27 April 2011

Canada’s Government Ethics Coalition, an alliance of 31 organizations, is campaigning for the immediate publication of a report about the Office of the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner.  The Commissioner resigned in October amid scandal. The Auditor General criticised the Commissioner’s conduct in office and called for an examination of all files, including 220 whistleblower complaints, that had been rejected by the Commissioner. An interim Commissioner who contracted Deloittes to undertake the review promised to publish the findings. Publication has now been deferred until after Canada’s general election.

Publication has been deferred also of high public-interest reports about government spending on the G8 summit meeting in Toronto last year and the transfer of  prisoners by Canadian troops in Afghanistan.

The criticism is that keeping reports about past government actions secret hides information voters have a right to know, and prevents informed discussion.  It encourages  governments to prorogue Parliament and call for elections as way of delaying or avoiding accountability.

In New Zealand, guidance for the State Services published before each of the last three elections has included an extract from an Ombudsmen’s report about access to reliable economic information prior to a general election.

The Ombudsmen said that … “A General Election is the central event in a constitutional democracy, and it is undeniably in the public interest that all political parties seeking electoral support be able to explain adequately how they intend to deal with issues arising from perceived advantages or disadvantages in the state of the economy, and design the policies which they hope will be supported when the electorate votes.”

“What surprised us was that officials appeared to not appreciate the significance of the need for speedy decisions, and the extreme importance of a well-informed electorate at the time of a General Election. While an inward looking perspective is understandable at such a time, we did think that professional public officials would recognise the importance of one of the purposes of the Official Information Act to the effectiveness of a General Election. That purpose bears repeating here because it is so relevant to a General Election:-

Section 4(a) To increase progressively the availability of official information to the people of New Zealand in order-

(i) To enable their more effective participation in the making and administration of laws and policies; and
(ii) To promote the accountability of Ministers of the Crown and officials

and thereby to enhance respect for the law and to promote the good government of New Zealand. “

The State Services Commissioner advises State Servants that “We must not delay responding to information requests in the lead up to an election, in a misguided sense of obligation to our Minister…. we must recognise that one of the important purposes of the Official Information Act is to support the effectiveness of a general election”.