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Malcolm Aitken: Agreeing With Winston!!!

Former Scoop Streets Of London correspondent Malcolm Aitken gets all official about information, reassesses the Muldoon era (sort of) and wonders how worrying it is that he agrees with Winston Peters…

Agreeing With Winston!!!

An Ombudsman’s decision with possibly huge ramifications for the disclosure of official information was reported in the DomPost last week.

It was upheld that Health Minister Annette King could refuse to reveal food safety information under the Official Information Act (OIA). Specifically, regarding products that had tested positive for GMOs. Green MP Sue Kedgley had lodged the request. Commercial sensitivity wasn’t cited by the Ombudsman, although this was alluded to by the Minister before the matter got to that stage. Privacy was not the reason given, nor was it deemed the public interest would be more damaged than advanced by any disclosures.

The Australian and New Zealand Food Regulation Ministerial Council (ANZFRMC) is a powerful transTasman body, through which Australian state health ministers, the Australian Federal Health Minister and our Health Minister make joint decisions on food standards. New Zealand casts one of ten votes. The Ombudsman upheld that as an international body ANZFRMC was exempt from the OIA.

This was a completely logical and understandable decision…and probably the only tenable one under the OIA as it stands (section 6 …conclusive reasons for withholding official information include…if that information likely ‘prejudices the entrusting of information to the New Zealand government on the basis of confirmation by any agency of a government of another country, or any international organisation’. The Ombudsman may have had their hands tied. But…think about it.

It’s food standards we are talking about here, what we eat…and New Zealanders’ right to know what they are eating. ANZFRMC provides the policy and strategy settings that the Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) works to. It can demand a revision of any existing or proposed food standard and accept or reject what FSANZ comes back with. It’s a non-elected supranational body. Parliamentary sovereignty and accountability are compromised anyway, which is questionable.

But, when you consider this body’s proceedings can remain secret essentially because of this, its all sounds a bit dangerously unaccountable. Ms Kedgley has even claimed that the Australian Federal Health Minister can direct FSANZ to the extent that New Zealand food safety policy is solely in their hands. This could become sharply relevant if Australia drops genetic labelling under US pressure.

The OIA was enacted more than twenty years ago and maybe it’s time it was amended so that international bodies New Zealand belongs to could be covered. Also, there should be an enlightened public debate about how ‘commercial sensitivity’ is used to cover up all sorts of nefarious activities done using taxpayers’ money without their knowledge, let alone consent. New Zealand’s tendering for defence contracts leaps to mind.

Anyway, while we are on the subject of dodgy, authoritarian approaches to government, in New Zealand terms, Robert Muldoon’s administration (1975 to 1984) certainly falls into both categories. With some justification many socially liberal and even just younger New Zealanders saw 1984 as the year we exited a dark age of sorts. Prior to that grey, old men ruled the country. Muldoon was a man of classic old school conservatism. The NZRFU stalwarts who wanted to play their beloved rugby and didn’t want pinko upstarts like John Minto telling them what to do…. seemed natural mates for Rob…classic Kiwi blokes who in some cases seemed to embody the brute strength and ignorance ethos.

Muldoon presided over an unforgivably high level of state-sanctioned brutality (I said in New Zealand terms remember). But as much as Piggy Muldoon was a pushy autocrat, it was his government that created a very progressive and in some ways liberating piece of legislation in the OIA. Even its harshest critics acknowledge its sound underpinning principles and wide applicability. It’s good for the history books (or web pages) to record things in all their complexity and to portray people as complete entities, with all the apparent contradictions we mortals are riddled with. Muldoon wasn’t all bad.

Anyway, once New Zealand was out of that dark age, women’s affairs were suddenly on the agenda, sexism was openly talked about, the Maori renaissance was set into motion with Maori being made an official language. Treaty claims were made retrospective, and gay rights were legislated. Liberalization on the economic and financial fronts was quite a different phenomenon though.

Winston Peters’ Asian bashing rhetoric irritates this writer immensely and you’re not reading a fan of his. However, his bottom line for going into a coalition with Don, terminator of Brash Bill, is admirable. Winston says he wants referenda to be binding. ‘About time’ I here thousands of New Zealanders sigh in unison. There would be a parliamentary veto (75 percent of MPs) under Winston’s plans and up to four referenda each year. Some politicians might start listening to the public just a bit more intently.

Winston pushes some reactionary barrows and certainly referenda are hardly some guarantor of broad minded, well thought out stances, but Margaret Wilson and Helen Clark’s arrogance regarding the abolition of the Privy Council brought into sharp focus the need for a brake on representative political power.

Binding referenda would perhaps evolve in their sophistication and precision over time, even if Wilson has referred to referenda as blunt instruments. If referenda are blunt instruments, what the hell is a vote every three years for a party list of promises that you accept or reject wholesale? To protect individuals and minority communities from the tyranny of the majority (or substantial minority), you simply ensure you’ve got a strong, entrenched bill of rights or similar. Referenda can enable people to have a meaningful say in the direction of their country on many fundamental levels.

The world has been put to rights.

*** ENDS ***

- Malcolm Aitken is a Wellington based freelance journalist he can be contacted at malcolmaitken@hotmail.com

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