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Should the Treasury asset-sales advice have been released?

By Steven | November 29, 2011

The Chief Ombudsman Beverley Wakem says no. OIA expert John Edwards isn’t so sure. He provides a thorough and thoughtful analysis of her decision here.

Under the OIA, you’re entitled to see almost any information held by the government just by asking for it. To withhold information, the government must point to one of the specific exceptions in the Act (which are about personal privacy, commercial prejudice, damage to the policy-making process and the like) and explain (a) how the release of the information would cause harm to that interest and (b) why the public interest in the disclosure of the information doesn’t outweigh that harm.

As John explains, the government here has pointed to the very nebulous exceptions that protect policy advice. It is easy for the government to make assertions about the evils that will befall us if advice is released prematurely. My impression is that the Ombudsmen are sometimes too ready to accept those assertions. John gives us reasons to doubt the validity of the reasons the government gave here – the reasons that were accepted by the Ombudsmen’s office.

But there is one part of the Ombudsmen’s decision that gives me some comfort:

Whilst there is an exceptionally strong public interest in disclosure of information that may help voters to decide how to exercise their vote, I am not persuaded that the specific information concerned in this case would provide such assistance.

The Chief Ombudsmen was certainly alive to the democratic importance of relevant political information. But she says here, essentially, that there’s not much in this Treasury advice that’s of relevance to the election. If she’s right, then all the criticism her decision has attracted may be unfair (though you could be forgiven for wondering why the government is so keen to withhold it). In a different election cycle, this might have been the storm in a teacup.

As John points out, we will get to see the Treasury advice one day, though of course it’s too late for the election. Then we’ll be able to make up our own minds about its significance and properly evaluate the Chief Ombudsman’s decision…

Topics: Official Information Act | 22 Comments »

22 Responses to “Should the Treasury asset-sales advice have been released?”

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    November 30th, 2011 at 10:20 am

    The thing I found interesting about the issue was that Russel Norman appears to have very little respect for public servants.

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