In Newsroom recently it was reported that the Government has been working on an “open government plan”. In the article it stated
The Government has been urged to delay its latest open government plan by a year, with civil society organisations concerned about insufficient community involvement and a lack of funding.
Work has been underway for some time on New Zealand’s fourth action plan for the Open Government Partnership, an international initiative to promote openness and transparency, with the document due to be submitted by the middle of this year.
In an April letter to Public Service Minister Chris Hipkins, the representatives of 10 civil society organisations said the Government should delay the plan’s completion by a year to address shortcomings in its work so far.
There had not been a sufficient commitment to, or funding for, co-creation in its design, with “a traditional consultation with insufficient time for substantive engagement” that went against both the OGP’s standards and the Government’s own policy guidance.
The plan was also being developed without any budget for the commitments within it, suggesting it could follow in the footsteps of previous iterations which had been “constrained in ambition and delivery by a lack of funding”.
The article went on to say that Chris Hipkins has taken over the Open Government portfolio and is keen to broaden the scope of the exercise:
Hipkins told Newsroom the Government’s third Partnership plan had been developed before he took the open government portion of the portfolio from Clare Curran, and he felt the document could have been more ambitious.
While the initiatives around the flow of information had generally gone well, there was more work to be done on participatory democracy.
“Open government isn’t just about telling people what you’re doing, it’s also about actually being more inclusive and involving people more in the decision-making process.”
The Parliamentary Service and the Office of the Clerk had done some good work to make Parliament more open and accessible through initiatives like an expansion of the school’s outreach programme and improved streaming of select committee meetings.
The complications of Covid-19 and alert level restrictions had “accelerated massively” progress on digital inclusion, Hipkins said. “Take Zoom: I don’t think we would be using Zoom and video-conferencing as extensively in parliamentary proceedings now, had it not been for Covid-19 …
“It makes it more accessible to the public, because once upon a time, if you were hearing a bill and you wanted to make a submission, and you were in Tauranga, you might be lucky if the committee came to Auckland and you’d have to drive to Auckland to do it … whereas video-conferencing means that you can actually be there in person without having to leave your living room.”
Civil society groups were right that there may have not been enough resources associated with some of the Government’s plans, but the ease of the digital transition following the pandemic suggested changes “actually might be more operationally feasible than we previously thought”.
This is an excellent response from the Minister and I welcome his approach.
Here’s the article: https://www.newsroom.co.nz/pro/openness-fundamental-to-democracy
I feel a sense of hope from the last article but the next story deserves Ministerial intervention. In a recent article it was reported that Newsroom had been charged by the Crown over a video story by Melanie Reid. When Newsroom was charged in Court they reported:
The video story at the centre of the charge, by Newsroom Investigates editor Melanie Reid, covered Oranga Tamariki social workers removing Māori children from their permanent foster home. It led Children’s Minister Kelvin Davis to question his agency about the practice, after which he directed Oranga Tamariki to stop the practice.
Newsroom article continued:
The Government’s top lawyer Solicitor-General Una Jagose alleged the documentary contained information that could identify the children involved – something Newsroom disputes. (This website initially amended the video to deal with most of Crown Law’s concerns.)
While Jagose’s department, Crown Law, pursued the court action, for which it was awarded costs, it also referred the matter to police.
The whānau or others involved in the video story have never complained. Newsroom appeared in the Christchurch District Court today, charged with breaching the Family Court Act in November last year.
The role of the Fourth Estate is to keep power to account. As a result of the original article there has been Ministerial intervention and changes made to the bureaucracy which administers the Act in question. My concern is this case also requires Ministerial intervention. This appears to me, a questioner of rules and the law who has little respect for lawyers in settings like this, to be a fundraising mainline-ing trip for lawyers. The fact that an error had been made by the Crown agency (which was highlighted by Melanie Reid) is patently obvious because the Minister has intervened and policy has been changed.
I see this Court case as a blatant example of state intimidation. This is the sort of behaviour you would expect in some tin pot dictatorship. Not in Aotearoa New Zealand. Has the Government lost control of its executive?
Here’s the first part of the story: https://www.newsroom.co.nz/police-v-newsroom-were-journalists-not-criminals
In a later story it is interesting to note that there was a considerable exchange of emails between the Solicitor General and Newsroom to sort out legal issues. Then lawyer involvement headed the exercise to Court. The issue blew up quite quickly. I would really ask where wisdom had a role in this case. Who kept asking “is this necessary?”.
Now all we have is an expensive case which fills lawyers’ pockets, locks up the Courts and does nothing to address the issue which Newsroom raised in the first place. Again, I say, this is legal intimidation in my opinion.
The Solicitor-General advised Newsroom she didn’t intend to stifle its reporting, and recognised the importance of media in a democratic society, including the website’s freedom to criticise Oranga Tamariki. But the email, sent at 4.09pm on November 26, said the documentary contained identifying information of the children and, in her opinion, breached the Family Court Act.
She invited Newsroom to take the documentary down urgently and edit it so the children weren’t identifiable. “If you do not do so then we will need to consider what further steps to take.”
Jennings’ reply, at 4.44pm, said many days were spent blurring the faces of children, and the story was checked by multiple editors. He asked if Jagose could be specific. “We will be very happy to make the necessary alterations as we believe this is a story that has significant ramifications for children and whanau.”
Thirteen minutes later, Jagose thanked Jennings for the “constructive response”, and while she’d tasked colleagues with a more detailed reply, she noted the Act’s mention of identifying details including their school. Jennings offered to remove all school shots.
The next email, from a Crown lawyer, at 5.47pm, opened a divide between the two parties. She pointed to a “cumulative effect” of the footage. They were a large family in a small town, the pixelation was “light”, children’s faces were not pixelated in profile, school buildings and the foster family home were shown, and the foster parents’ voices weren’t altered.
Here’s the story: https://www.newsroom.co.nz/what-newsroom-told-the-district-cour
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