtubs there using a plank as an “oar”. People trying to get there on rafts. People trying to get there by swimming.

      Gordon Campbell, you are our ears, eyes, voice, and political brain. As has already been said, please write us a “No-Hold’s Barred” article about what you feel is going to happen.

      We, I am sure, would rather know the truth because ostensibly it is supposed to make bad shit “easier” to Face.

      But personally Gordon, I prefer chronic drunkenness!!!

      P.S:

      The Shitful Election Results cannot be changed for the time being, (now I know what Ned Kelley felt like on his Execution Day. His last words were: “If the police had not continuously hounded my family we would have stayed being just horse-thieves” and “Such Is Life”) but there is a way that our mind can be distracted (from it) in a quite substantially awesome way:

      By obtaining the DVD “Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas”.

      It is available on TradeMe on this page:

      http://www.trademe.co.nz/Browse/Listing.aspx?id=419743024

      Otherwise you can find it by looking here:

      I do not know quickstar1 and am not a brother or relative of his. No form of association.

      However, with the NAZI PARTY (the STUPID New Zealand PUBIC: What Stupid, Ridiculous Imbeciles!!! What Vicious Morons!!!) at the top of the Shitheap for the next three years (where is the bathtub and a plank???) we are gonna need to get our minds offa der situation because there is there is a Proverb about “holidays” but I am too drunk to remember what the hell it is!!!

    29. By Elyse on Nov 28, 2011 | Reply

      @ Leon
      Yes Hunter Thompson is a great loss to those of us who challenge the status quo and the movie is brilliant.

      This election result is eerily like 2004 USA when GW Bush got a “mandate” for his nefarious actions (I was living there hoping to escape after a 25 year tenure).It was depressing in the extreme. His infamous statement “I now have political capital and I intend to spend it” was chilling.
      But spend it he did. With 2 years, the economy down the gurgler and his popularity had plummeted. The same will happen with Key. I only hope that he doesn’t take our economy with him.

      Post election adulation from the NZ herald is sickening and alarming:

      Breathless story yesterday on his Saturday night choice of pizza topping, how he regularly orders from Pizza Hut, using his own name. What?????
      Choice of pizza joint befitting the man though, since there’s nothing about corporate America he doesn’t aspire to, and it’s not even the best chain pizza, but then, the man’s choice of music is “easy listening” according to an interview on Kiwifm in 2008.

      and in today’s rag (why do I read it?) a mention of his “speed dating” with various parties at his Parnell “mansion”.
      Aren’t you just so impressed that our PM doesn’t just have a house, but a mansion?
      Is there something in the water that is causing this rash of stupidity in Kiwiland? Is there another planet to move to?

    30. By Leon Henderson on Nov 28, 2011 | Reply

      Hullo Elyse: Thank you for your reply. Elyse, nearly everyone in this country who has got any brains must have emigrated to to Australia, or else, like me, they are getting crippled with drunkenness.

    31. By Leon Henderson on Nov 28, 2011 | Reply

      Elyse, I would rate “Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas” (the Latino Dude – he is absolutely Awesome!!!)as being nearly as Superbly Excellent as “Solarus” by the incredible Russian Genius Andrey Tarkovsky.

    32. By Leon Henderson on Nov 28, 2011 | Reply

      Joe Blow: where are you?

      Joe Blow, there is a famous American “Sea story” writer whose name is Joshua Slocum, and he was apparantly the first man to single-handedly sail around the planet on a sailing-boat.

      When he set out from the United States, he soon encountered a fishing boat whose captain said to him:

      “What? Yer aint got no cat not no dawg?”.

    33. By Leon Henderson on Nov 28, 2011 | Reply

      What Joshua Slocum actually wrote that the Sea Captain said is:

      “What? Yer aint got no cat nor no dawg?”.

    34. By Leon Henderson on Nov 28, 2011 | Reply

      Elyse, how could the people of this country have been so insanely STUPID???

    35. By Leon Henderson on Nov 28, 2011 | Reply

      Elyse: Hunter S. Thompson was possibly the best writer that the USA has ever produced.

      And “Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas”?

      ABSOLUTELY AWESOME!!!

    36. By Leon Henderson on Nov 28, 2011 | Reply

      Joe Blow, where are you? What is your response to the Election Result???

    37. By Leon Henderson on Nov 28, 2011 | Reply

      Elyse, what have the stupid voters of this country done???

      Prior to the 1996 General Election the mass-media went into an absolute maniacal Frenzy of Beneficiary-Bashing, and they poured everything they had into trying to make the Pensioners hate the “Beneficiaries”.

      The stupid Pensioners did not themselves understand that they are also Beneficiaries!!!

      They put the rotten National Party back into “Gummermin”, and the National Party “rewarded” the imbeciles by slashing their Pensions by six-percent!!!

    38. By Leon Henderson on Nov 28, 2011 | Reply

      Elyse, you point accurately at how the corporate mass-media are trying to trivialise politics.

      The mass-media are the Arch-Enemies of the Working-Class people of New Zealand.

      Somewhere you mention John Armstrong of the “New Zealand Herald”, Elyse. Mr. Armstrong is always, like all capitalists, ranting about so-called “freedom and democracy” but he does not practise what he preaches because he banned me from the NZ Herald website.

      The “reason”?

      Swearing?

      No!

      Slander?

      Possibly!!!

      Criticism of the murderous activities of the Jews?

      YES!!!

      What sort of pizza John Key likes!!!

    39. By Leon Henderson on Nov 28, 2011 | Reply

      Elyse, you said that John Key is reported to like “easy listening” music.

      The Fascist Nazi Band!!!

    40. By Jonathan W on Dec 2, 2011 | Reply

      This is grasping at straws for excuses Gordon.

      Do you really think the release of this information would have made a difference? Polls already showed a substantial majority of Kiwis against asset sales, yet they voted for National anyway. Only a small minority would have actually read the treasury report. The rest would have relied on the media, and frankly National did a better job than Labour of spinning the numbers (“show me the money”) so it’s even odds who the release would have benefited.

      But between the low voter turnout and result from those who did vote, I can only conclude that asset sales aren’t an important issue to most people. National made their plans clear, Labour made sure they were well advertised, and the people said … “meh”.

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