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Sacking Of Whistleblower Over Costello’s Advice Shows System Lacks Transparency

The sacking of a Ministry of Health public servant over a leak to media is the result of a broken public policy system which fails to provide the transparency a democratic country should expect.

RNZ today reported a public servant who leaked advice sought by Associate Minister of Health Casey Costello about a freeze on excise tax on tobacco to RNZ has been dismissed.

Costello this week apologised to Parliament for "any confusion" about whether she had been truthful to the media when she denied requesting the advice.

Health Coalition Aotearoa’s (HCA) legitimate attempt to gain information about the repeal of the Smokefree law (2022) through an Official Information Act (OIA) request was blocked by the Ministry of Health.

HCA believes the New Zealand public has the right to know about proposals and advice sought by and provided to the relevant Minister when the topic is of vital public interest, and particularly in relation to legislation that is being passed under urgency.

Costello’s request for advice on a proposal to freeze excise tax on tobacco mirrors the objective sought by the tobacco industry.

Her advice could be considered a breach of the WHO - Framework on the Convention for Tobacco Control - an international treaty to which New Zealand is a party.

The Framework recognises and protects against aggressive lobbying tactics taken by the tobacco industry to interfere in public health policy over decades.

"Without the leaked information, you have to ask if the activities of the Associate Minister of Health would ever have seen the light of day," HCA co-chair Professor Lisa Te Morenga said.

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HCA’s OIA request was made on December 18, 2023, for all correspondence, including advice relating to the repeal between Ministry staff and Associate Minister of Health Casey Costello, Minister of Health Dr Shane Reti and Cabinet.

It was withheld by the Ministry "to maintain the current constitutional conventions protecting the political neutrality of officials and the confidentiality of advice tendered by Ministers and officials".

HCA has lodged a complaint about the decision with the Ombudsman, arguing public interest in the repeal of a law which would have grave consequences for the health of thousands of New Zealanders far outweighed other considerations.

The Government is planning to repeal the Smokefree law (2022) within its first 100 days or by March 8, 2024.

New Zealand has no laws or regulations in place to protect public policymaking from the undue influence of lobbying by vested interests. HCA has this week released a consultation document on options to address this problem - as part of its wider advocacy to improve transparency in public policy-making, including a call for the OIA to be reviewed.

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