Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s office publicly released a response to the ombudsman after Gaurav Sharma claimed new MPs were taught to avoid the Official Information Act.
The response, sent by his office and signed by his chief of staff Raj Nahna, includes details of an agenda for the workshop in question.
Last week, Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier sought assurances from Ardern and other government ministers after Sharma claimed 2020 MPs attended a workshop where they were taught methods to avoid leave a written record.
The response said Boshier’s request for assurances was “based on allegations that misrepresented this roundtable.”
“This workshop was not about the Official Information Act, but rather the roles of the Labor Leader’s Office and Ministerial Offices and how these offices can assist MPs in various areas. Specifically, it discussed explained how the Leader’s Office can help MPs with questions about voters, parliamentary matters like House debates, and other electoral matters.”
The letter said an MP present at the workshop had asked for clarification on how to handle sensitive information about his constituents.
“It was explained that information relating to ministerial responsibilities is covered by the Act, while information on matters relating to voters and caucuses is generally not covered.” (Emphasis in original letter)
A few details have been removed from the public version of the letter and agenda, but the letter itself has otherwise been reproduced in full.
Sharma also posted a screenshot of a message sent by Conservation Minister Kiri Allan to the caucus reminding them that all written correspondence is submitted to the OIA, and “if we are pressured on matters by colleagues, especially where we haven’t had a thread, things are going through the OIA process less than desirable”.
He suggested it was evidence that new MPs were learning ways to circumvent the law, which allows journalists and members of the public to search for records of government-held information.
Ardern argued yesterday that the post was meant to serve as a reminder to MPs. “We can often be subject to judicial review on the basis of our decisions, we must ensure that we take these decisions with the necessary caution and it is important to ensure that our colleagues also know how badly we take this seriously.
“What you can see is that there is a minister who is involved – as the decision-making minister, conservation minister, remember … she has to make sure that no one is trying to undermine this decision-making. decision. It is fair to remind MPs that it would not be appropriate to pressure a decision-making minister.”
It was important for MPs to know how to handle information, she said.
Sharma was today expelled from the Labor caucus for repeated breach of trust, after publicly sharing information from caucus colleagues.
Ardern’s stance on the issue was echoed by other Labor MPs heading to the caucus meeting to vote on his expulsion, such as Chief Whip Duncan Webb.
“Knowing about the OIA is an important part of the job and I think it’s just a natural part to talk about it and make sure people know the rules,” he said.
List MP Ibrahim Omer said he was present at the workshop and also supported this position.
“The class of 2020 came together with the aim of improving and it wasn’t the only one, it was probably the third professional development session we had and Gaurav was part of the first we had in Auckland. So it was really to help MPs get around,” he said this morning.
List MP Helen White was also present at the workshop and rejected the suggestion that MPs were taught to evade transparency laws.
“No, I think at the time Gaurav was looking at these things he was probably looking through a lens, like, listening differently and it just happens. I’ve seen that in working relationships where people can’t everything just not, they don’t feel anything anymore but are looking for those defenses, so yeah, it’s not something that I don’t know about as a process, people hear what they want to hear, especially when they’re angry.
Raj Nahna’s letter also supported the government’s commitment to transparency and accountability.
“This commitment is evidenced by this government’s decision to institute the proactive publication of Cabinet documents and monthly publications of departmental journals…in the last Parliament, this government responded to over 115,000 questions parliamentarians wrote, and more than 90,000 this Parliament so far, compared to 41,500 responded by National during their previous term in government.
“This government is also ensuring that officers understand their obligations and those of their Minister (sic), vis-à-vis the Official Information Act through information included in onboarding packs and regular training animated by DIA, and more recently by your office.”