In August 2019 I asked the Prime Minister the following:
Under the Official Information Act I seek the following information – the number of meetings between yourself and either the Director-General of the Security Intelligence Service or the Director-General of the Government Communications Security Bureau between 1 January 2018 and 30 June 2019. This should exclude meetings of the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee.
I’d like the information broken down by month, and by Director-General.
Please note I am not seeking any information about the content of the meetings, or their duration – purely how often they have occurred.
The reason for the request was a tip off that there had been several missed meetings prior to March 2019. So the purpose of the OIA request was to find out if this was correct. As it happens, it doesn’t appear to be. And I wouldn’t even be blogging on the request, except for the fact the PM’s Office initially denied the request on the most spurious of grounds.
In September the PM’s Chief of Staff responded saying they are withholding the information because releasing it could prejudice the security or defence of New Zealand.
This was so outraegous, I did something I have never ever done before. I complained to the Ombudsman. I’ve been using the OIA for 20 years or so and have never before complained, but this refusal was so obviously illegal.
I very deliberately did a very specific request that should have been impossible to decline – merely the number of meetings each month. Not what was discussed, or how long they lasted or what dates they were on. I framed it in such a way it should have been impossible to decline it, yet they did.
In my complaint to the Ombudsman I wrote:
I do not believe this is a reasonable refusal as it is inconceivable simply saying how often the PM has met with the DGs can endanger NZ’s security or defence. I was careful to say I was not requesting any details of content or duration or reason.
There is a public interest in how often Ministers meet with their CEs. This information is routinely released for other Ministers (release of diaries is now proactive). It can show how focused a Minister is on a particular portfolio. To suggest that one can’t even reveal how often the PM has met with the two Director-Generals just because of their agency’s role seems farcical.
I note the SIS itself has been happy to publish how often it has met the Leader of the Opposition (https://fyi.org.nz/request/1814/response/6554/attach/html/2/img%20820144534%200001.pdf.html) and even the duration of these meetings. Also the GCSB provided this information also (https://fyi.org.nz/request/2021/response/6998/attach/3/2014%2010%2014%20OIA%20Request%20Alex%20Harris%20Response.pdf)
My view is that the information I asked for should be provided, unless the Office of the Prime Minister can specifically and credibly explain who releasing it would undermine the security or defence of New Zealand or its international relations.
So the security agencies themselves had released far more detailed info on meetings than the PMs Office was willing to, which shows there decision was in obvious bad faith.
In October the Chief Ombudsman advised me he will investigate my complaint and has written to the Prime Minister. I later discovered that previous PMs had released information more detailed that what I had requested so I was confident of a favourable outcome.
In February 2020 the Chief Ombudsman advised the PM’s Office had responded to him and he is seeking further info from them.
Then in March the Chief Ombudsman advised me the PM’s Office had decided to release the information after his intervention. The information was finally provided here. As I said earlier, the data didn’t match what my tip off said (however it does say a meeting cancelled at the last minute may not have been removed from the diaries so not conclusive) so I wouldn’t have done a blog post on this if they had released the data within 20 days as required by law.
But instead it took seven months and the intervention of the Chief Ombudsman to release the information, despite similar information having been released in the past.
So once again we see the claim to be the most open and transparent government to be rather lacking.
My thanks to the Chief Ombudsman and his staff for their work on this. I felt bad taking up some of their time, but I felt the original refusal was so obviously wrong that it couldn’t stand.