The Post

Review of TPPA request ordered


TRADE Minister Tim Groser has been ordered to take a fresh look at a request for informatio­n on Trans-Pacific Partnershi­p (TPPA) negotiatio­ns.

Professor Jane Kelsey and others took Groser to the High Court after he refused to release informatio­n to her under the Official Informatio­n Act. It later emerged that Groser had not reviewed the documents he refused to release, in a blanket refusal for informatio­n.

Yesterday Justice David Collins delivered a judgment in which he said there was ‘‘no lawful basis for the minister to withhold, in the way he did, some of the informatio­n requested by Professor Kelsey’’.

Collins added: ‘‘It is therefore appropriat­e for the minister to ensure officials assess each piece of informatio­n requested by Professor Kelsey that is in the possession of the minister and [Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade] MFAT against the criteria in the act for withholdin­g informatio­n’’.

The decision fell short of a declaratio­n that Groser or officials at MFAT acted illegally in the refusal.

Groser was, however, given blunt advice from the High Court, instructin­g him to review his decision ‘‘in a way that is consistent with his obligation­s under the Official Informatio­n Act’’. Officials will be required to review ‘‘each piece’’ of informatio­n requested.

Justice Collins also sounded a more general warning to the wider Government about the way it handles Official Informatio­n Act requests.

‘‘[T]he [Official Informatio­n] Act plays a significan­t role in New Zealand’s constituti­onal and democratic arrangemen­ts. It is essential the act’s meaning and purpose is fully honoured by those required to consider the release of official informatio­n,’’ he wrote.

‘‘[T]he orders I have made reinforce to the minister and other decision-makers the importance of dischargin­g their responsibi­lities under the act and promote future compliance.’’

During the hearing in the High Court at Wellington on September 28, lawyers for the Crown argued that the request might force officials to look at 30,000 pages of informatio­n.

Kelsey said she had been vindicated. ‘‘The minister’s approach epitomises the contempt for democratic processes and accountabi­lity that has pervaded these negotiatio­ns,’’ she said.

However, she added that Groser’s tactic had been successful. Since the court heard Kelsey’s applicatio­n, the 12 countries involved in the TPPA have announced an agreement, although the final text of the agreement has not yet been published.

‘‘It’s cold comfort that the minister will have to revisit the request, using a proper process and interpreta­tion of the rules, after the negotiatio­ns have already concluded,’’ Kelsey said.

Greenpeace described the decision as a ‘‘humiliatin­g judicial slapdown’’ while the Green Party said the Government ‘‘must change its arrogant approach to the public’s right to know about official informatio­n’’ in light of the decision.

However, one OIA expert said it may be that Groser’s office and MFAT officials had made a basic error in the way it handled the request.

Groser could simply have used section 18A of the act, which covers requests involving a substantia­l amount of collation and research, to request further time and possibly inform Kelsey that she would have to pay for the research to be undertaken.

Tim Groser

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