NZ’s most transparent government? Under Jacinda Ardern it’s the opposite

Published in The Australian (Sydney), 5 December 2022

In 2017, when Jacinda Ardern became New Zealand’s Prime Minister, she set out to transform policy-making. Her administration was meant to be the most open, honest, and transparent in history.

In a television debate during the election campaign, Ardern even asserted that lying has no place in politics. And once elected, she immediately appointed a Minister for Open Government.

Transparency, honesty, and openness. These were noble ambitions. But expressing them is one thing. Delivering on them is quite another.

In practice, Ardern’s government has often fallen short of its own ideals. Not even a year after the election, the said Minister for Open Government, Clare Curran, had to resign. Ironically, this was due to her holding secret meetings and using her private email address to conduct ministerial business.

So rather early on, a gap between Ardern’s stated democratic ideals and the grubby reality of government opened. Over the years, this gap has widened to a gulf.

As far as the openness record of the Ardern government is concerned, there is not much to be seen.

In fairness, the Ardern administration is not alone in this regard. The past two or three decades have seen governments in many Western democracies hide behind a façade of spin. These practices began with British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his legendary spin doctor Alastair Campbell. They have spread widely ever since, to governments of all shades and persuasions.

However, the sheer extent of the New Zealand government’s lack of transparency is on a whole new level.

Every government department in Wellington now employs small armies of media staff, communications advisers, and press secretaries. The practice of avoiding media scrutiny has become one of the defining characteristics of the Ardern government.

The trend can be observed in seemingly insignificant matters. Taken together, these elements create a disturbing picture.

One example is Ardern’s decision to cease appearing on the Mike Hosking Breakfast Show, a daily radio program with the largest audience of any show of its kind in New Zealand. Until last year, Ardern was subjected to Hosking’s interviews every Monday – like many Prime Ministers before her. The questions were tough, and Hosking is known for asking as many times as necessary to obtain an answer.

Having blustered her way through these interviews numerous times, Ardern suddenly withdrew her participation. When she is interviewed on radio these days, it is on shows where she is more likely to be asked about her favourite ice cream flavour than the state of the economy.

In a similar manner, during the Covid lockdowns, only a select few journalists participated in Ardern’s nearly daily media conferences. It was just the Wellington press gallery that attended, so there were no economic editors, for example.

Ardern’s habit of not responding to questions has become embodied in her hallmark phrase, “I reject the premise of that question.” It ends any discussion right where it should begin.

Ardern is also proactive in her management of the media, but not in a good way.

For example, on a Friday afternoon after the first Covid lockdown, her government put out a series of embarrassing cabinet papers. These documents would have had to be released under the Official Information Act at some later stage. But by dumping them all before the weekend, the Government ensured they would sink without a trace. Especially since Ardern had instructed cabinet ministers not to give any interviews.

Already having a history of being the opposite of open and transparent, the Ardern government has just stepped up its efforts to avoid debate and scrutiny even further. The Government is rushing a mammoth legislative program through parliament ‘under urgency.’

Here, the term ‘urgency’ is a euphemism. It has little to do with the normal meaning of that word. There are no bills that, if not passed, would put lives at risk or have other serious consequences.

No, these are just bills which the Government would like to see passed while it still enjoys a large parliamentary majority. Oh, and ideally without too much fuss, examination or participation. In this regard, the period leading to Christmas and the summer holidays is ideal.

For instance, there is a massive bill to regulate New Zealand’s planning system and environmental laws. This is a once-in-a-generation legislative project spanning more than 800 pages.

Despite this, the public consultation has only just begun, but it will end on 30 January next year. Those affected will not have time to get to grips with it. Local Government New Zealand (LGNZ), the body representing councils, came out strongly against the tight time frame, calling it “frustrating” and “a classic case of Wellington not understanding the realities on the ground.” Effectively, the government is shutting councils (and everybody else) out of its deliberations.

The dangers of this lawmaking style became apparent last week. It emerged that a so-called entrenchment clause had been inserted into one of the bills. Unfortunately, that was after parliament had already voted on the issue. Once the bill is passed, a future government would need a majority of 60 per cent in the House to amend or repeal parts of this law.

It was a political and constitutional outrage. But tellingly, it took four days until anyone noticed. It happened to be an associate professor of law, who finally sounded alarm bells on Twitter.

Over the weekend, the government was forced into a U-turn on the entrenchment rule, with Ardern and her senior ministers claiming they had been unaware of what had been happening with the clause in question. According to their statements, it was a deplorable accident. Perhaps, but sometimes even accidents reflect a larger picture, and this one is no different.

Despite a stated intention to bring public participation and transparency to New Zealand’s democracy, none of this has been achieved. Ardern’s government stands for the opposite.

How can the Prime Minister defend presiding over such a betrayal of the principles she trumpeted so loudly before she was elected?

She would, no doubt, reject the premise of that question if Mike Hosking still had a chance to ask her about it.

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