Does the new government mean open government?

In one of her first major interviews after becoming prime minister, Jacinda Ardern told Checkpoint that she wanted to not just do more with government but also change the way it operated. “I also want this government to feel different, I want people to feel that it’s open, that it’s listening and that it’s going to bring kindness back.”

This sounds very promising. It is, though, the sort of thing that new leaders often say but which is much harder to sustain when they are under full attack from an Opposition searching for dirt, embarrassing official information act requests are landing, and so on.

So will it be sustained? The agreements that Labour has signed with the other parties provide some good, if vague indications that it might.

The coalition agreement with New Zealand First notes a general desire for “building public confidence in, and engagement with Parliament, and Government and the electoral system as a whole. We are committed to an independent and robust public service.”

Slightly more specifically, it promises an “independent review of the integrity of electoral processes and enrolments” and a review of “the processes of Parliament to reflect an MMP environment”.

Meanwhile the confidence and supply agreement with the Greens has a more intellectually rigorous, if equally unspecific, commitment to “strengthen New Zealand’s democracy by increasing public participation, openness, and transparency around official information”.

I’m not sure what the first New Zealand First commitment refers to, since the integrity of our electoral system is regarded as being pretty strong. On the second, Parliament’s processes definitely need overhauling, and I have set out ideas for that elsewhere, but I’m not sure they are MMP-specific, rather something that all Western parliaments need to do to bring themselves into the 21st century: allowing more direct input from citizens, making better use of digital technology, finding ways to deepen scrutiny and deliberation, and so on. So it’s hard to know what will come out of that.

As for the Greens, they have put forward various proposals for open government in the past, so I would expect them to keep pushing things like bringing the Offices of Parliament under the Official Information Act, putting annual limits on donations to political parties (not that that is likely to progress), creating a register of lobbyists, and so on.

At this stage it’s all a guessing game, but in general I would expect movement on some of the more technical elements, especially around the OIA; the real question is whether anything more substantive will change. We’ll just have to wait and see.

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