Recent court victories by Jane Kelsey and Jon Stephenson have vindicated those who have long complained about the culture of excess that permeates the National government’s cabinet. Excess and abuse of authority preceded the current government but this one has taken the practice to art form. It has resulted in allegations of corruption and behaviour such as that outlined in Nicky Hager’s Dirty Politics, and it has compromised the integrity of the DPMC, GCSB, NZDF, Ombudsman and SIS in doing so. If it did not openly encourage, at a minimum it facilitated managerial excess in agencies “overseen” by a variety of ministerial portfolios. The combination of ministerial and managerial excess–executive excess, to re-coin the phrase–is malignant in a liberal democracy.
Apparently the courts, or perhaps better said, two High Court judges, have caught on to the problem. Although the reasoning of the judge that forced the Stephenson settlement has not been made public, the judge in the Kelsey versus Groser case made abundantly clear that the “unlawful” behaviour exhibited by Groser and his staff included the Office of the Ombudsman as well as abuse of process. Likewise, the settlement of the Stephenson case involved not only a payment but a retraction and statement of regret by the NZDF as an institution, rather than by the command officer who was the subject of the defamation lawsuit. That suggests that more than one individual and branch of government may have had a hand in slandering Mr. Stephenson. Yet no independent review of their actions has been done.
There are other instances where the independence and integrity of reviewing agencies have come into question. Think of the Police Complaints Authority and the skepticism with which its findings are held. Think of past findings (such as during the Zaoui case) by the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security. Think of the way Crown Law has behaved in several high profile politically charged cases. Although adjustments have been made to some oversight agencies like the IGSI and not all oversight agencies are uniformly compromised, there appears to be a necrosis spreading across the system of institutional checks and balances in Aotearoa.
Those who regularly submit Official Information Act (OIA) requests will already know that the process is routinely abused, especially but not exclusively by security services. Delays beyond the mandated time frame for response are common. Censoring of material prior to release is common. So is the Ombudsman’s practice of upholding decisions to withhold or censor material on broadly defined national security grounds. Cynics might say that is a case of one hand washing the other. Others might go further and say that the problem is systemic rather than random and occasional. However skepticism is voiced, there is a sense that when it comes to the Ombudsman and other oversight agencies, they are more about whitewashing than honest scrutiny.
This again raises the issue of politically neutral, independent and transparent oversight. I have written a fair bit on the need for independent oversight of intelligence agencies above and beyond the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security, Commissioner of Warrants and current Select Committee on Intelligence and Security. I have not written about the problems with the Office of the Ombudsman and treatment of OIAs. But it should be clear by now that when it comes to democratic oversight of executive departments and those that lead them, New Zealand is hollow at its core.
Readers may recall that I have written about horizontal and vertical accountability in the democratic state. This academic concept finds real meaning in this case. Beyond the problem of vertical accountability in a country where electoral preferences are the subject of poll-driven media manipulation by government PR agents, elite cronyism is the norm and where civil society organisations are weak in the face of that, there is a serious lack of horizontal accountability in New Zealand. Agencies such as the Ombudsman that are entrusted with overseeing the behaviour of politicians and senior state managers Â are seemingly subordinate (or at least submissive) to them. With some notable exceptions, when it comes to executive excess even the courts appear to have become as much instruments as they are arbiters of government policy and behaviour.
The first question that has to be asked is when does ministerial skirting or manipulation of the rules rise to the level of criminal offence? Is the complicity of more than one government entity (say, MFAT and the Ombudsman) in circumventing or obstructing OIA requests a trigger for a criminal investigation? Â If not, what is? If so, who prosecutes the offence given current institutional arrangements?
There are a number of reviews and investigations of government agencies already underway. There are Royal Commissions on matters of policy. Private prosecutions are possible. Constitutional experts may know the answer, but I wonder if there also is an overarching investigatory body or process with legal authority that can look into the system of institutional (horizontal) Â accountability and oversight mechanisms currently operative in the country. I ask because from where I sit the system looks broken.