I have been critical over the years of the Reserve Bank’s approach to Official Information Act requests. I made mention of it, in passing, just this morning. The long-established practice had been to withhold absolutely anything they could conceivably get away with, and to delay as long as possible anything they really had to release. The presumptions of the Act (well, specific provisions actually), of course, operate in the opposite direction.
In the last couple of weeks I had lodged requests for a couple of pieces I had written while I was still working at the Bank in 2014. One was the text of a speech, on New Zealand economic history and the evolution of economic policy, to a group of Chinese Communist Party up-and-coming officials, delivered as part an Australia New Zealand School of Government programme (in which they got to hear from John Key, Gerry Brownlee, Iain Rennie, no doubt a few others, and me). The other was a discussion note I had written on how best to think of New Zealand’s economic exposure to China. The second request was lodged only late on Monday. I could not envisage any good (lawful) reason for them to withhold the material, but that often hasn’t stopped the Reserve Bank in the past. If they released the material at all, I was anticipating a 20 working day wait.
But this afternoon, I received both documents in full. I was shocked. I took the opportunity to send a note to the Bank thanking them for the prompt response. And as I have often been critical here of aspects of the Bank’s handling of various things, including OIA requests, I thought I should take the opportunity to record my appreciation openly. Who knows what prompted the change, but it is an encouraging sign. Perhaps the “acting Governor” (a sound caretaker, unlawful as his appointment may be) is making a positive difference?
On the other hand, I’ve usually been pretty openly positive about The Treasury’s approach to OIA requests. One isn’t always happy with their decisions, but there is a strong sense that they generally do all they can to be as open as possible. There is the look and feel of an agency that seeks to comply with the spirit of the Act, as well as the letter.
But not when it comes to the Rennie review. Some time ago, they refused a journalist’s request for the terms of reference for the review. They also refused to release some of the papers associated with the Rennie review (including drafts of the report) that I had requested some time ago . In July they told me they wouldn’t release papers because of “advice still under consideration” (even though that is not a statutory ground, and Rennie is neither a minister nor an official, and even though I had not then requested a copy of the final report which had been delivered in April).
But time has moved on, and so early last week I lodged a fresh request. This time I asked for:
I am requesting copies of :
- the draft supplied to Treasury on 5 April 2017
- the report delivered to Treasury on 18 April 2017
- the version of the report sent out for peer review
- the completed report incorporating any comments provided by the peer reviewers.
- copies of comments supplied on the draft paper by peer reviewers
- file notes of meetings Rennie or assisting Treasury staff had with non-Treasury people in the course of undertaking the review (including the Board of the Reserve Bank).
I am also requesting copies of any advice to the Minister of Finance or his office on the Rennie review, and matters covered in it, since 18 April 2017.
And this afternoon I got a response from The Treasury, refusing to release any of this material.
This is necessary to maintain the current constitutional conventions protecting the confidentiality of advice tendered by Ministers and officials.
That is, in principle, a valid statutory ground (unless public interest considerations trump it). But…..Iain Rennie is not an official or a Minister, but was rather a contractor to The Treasury.
But what about the advice to the Minister himself (or his office)? Well, according to Treasury, “Mr Rennie’s report has not been tendered to the Minister of Finance, nor has any other Treasury advice on this issue since the report was commissioned.”
So, the report which was requested by the Minister of Finance himself (he told a journalist so in April which is how news of the review became public), which was finalised more than six months ago, has not been sent to the Minister of Finance at all, and nor has any advice from Treasury been sent. Since oral briefings are covered by the Official Information Act, we must then assume that a notoriously hands-on minister has no idea what is in a report he requested, and which was finished six months ago. Perhaps, but it seems unlikely.
Treasury tries to claim in its letter “that this work was commissioned to inform Treasury’s post-election advice”. But that certainly wasn’t the impression the Minister of Finance was giving in April, when this was presented as his own initiative. But even if that story is true, it still isn’t grounds for withholding a six months old consultant’s report paid for with public money. It is official information, and releasing the report is not the same – at all – as releasing Treasury’s views on it.
There were three external reviewers of the draft report. Comments were sought from:
- Charles Goodhart, an academic and former Bank of England official and MPC member,
- Don Kohn, former vice-chair of the Fed, and currently a member of the Bank of England’s Financial Policy Committee, and
- David Archer, former Assistant Governor of the Reserve Bank and now a senior official at the Bank for International Settlements.
The comments of the first two are withheld on the standard ground “to maintain the current constitutional conventions protecting the confidentiality of advice tendered by Ministers and officials”, but neither Goodhart nor Kohn is either an official (of New Zealand or – in Goodhart’s case of anywhere) or a Minister, and these are comments on a draft report I’m seeking, not something ever likely to get as far as the Minister of Finance.
Archer’s comments are withheld on different grounds:
- “the making available of that information would be likely to prejudice the entrusting of information to the Government of New Zealand on the basis of confidence by the Government of any other country or any agency of such a Governoment or by an international organisation”
But there is no indication that Archer was commenting on behalf of an international organisation, but rather was offering personal views (rather than confidential “information”). It isn’t, say, confidential information about the business of, say, the BIS.
- “to protect information which is subject to an obligation of confidence where the making available of the information would likely prejudice the supply of similar information or information from the same source and it is in the public interest that such information should continue to be supplied”.
There is no evidence that (a) Archer’s comments, made presumably in a personal capacity, were subject to an “obligation of confidence”, or (b) that publishing his comments on a draft report would make him less likely to provide such comments (not clearly “information” in any case) on future Treasury consultants’ reports on Reserve Bank issues. And nor is there any reason why this clause should apply any more to Archer’s comments than to those of Goodhart and Kohn – for which it has not been invoked.
It is all (a) incredibly obstructive and (b) not remotely convincing. I will be appealing The Treasury’s decision to the Ombudsman. Perhaps some journalist might consider asking Steven Joyce if it is really true that he has no idea what is in the Rennie report that he asked for eight months ago, which was completed six months ago, and which is held by his own department. Even if that is true, it is not good grounds under the Act for withholding a consultant’s report, let alone drafts of it.
So, well done Reserve Bank. And it is a shame about The Treasury.