Psst! If you want to keep a secret, put it in Clare Curran’s custody

We learn today of two Cabinet ministers attending a dinner hosted by Google’s top lawyer under secretive “Chatham House” rules, but they made no notes of what was discussed.

According to a report at Stuff, Google’s chief counsel, Kent Walker, hosted the dinner at  the capital’s Wellington Club. Among the guests were Justice Minister Andrew Little, Open Government Minister Clare Curran and top public servants and lawyers.

In response to requests under the Official Information Act, Little and Curran both said they kept no notes or memos from the event.

National’s spokesman for open government, Nick Smith, accordingly is complaining of

” … a contradiction  between Clare Curran promising the most open and transparent government ever and participating in secret meetings with global corporates like Google”.  

He continued:

“There are very sensitive and important issues around the Government’s rewrite of the Privacy Act and fair tax being paid by global corporates so there needs to be a high level of global transparency in discussions with the likes of Google.”

Malcolm Harbrow, writing on his No Right Turn blog, notes that if the Minister had not made notes, they should have generated them in response to the request made under the Official Information Act.

The Ministers attended in an official capacity, so any information that resulted is official information. And that includes information in Ministers’ heads. Their failure or refusal to take notes does not protect them from requests, only from poorly-worded ones (though arguably, that would violate the duty of assistance).

As for the “Chatham House rule”, the government can not contract out of the OIA. It may be able to withhold information provided to them under such an express obligation of confidence, if the interest in receiving such information in future is not outweighed by the public interest.

But they cannot withhold information they provided to others simply by declaring it “confidential”. The problem is that refusal to record gives deniability, so even if Smith successfully appeals this atrocity to the Ombudsman, Curran will be able to smile and say she remembers nothing… 

That’s why refusal to keep records is bad, Harbrow contends – because it enables a government to lie and it enables corrupt behaviour.

He also regards Curran as “a serial offender”

He had expressed concerns about her within weeks of her being given the open government portfolio when she refused to answer an Official Information Act request which sought a list of all reports, briefings, memos, or aide-mémoire that she had received since being sworn in as Associate Minister of State Services.

The request did not meet the requirement to be “specified with due particularity” as per section 12(2) of the Official Information Act, she had replied.

Nonsense, said Harbrow.

It [the Act] specifies the information it is seeking and the timeframe it is being sought over. It is immediately clear to any reader what information is being sought. To refuse it as lacking “due particularity” is utterly baseless and unlawful, and I expect the Ombudsman will tell her that in due course. That would be bad from any government Minister, but Curran is the Minister of Open Government. And it is clear from her reported response to this request that “open government” is not something she believes in or practices. Instead, she is undermining it in her own office, right from day one.

Seeing this, and her previous behaviour, I have no confidence in this Minister to actually open up government or produce anything useful in her portfolio. And if this is how their Minister is going to act, the government might as well remove the portfolio entirely, because its clearly a complete waste of our time.

This was a highly prescient observation.

The Otago Daily Times pitched in, noting that the Dunedin South MP had been a great advocate of open government during her years in Parliament, lobbying for more transparency in the dealings of Government.

But here we are. Labour is in Government, facing hundreds of unanswered questions about with whom ministers are meeting.

Also, the Briefings to Incoming Ministers (BIMs), while not exactly late in being released, are still being held back by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

There seems no likelihood of the documents signed in forming the Government being released. This is not the democracy one expects and Ms Curran, as Associate Minister of State Services (Open Government), may be horrified by witnessing this at first hand. At least, she should be.

Several more days went by before Briefings to Incoming Ministers were made public.

A Dominion Post editorial at the same time complained that Clare Curran

“ … says she doesn’t see a need for an overhaul of the Official Information Act. However, she says she would dust off the 2012 Law Commission review of the Act, a report which was ignored by the previous National-led government.  

Curran’s ignorance in this area almost defies belief. She has spent nine years in opposition and apparently doesn’t know that the Law Commission recommended a complete rewriting of the Act, and for very good reasons.

The matter of broadcaster Carol Hirschfeld’s resignation  for lying about a meeting with Curran in a Wellington café drew a fresh round of criticism in March.

A demand for Curran’s sacking was posted on the left-wing The Standard on March 27 under the heading An Orwellian Minister for Open Government. Similar criticism was published at Newsroom under the heading When ‘open government’ becomes a joke.

 Back in her home town, another ODT editorial on April 7  said

“ … Curran has not made the best start to what should have been a productive and impressive term as a minister in the Labour-led Government.

Ms Curran had nine years of Opposition in which to formulate her strategy in her much-beloved broadcasting and communications roles. Her role in open government and transparency was expected to pave the way for easier access to official information.

However, this has not been the case.”

On May 10, National’s Nick Smith was complaining that Curran’s promise to be the most open and transparent government ever was “looking increasingly ridiculous over the secrecy being applied to the Open Government Strategy”.

“The Minister’s refusal to release reports on the Open Government Strategy reads as though from a ‘Yes Minister’ skit. It makes a complete joke of Ms Curran’s job title as Minister of Open Government and her promise of being the most open and transparent government ever,” Dr Smith says.

The Government responded on April 19 to an Official Information Request from 20 March on all reports and briefings on the Open Government Strategy, by redacting the entire draft of the Open Government Strategy. The reason given for keeping the draft strategy secret was to protect the confidentiality of advice tended by Ministers and Officials.

There was little point in having an Open Government Strategy if it was to be kept secret,  Smith declared.

Not really.  But perhaps we should press Labour to stick to the strategy and get rid of the Minister who seems intent on making it a joke.


One thought on “Psst! If you want to keep a secret, put it in Clare Curran’s custody

  1. The Chatham House rule is generally – you may disclose what was discussed at a meeting (where the rule is adopted/observed) but may not disclose who said what. Notwithstanding the excellent point that “information” includes what’s in a Minister’s head, and is not limited to an official note, Curran’s attempt to avoid questions by invoking the Chatham House rule is no defence and plain wrong. Curran the Minister for Open Government is a walking oxymoron, regularly refreshing her own meme.

    Liked by 1 person

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