Speaker by Various Artists


Inequality: Too big to ignore

by Max Rashbrooke

For years now, one of the main reasons given for dismissing inequality as an issue has been about economics: you need income gaps to generate growth. Without a wide gap between rich and poor, who would have the incentive to work harder and do the things that generate income for everyone?

That argument, which had already looked flimsy, was dealt what looks like a final blow with the report out yesterday from the OECD, which found unequivocally that growing income gaps are bad for the economy.

New Zealand, which had the developed world’s biggest increase in inequality from the mid-1980s to the mid-2000s, has seen more economic damage than most. According to the OECD’s calculations, our economy grew about 30% in the last two decades – but it would have grown by 45%, or half as much again, if inequality had stayed at 1980s levels.

So the defences for inequality are falling rapidly. As the OECD report points out, the ‘trickle-down theory’ has already been pretty thoroughly discredited; the evidence of the  last 30 years is that the income generated at the top tends to stay there, under the current settings. The OECD also rejects another argument in favour of inequality – that the standard remedy of tax and spending would hurt the economy – by saying explicitly that redistribution is good for the economy, if done well.

The OECD report could, of course, be challenged, and some economists were already asking last night where the detailed calculations were to back up its findings. But the report is hardly the first to make these points (though the most high-profile, and the most emphatic); and that makes it harder to ignore. Earlier this year, IMF researchers argued exactly the same thing, providing detailed evidence that more equal countries have better economic growth.

It’s not even a very counter-intuitive idea. After all – and this is broadly the point the OECD makes – if you have a society in which a large chunk of the population are starved of the resources they need, their economic contribution is unlikely to be huge.

When families lack the income they need to pay doctors’ fees and keep healthy, or to fix their car so they can travel to a new job, or to give their kids the equipment and clothes they need to succeed at school, it’s obvious that economic growth will suffer. You could argue that these are problems of poverty, not inequality, but really the two are inseparable; the reason some people have so little is that the fruits of economic growth are going largely to our richer citizens.

Of course, inequality matters for reasons that are far greater than economic growth. But the economy is paramount in the minds of many who still need to be convinced that growing income gaps are a problem. So this report – demolishing a key argument against inequality, backing redistribution, and pointing out New Zealand as the country worst affected – is a landmark one, and may represent the moment when inequality really became too big to ignore.

Max Rashbrooke has written for national newspapers and magazines in Britain and New Zealand, including the Guardian, the National Business Review and the Listener. He was the recipient of the 2011 Bruce Jesson Senior Journalism Award. He is the editor of Inequality: A New Zealand Crisis.

This blogpost is cross-posted from Max's website, Inequality: A New Zealand Conversation.


Why churches should marry same-sex couples

by Colin Jackson

I am Colin Jackson, a middle-aged married father of two and until recently a long-term adherent of Wellington Central Baptist. Early in 2013, I wrote to the New Zealand Baptist national leader Craig Vernall criticising his public opposition to the Marriage Amendment Bill (now Act). When he did not reply I wrote publicly about my disappointment.

Subsequently, I wrote this submission, which argues that New Zealand Baptist churches should treat those of all genders and sexualities as people, and in particular that churches and ministers should not discriminate against same sex couples by refusing to marry them in circumstances that they would have married a heterosexual couple. The submission makes three main points: that loving all people, especially minorities, was a hallmark of Christ’s ministry on Earth; that biblical injunctions against male on male sex are specious; and that by being judgmental against classes of society the church is tarnishing Christ’s name and reducing its own relevance to people’s lives. A concluding section discusses how the modern church should address same sex marriage.

1. Christ’s Attitude to Minorities

The bible does not record any meeting between Jesus and a gay person or any statement of his about gay people. Presumably the mores of the time were such that Jewish gay people would have concealed their sexuality for fear of ostracism or worse. While male and female homosexual love were common in the Greek culture of the day, Jesus did not leave Palestine and would not have been directly exposed to it.

We can, however, reasonably presume that he would have treated a gay person just as any other marginalised person he came across, like the tax collector or the prostitute who washed his feet with her hair. The parable of the Good Samaritan, and many of his other stories and actions, contrast the negative and judgmental behaviour of the religious leaders of the day with the loving kindness displayed by the people they would anathemise. Jesus’s anger with religious hypocrites is shown in several places in the gospels; indeed these are the only people he is recorded as having got angry with. Given that Christ was kind to all manner of people whose ethnicity or behaviour made them completely beyond the pale for the synagogue of the day, we can be confident that were he alive today he would treat gay people and people of alternative genders in the same way, and might well criticise religious leaders who judge them.

2. Biblical Injunctions

The bible has many lists of injunctions. There is the Ten Commandments (both versions); the prohibitions of Leviticus; and under the new covenant, the precepts of St Paul. The main thing these lists of instructions have in common is that none of them are wholly observed and never have been. The commandment against killing was exuberantly broken as soon as the Israelites reached Canaan. Most of the Levitical injunctions seem quaint or incomprehensible and it is hard to form any other conclusion than that they were products of their time intended to reinforce Hebrew exceptionalism. To take them all at face value in modern times would place a church in an extreme and probably illegal position.

To take New Testament examples, we never read in the newspaper about a man plucking out his own eye after finding himself looking with lust at a woman – this behaviour is not expected by even the most dour of churches. In the Baptist church, as with most other modern churches, we do not require women to wear hats lest their hair compete with God’s glory, neither we do not expect them to remain silent in church or to ask their husbands later if they did not understand the sermon.

Clinging to scripture as the sole source of wisdom – sola scriptura – is not something that is achieved by any church today, regardless of any assertion to the contrary. All churches and individual Christians are selective about the injunctions they consider relevant to living in the current age. Given this, it is unreasonable that they should choose to discriminate against an already marginalised group on the claimed basis of a few “proof texts” when equally strong arguments could be mounted against other perfectly normal behaviour. Compared with Christ’s own behaviour on Earth, it looks positively un-Christian.

The biblical injunctions that are used to justify discriminating against people who do not fit the mould of one man marrying one woman are those that explicitly prohibit men from having sex with other men, and say nothing for instance about lesbian relationships or those involving transgendered people. Furthermore, any view that preventing marriage would prevent sex is fanciful. Rather, attempting to prevent marriage between loving partners will further separate them from the church and act to alienate them from faith in Christ.

3. Relevance of the Church

I am writing this submission out of a strong sense of injustice being committed against a minority, but there is another serious matter at stake: the relevance of Christ’s church to the society it lives in. What looks to church leaders like moral purity or appeasing older church members looks to society like hypocrisy, bigotry and even hatred.

Over the years, churches have used injunctions in the bible to justify discrimination against powerless groups in society. This is nothing to be proud of. I give two overseas examples and one New Zealand example below.

The Baptist church in the Southern states of the US supported slavery until the end of the American Civil War. At the start of that war, four million human beings lived as slaves in the US, greatly outnumbering their European owners. Many were abused by their owners; in particular women slaves were treated as possessions and were raped entirely legally. The church provided justifications for their support of slavery from the Old and New Testaments. The Southern Baptist Convention finally renounced racism in 1995, almost 150 years after the end of the war.

During the middle of last century, the Dutch Reform Church – which is active in present-day New Zealand – justified apartheid in South Africa. Under this grossly unjust system people of colour were oppressed by a white minority, and many were killed during the regime’s struggle to retain its power. The Calvinist Dutch Reform Church commissioned several theological studies to prove that apartheid was scriptural. The church declared apartheid to be sinful in 1992.

It would be wrong to assume that the majority of white people in the antebellum South or pre‑democracy South Africa were naturally bad; they must have had moral qualms. But their churches absolved their consciences and legitimated the monstrous evil they perpetrated. Instead of standing for good, these churches were a way of collectively reinforcing evil behaviour.

In New Zealand in 1986 the Salvation Army was at the forefront of the opposition to the Homosexual Law Reform Bill. People who campaigned for this reform remember with bitterness the level of vitriol aimed at them by people who claimed this was the Christian thing to do. Campaigners for the reform still speak of being spat upon by those who wished to “protect godly marriage”. Recently, the Salvation Army made peace with representatives of the gay community in New Zealand, and it did not oppose legalising same-sex marriage; but its Australian sister organisation is still vocal in its opposition. As a result, the name of the Salvation Army remains toxic to many New Zealand people despite the undeniably good works it undertakes, and this hinders its effectiveness and fundraising ability.

As things turned out, some of the church leaders involved in trying to save the moral purity of our nation by suppressing gay people in 1986 turned out to have feet of clay, as has also happened repeatedly in the case of pastors and priests with a prurient interest in the sexual behaviour of others. This happens so depressingly often that people outside the church are no longer fooled, they see unwanted sexual advice from clergy as hypocritical. As it might be put: if you are concerned about what I do with my partner in my home, perhaps it is you that has the problem, not me.

These scandals, along with the very public failings of the Roman Catholic church have brought the moral authority of the church to a low point. The survivors of clerical sexual abuse must find it particularly sickening that the church still believes that it can discriminate against people who do not fit its moral standards. So much for Christ’s exhortation to do unto others as we would have them do to us!

None of the churches described in the examples above holds these discriminatory positions now. They have moved with the societies in which they are embedded, but more slowly than most people. These churches were a force for conservatism, resistant to change, and they sought to exploit religion to justify their conservatism.

This is still the case. Any journalist seeking a reactionary quote in response to some social innovation always seems to be able to find a churchman – and it’s always a man – who will supply one, often arguing that his religious liberty to discriminate is more important than allowing others their own liberty. There are more extreme examples overseas – homosexual people are routinely killed in Uganda after the passage of a law permitting this, which was instigated by two evangelical pastors in the US.

The term Christian has become synonymous with bigot to many people. This is what has become of Christ’s church.

We need to ask ourselves whether we are like the religious leaders whom Christ railed against. Are we placing loads on others that we don’t have to bear ourselves? Would it better for us to be thrown into the sea with millstones around our necks?


I have argued that the church’s antipathy to minorities is un-Christ like, un-Biblical and at least partly responsible for evil behaviour in many times and places. It is also part of the picture of vanishing flocks and closing churches. Why, after all, would young people choose to be part of an institution that perpetuates the prejudices of older generations? Church membership becomes a self-selecting and aging group that reinforces its own prejudice. Those who do not agree leave for other churches or lose their faith entirely.

Preventing this decay is a task for church leadership. Leadership needs to take Christ-like positions on issues such as the marginalisation of minorities and exhort their members to follow them. Leadership may need to be sacrificial. Timidity is definitely not needed. Again, we need to consider the difference between the behaviour Christ modelled and that which he encountered in the religious leaders of his time.

The national Baptist website says on its front page, “You are welcome at any one of our 240+ churches”. It doesn’t add “unless you have a same sex partner”, but the national leader’s public opposition to the Marriage Amendment Act and the 2013 Assembly’s resolution amount to this. People are not fooled by the insincerity, seeing it as yet another way that the church says one thing and does another. If we change nothing else, let’s stop being hypocritical on our own website.

In New Zealand, people of different genders and sexualities are discriminated against by churches including the Baptist church. They are also routinely beaten in targeted street crime and are subject to many times higher rates of suicide and mental health problems than the general population. Discrimination by churches legitimates the violence and reduces people’s sense of self-worth. As long we refuse to treat such people equally, we bear some responsibility for their fate.

The New Zealand Baptist Church needs to recognise same-sex relationships and marriages exactly as it does heterosexual ones. And it needs to treat people who do not fit into its binary view of men attracted to women or vice versa as people of value, whose aspirations, spiritual needs and hunger for affirmation are just as valid as anyone else’s. Christ would do nothing less.

We have a chance to be more loving and less judgmental. Let’s take it.


Market failure in the research world

by Mark C. Wilson

The “serials crisis” has been a feature of research life for over 20 years. According to figures from the US Association of Research Libraries, during 1986-2007 academic journal subscription charges increased by 340%, four times the rate of inflation.

Publishers contribute very little to the production of research articles — referees and authors typically receive zero payment, and editors very little, from the publisher. Typesetting and other production costs have fallen. Yet the profit margins of the dominant commercial academic publishers such as Elsevier, Springer, Wiley and Taylor & Francis are typically around 35-40%  comparable to Apple Computer. It seems likely that market failure has occurred somehow.

There are several apparent reasons for this situation: 

• Each journal holds a monopoly on its papers; 

• Consumers (i.e. researchers) are typically insulated from price signals by libraries; 

• Career rewards for researchers are still largely determined by the historic reputation of journals in which they publish, rather than the quality of their individual articles;

• Publishers bundle journals into large packages with major price penalties for users who try to customize them, and only the right to rent access to content (the “Big Deal”); 

• Opacity in pricing reduces the bargaining power of libraries. 

I focus here on the last issue, although the others are also important and must be addressed. Although I am a strong proponent of “open access”, and doing away entirely with for-profit publishers in favour of such things as arXiv overlay journals and journals hosted by university libraries, it is not necessary to share these views in order to agree that something is very wrong with the current setup. In no other industry that I can think of is such anticompetitive behaviour tolerated to this extent.

To get an idea of the scale of the costs, in New Zealand research institutions spend about as much on journal subscriptions and database access as the entire Marsden Fund (the only “blue skies” research fund) awards to researchers — more than $NZ50 million annually. The University of Auckland alone spends more than $AU9 million per year on journal access. Similarly alarming information for all Australasian universities can be found here.

The opacity in pricing is extreme. Several commercial publishers (Elsevier being the biggest and most notorious) have systematically tried to restrict the public disclosure of pricing information by using nondisclosure agreements (see this video for an Elsevier executive's revealing explanation).

In order to improve transparency in pricing, Ted Bergstrom, Paul Courant and Preston McAfee have pioneered the use of United States Freedom of Information Act requests to amass considerable information on contracts signed by public universities. Their recent PNAS paper  shows that pricing is heavily tailored to each customer, and some universities are paying twice as much as other very similar institutions, for the same product. 

Tim Gowers started the analogue of this work in the UK. Results are broadly similar there to the American ones. Very recently the text of a secret agreement between Elsevier and the French Ministry of Research  was leaked, showing that the ministry has agreed to pay €172 million for 476 public institutions to rent access to Elsevier content for five years. Overall, prices seem to be set by publishers according to a formula based on historical paper journal subscriptions, with a built-in profit margin that increases each year. They  no longer have any meaningful relation to costs. 

In Australia and New Zealand, no such information has yet been publicised. Inspired by Gowers, I sent Official Information Act requests to seven of eight New Zealand universities (I tried an informal approach with the eighth, as an experiment, and have not looked at other research institutions). The universities’ initial responses were depressingly similar, and yet subtly different:

"Making information about what we currently pay Elsevier and Springer for journal access available would be likely to unreasonably prejudice the commercial position of the University. Withholding this information is necessary to enable the University, without prejudice or disadvantage, to carry on negotiations with these publishers. Accordingly, the information requested is withheld under s 9(2)(b)(ii) and s 9(2)(j) of the Official Information Act."

"... has a contractual arrangement with Elsevier. For this reason we have reached the decision that it is necessary to withhold the information in accordance with section 18 (a) Official Information Act 1982 and pursuant to section 9(2)(i) to enable the University to carry on, without prejudice or disadvantage, commercial activities and section 9(2)(j) to enable the University to carry on, without prejudice or disadvantage, negotiations."

"The University and Elsevier have a confidentiality agreement regarding the financial and commercial terms of their contract. Your request is therefore refused under Section 9(2)(b)(ii) of the Official Information Act 1982 on the grounds that making the information available would be likely unreasonably to prejudice the commercial position of Elsevier."

"... advises that the access to Elsevier electronic journals is subject to a confidential legal agreement. Accordingly, ... declines to release the information requested under section 2 (b) (ii) of the Official Information Act 1982 – which protects the commercial position of those who are subject to the enquiry e.g. Elsevier and ..., and 2 (ba) which provides for protection of information which is subject to an obligation of confidence."

"The details for Elsevier and Springer are withheld under Section 9(2)(j) of the Official Information Act 1982, on the basis that withholding this information is necessary to prevent prejudice or disadvantage to the ability of ... to carry on negotiations with these providers."

"The University is withholding the first part of your request – the total annual fee for Elsevier journals – under Section 9(2)(ba) of the Official Information Act on the basis that the information is subject to an obligation of confidence created by a confidentiality clause at 7.8 of the agreement we hold with Elsevier. The University also withholds this information under Section 9(2)(b)(ii) on the basis that making the information available would be likely unreasonably to prejudice Elsevier’s commercial position where they have negotiated specific terms with us."

"The amount spent annually for access to Elsevier journals is withheld under sections 9(2)(i) and 9(2)(j) of the Official Information Act. The reasons being commercial sensitivity and prejudice to commercial negotiations."

In New Zealand there is no right of internal review of a decision to refuse to provide information, unlike in the UK, so I have made a formal complaint to the Ombudsman. Currently this complaint has been accepted for investigation, but the office complains of a large backlog. Thus I expect to wait several more months.

What I have found is that Wiley and Taylor & Francis apparently do not have nondisclosure clauses such as those routinely used by Elsevier (and possibly Springer). For example, the University of Auckland paid Wiley $US891,067 last year, and paid T& F $US413715 + $AU20,292, while Victoria University of Wellington paid Wiley $NZ542,856 and Taylor & Francis $NZ484,000. 

Commercial publishers may have a role to play in research dissemination, but one in which they add genuine value and are paid accordingly. The current situation in which these publishers repackage (usually with trivial effort) our own work, and then rent access to us at high, and rapidly increasing, prices, is simply intolerable (see here for an explanation of why it matters to the wider society).

I hope to encourage readers to take up the challenge of bringing these prices to light in Australasia and beyond, and more generally to fight for a fairer way to publicly make research findings available to the widest possible readership at much lower cost. For at least 15 years we have been hearing how New Zealand’s future depends on value added through research. It therefore seems perverse to spend so much money to lock away the findings of research.

Dr Mark C. Wilson is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Computer Science at The University of Auckland. The views expressed are his own.


David Fisher: The OIA arms race

by David Fisher

Good afternoon everyone. I am David Fisher, a reporter with the New Zealand Herald. I have worked as a journalist for 25 years, mainly in New Zealand but across a number of other countries.

I think there's some value before I start in placing a context around the current situation in relation to the media and the Official Information Act.

In doing so, it should be said each of the following allegations is denied.

At the moment, there is an inquiry underway into whether a blogger gained some advantage in receiving information from the SIS for political purposes. There are also allegations of preferential treatment over the OIA involving the same blogger and the former Justice Minister.

The police are also facing allegations of trying to cover up juked stats by burying an OIA. And a former Customs lawyer has said his organisation preferred to let requests languish in the Ombudsman's office than dealing with them.

In the 25 years I have worked as a journalist, there have never been so many questions, or such a loss of faith, all at once.

So, when thinking of the OIA, I had thought to start in happier times.

The difference between when I started 25 years ago and now is astounding when it comes to dealing with the public service. If I was writing a story then which in any way touched on the public's interaction with government, I would pick up the phone and ring an official. It really was that easy.

Receptionists would direct you to areas in departments, and staff there would know who would be best placed to fill the gaps in my knowledge. That’s what we in the media need - knowledge. We don't need quotes, although they inevitably come with the information. We need information, unvarnished, unspun and in a form in which we can understand what it actually means.

When I started, if I wanted to know about something, I would ring and ask. For example, if I want to know about how Kauri stumps were exported, I would ring up the equivalent of the MPI and ask how Kauri stumps get exported. I would then spend half an hour on the phone to the guy who oversaw the exporting – often the guy who was physically down at the docks – and I would be informed.

It seems a novel idea now. I can barely convey to you now what a wonderful feeling that is, to be a man with a question the public wants answering connecting with the public servant who has the information.

I remember exactly when I sent my first OIA request. It was in 1993 to a crown health enterprise, the structure which managed health at the time. I remember why I turned to the OIA. There was a communications manager there who was difficult, obstructive. He was risk averse, complicated in his evasiveness. He was, in short, ahead of his time. In a decade many others would be as he was then. And, in a decade, this communications manager would be working for a giant tobacco company.

When I returned from working in the UK, in 2002, I found the public service still open and accessible but there were many more communications managers than there had been previously.

Then, it was the flow of communication they tried to manage – not the content or nature or it.

And this is how it worked. I would ring up to find out about exportation of kauri stumps. Reception would ask where I was from, and hearing I was from the media, would put me onto the communications department. The comms person there would listen closely and then go away and work out who had the answers for me. When they found the right person, that person would ring me – or I would be given their number to ring them.

Interviews would happen, which they generally do not now, and they would typically be about the most mundane matters. How does government work? Explain the machinery to me? And what came out the end?

It was process stuff – because, basically, that's what we do. We find out how the world works, and we explain it to our readers.

I would speak with those who were able to explain the machinery to me. Having taken that onboard, if it worked – then it worked. If it didn't, then it didn't. There was very little spin. It was a lot more honest than what it became.

It was, when you think about it, the OIA in action. My questions were verbal requests and the responses were the official information coming back.

The shift really began after the 2005 election, when Helen Clark's third term threatened to get away from her. I believe what happened then perverted all that has come since, when it comes to media and the public service.

The "no surprises" policy had been a feature of coalition agreements since 1996, and part of the SOE model.

It did what it said on the box – meant there would be no surprises for the government. Initially, it was a safety valve put into an agreement – a chance for someone to ask, is it a good idea to sell half of Transpower without telling the Prime Minister. Big things. Really big.

But before long, it crept out of SOEs and political agreements and spread its grip through the public service.

Ministers realised they had a device through which they could reduce the surprises they suffered. And, as it went on, the surprises ministers no longer wanted to experience became greater in number and smaller in significance.

Increasingly, it placed on the public service a political imperative which it had never had to shoulder. It had to think about what it might be that would surprise a minister. Decisions were made with the minister's discomfort in mind. Decisions were being made which were political in nature.

The answer to the question "what would surprise a minister" is pretty much anything. Damned journalists, you never know what they're going to do with information. Best not to give them any.

Interviews became fewer. Comms staff became distant and difficult.

Suddenly, to get information about how kauri stumps were exported, I went from ringing and asking and interviewing to ringing and then being told to put my request in writing.

The email would zip off and I would sit and wait. I know now, from the sources I have developed inside your agencies, that people would look at those questions and wonder what I was really after. A day later, I would get an email back answering my questions in the most unhelpful way you might imagine. They are cowardly answers, with a flinch in every sentence, as if they might be surrending the nugget I was really after – apparently the tool I can use to undo the machinery of government and bring it all crashing down.

What I would be sent would be lines to fill a hole. There's an impression among some that we need "talent", or lines in a story – like a hole in a wall needs Pollyfilla. The “lines” would arrive at 5pm, as the person who sent it to me ran out the door.

Such idiocy.

Now, the interviews are gone. We speak to public servants when they have something really good to boast about, or really bad to apologise for. There is no in between. We meet only at weddings and funerals, and that's no way to build a relationship.

The rest of the time, we don't really know what the other party is doing. We still need information, so we find other ways to get it.

Increasingly, as interviews fell away, we would send OIA requests. The less you spoke to us, the more we asked for. When civility was gone, we turned to the law and expected that to give us the answers we needed. I send more than a hundred every year.

Gradually, we began to suspect we were being screwed in this way as well. Ministers don't like being surprised by anything. OIA requests would be processed – then sent to the Beehive for sign off. I have the flow charts. I see the processes. They require OIAs which are being sent to the media to be sent to the minister for sign off. It astonishes me that any minister would think they have any business reviewing OIAs before they get sent out.

Before long, it seemed nobody wanted to surprise the minister. I've been told of officials deciding to remove surprising material before it went to the Beehive.

I know of ministers who have received the results of mundane requests, going through the “sign off” process but sending the OIA late because they are hunched over the response searching for "what that bastard Fisher is really after".

Where does that leave us?

In a dark place. I have a fairly kinetic relationship with many in the public service, largely because of the type of story I do. I was concerned I had a view which was too dark, to harsh, so I canvassed widely among colleagues before coming here. I was wrong.

There are far darker, grimmer views out there than mine. Simply, we don't trust you. By commission or ommission, we think many of those who handle our OIA requests don't have the public interest at heart. We don't trust the responses we get.

Of course, we may be completely wrong. We may have made a terrible mistake. But how would we know otherwise? You don't talk to us anymore. You're too scared to. Caught between the Beehive and the media, you don't know which to face.

Or at least, that's the impression we have.

And again, we might be completely wrong.

The publication of Dirty Politics told us much of what we thought we knew. The examples in there are from ministerial offices – but they are so familiar to what we experience from government departments.

I spoke with a public service staff member in the four months before the election to ask after an OIA. She said to me "I'm really sorry, you're not getting as much as you normally would because the election is really close."

I have had OIAs stalled in the run up to the election. If anything, they are meant to come faster. But the two months leading into the election were a drought. Since September 20, it's been chucking it down. Right now, long-delayed OIAs are turning up on a daily basis.

Or they are not. A colleague of mine, came to see me yesterday. "Have you given your talk yet?" he wanted to know. "I've got to get this off my chest."

There was a report he had sought which existed in a "draft" form until the minister's signature made it final. The OIA was filed months ago, the delaying tactics used to push it off. The response sent to the reporter gave an express written assurance that, when it was signed off, it would be released.

The election came and went. The reporter has chased it up, only to be told there will be a "general dump" of information in a few weeks or a month or so. The report will be released then, among that material, buried in a mass of information.

If you think about how that happened, it can be matched up with the law. The delay for another 20 working days, the extension for consultation, then the indefinite put-off because the information is going to be released publicly.

But it's not the spirit of the law.

The "general dump", or the soon-to-be-released-publicly, is a good example of what we see as evasions, and how we develop work-arounds. Again, I say these are what we as media see. The public service might see it differently.

The general dump started to emerge a few years ago. They push off release of information outside the timeliness of the news. Rather than talking about an issue within the time frame in which the event is happening, it gets shunted out into the future where it is less relevant. It comes, usually, late in the day, often late in the week. Thousands of pages of material dumped online. Always dumped in a form that cannot be text-searched.

Now, there may be a perception among those who handle these things that it's a good way to bury bad news. That's what we think you're doing. The number of people who will trawl through documentation looking for that single line, or match facts over long timelines, is relatively few.

It turns into a bizarre arms race.

We now use amazing analytical tools. They will take scanned PDFs and turn them into a searchable format. What's more, they will categorise, timeline, entity-match characters, dates and other players throughout the thousands and thousands of pages. It becomes a library of information which we revisit time and again.

The Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment has gifted me such a tool with the SkyCity dump. When I got a tip a few weeks back that the SkyCity contract had changed, I could search every document publicly released and build a timeline of every reference which had been made to identify the change.

The other workarounds we are turning to are much worse than technology-enabled journalism. Sources have always been a key part of what I do, what journalists do. They are more important than ever now. I find myself talking to people about taking photographs of documents with their iPhones, sending me pictures of papers so I know what exists when I'm asking for it. I'm often less interested in getting what I've already got than I am in seeing what gets withheld.

I talk to public servants about copying papers, getting thumbdrives onto work systems, uploading files onto cloud servers – and how to do it without getting caught.

When I turned to my colleagues about this, I asked a range of questions, but there are three which really matter, because they are based on the three guiding principles of the legislation.

Does the way the public service handles your requests achieve the following:

a) Does it enable more effective participation by the public in the making and administration of laws and policies?


b) promote the accountability of Ministers of the Crown and officials?


c) enhance respect for the law and promote the good government of New Zealand?


A very experienced political journalist told me:

"The whole culture of the Wellington public service towards the OIA is governed by two things - the need not to embarrass your minister or your department (putting your chances of promotion or even your job at risk ) and the need to uphold the law, which public servants are more conscious of than you might think. The result is that public servants block requests for as long as they can and delete as much as they can using whatever section of the OIA that they can."

I'll tell you an exception, or an example of doing it right. It is not an exception which governs the entire agency, because there's always headquarters. There are about 9000 uniformed police staff. They are all in a position where their general orders mean they are able to respond to questions from the media on issues in which they are involved.

Police comms staff can be difficult like any other government department - although I personally think they are better.

But with so many public-facing staff, there is an acceptance staff will speak. Trying to stop them all from speaking on matters in which they are involved would be like trying to catch rain drops.

The best advertisement the police have is a constable or sergeant telling the public what they did for a living that day.

It's openness, honesty and having the courage to have back your staff on the job.

It's not always possible when the Beehive comes calling.

It's 2014 – 30 years since the OIA began working in practice, 32 years since it was passed.

There is so much that we ask for which is standard, it's hard to understand why it is not classified as people go.

Surely after 30 years of dealing with largely the same type of information, it should be known what can be withheld and what can be released.

There should be no surprises, for anyone.


This guest post is based on a speech given by David Fisher to an audience of public officials in Wellington on October 15. Thanks to David and his employer, the New Zealand Herald, for permission to use it here.


“Foreign forces”, hope and Hong Kong's Umbrella Revolution

by Nickkita Lau

Selfies have made way for Hong Kong news and images on my Facebook Timeline over the past two weeks. As a Hongkonger living in New Zealand, I have been explaining to Kiwis what our Umbrella Revolution is all about, through social media, media interviews and even the classes I’m teaching at the university.

Many of my friends and former students are actively participating in the peaceful movement in Hong Kong, demanding nothing more and nothing less than real democracy and real elections. In one of the many bilingual posts I've made, a friend commented, “Thank you. You foreign force.”

The Chinese central government has been using “internal affairs” as an excuse to fend off criticisms from the West on its handling of the situation in Hong Kong. It has framed the movement as a riot and the protesters as having been manipulated or supported by “foreign forces”, which presumably refers to foreign governments and intelligence.

Ironically, what foreign governments have done for us so far is minimal. China is one of the biggest trade partners of many Western countries including New ZealandU.S. President Barrack Obama was reportedly “watching the protests closely”, and British Prime Minister David Cameron said he was “deeply concerned” about the situation, but no countries have issued any real threat to China.

Our young protesters, mostly students in their teens and early 20s, understand the disadvantage they are at. They can’t survive if China deploys its Liberation Army in a violent crackdown. They only have one weapon—peace.

The moment our police fired the first round of tear gas at our peaceful protesters on the 28th of September, it shocked the world and angered Hongkongers overseas. Before the handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China in 1997, hundreds of thousands of Hongkongers moved to Western countries, including New Zealand, for fear of Communist rule. The emigration trend has since slowed down, but revived over the past few years because many are frustrated with the political, economic and social situations in Hong Kong.

Not only have Hong Kong homes become the most unaffordable in the world, the influx of Chinese tourists, immigrants and women giving birth in Hong Kong to get around China’s “one child policy” have put a strain on our welfare, health care, education and even public transportation systems. Many people who once loved our city lost hope and moved away.

I studied in the U.S. for almost four years. As much as I enjoyed my time there, I returned to Hong Kong after graduation because I felt strongly that I should contribute my knowledge to my city, but my passion for Hong Kong eroded over the following years to the point that it no longer felt home to me.

The Chinese presence in Hong Kong has diluted our local culture. My office was in Tsimshatsui, a shopping district popular among rich Chinese tourists. Everyday, I heard more Mandarin (the official dialect of China) than Cantonese (the mother tongue of most Hongkongers). Small local restaurants, shops and even McDonald’s have been replaced by jewellery stores, pharmacies and cosmetic stores because many Chinese don’t trust merchants or manufacturers in China. They stock up on supplies when they visit our city. Hong Kong parents even have a hard time finding baby formula sometimes.

Many merchants now cater to only Chinese tourists, incorporating or even replacing traditional Chinese (the writing system used in Hong Kong) with simplified Chinese (used in China). Some schools have adopted Mandarin as their teaching medium.

Hongkongers are ethnically Chinese. Our nationality is also technically Chinese now, but we feel very strongly that our culture and customs are vastly different from that of the Chinese. Hongkongers often correct foreigners when we are called “Chinese”. The British governed us for more than a century under the rule of law. We had an uncorrupted government. We enjoyed liberty and the freedom of speech, press, and assembly. But all these have been fading away since the handover because our current government officials and lawmakers are not elected by popular votes. They are not accountable to us, but to Chinese interests.

“This city is dying” is a quote from Hong Kong TV drama When Heaven Burns. It has since become memetic and viral among Hong Kong netizens. Before I moved to Auckland in May to pursue a Ph.D, some friends who didn’t have the means to leave told me, “Don’t come back. This city is dying.” That was exactly how I felt. I had lost hope.

The night of 28 September was a turning point. I’d just came back from a road trip when I saw numerous posts on the arrest of Joshua Wong, our teenage student leader, on my timeline. I found a live link of the protest and witnessed the police’s firing of tear gas at my own people. I’ve never felt so scared for something so distant from me. In real time, I watched how our student protesters ran away from the riot police and then courageously came back minutes later until the police fired another round, again and again. I saw the image of their bloodshot eyes and chemically burned arms. I felt powerless, not knowing what I could do to help them

A Facebook friend wrote, “Please tell your students and people in New Zealand about us.”

The next day, with the blessing of my lecturer, I informed my students what was going on and urged them to read the news, to spread the word and to learn more about what students their age were going through in Hong Kong. From that day onward, while my friends and former students are demonstrating the highest level of peace, discipline and courage in Hong Kong, holding their ground against thugs allegedly hired by the pro-Beijing camp, I’ve been promoting our cause in New Zealand. The determination our youngsters have displayed despite the attacks and threats from the government and triads made me proud to call myself a Hongkonger again.

I’m not the only one bringing international attention to the turmoil, telling everyone Hong Kong is more than ready for democracy. Hong Kong students and expatriates across the world are doing this too. The White House statement was a response to the petition created by Hongkongers living in the U.S. At least 64 rallies have been staged worldwide to support the student protesters. We are talking to international media, big and small, so that more people will hear our demands.

We do this because we understand “foreign forces” not longer only lie in governments but also with global citizens who believe in democracy, freedom and justice.

Nickkita Lau is a PhD student in Media, Film & TV at the University of Auckland. She is interview in this week's Media Take, which can be viewed here on the Maori Television website.