Genuine Open Government Empowers People and politicians alike


ONE OF THE MOST MEMORABLE aspects of A Very British Coup, is the left-wing prime minister’s commitment to open government. Thirty years may have passed since the television adaptation of Chris Mullin’s novel was broadcast on Britain’s Channel 4, but with a left-wing pacifist Leader of the Opposition poised to become the UK’s next prime minister, the series has taken on a surprisingly contemporary feel. Certainly, the question of how much of the day-to-day business of government should remain hidden from public view has become a very live issue in New Zealand.

Much has been made of the National Party Opposition’s “spamming” of the new Labour-NZ First-Green government. The thousands of written parliamentary questions piling-up in Ministers’ offices have been decried as a cheap political stunt by the Government’s supporters, but other commentators, determined to uphold the principles of government accountability and transparency have defended the Opposition’s actions.

When A Very British Coup first screened here, back in the late 1980s, I very quickly came to think of it as a wonderful primer in how a genuinely left-wing Labour government should behave. Nowhere was the radicalism of the fictional British PM, Harry Perkins, more vividly on display than in the way he treated his government’s “official information”.

Rather than force political journalists and Opposition MPs to file endless OIA requests and ask endless parliamentary questions, Harry simply announced that what he saw, they would see, also. Everything, from his daily appointments schedule, to Cabinet briefing papers and departmental reports, would be released to the news media, and the public, immediately and without distinction. Government secrecy would become a thing of the past.

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Chris Mullin (a British Labour Party MP, as well as a thriller writer) was making a truly revolutionary point about political information.

The moment a government decides that some information is simply too sensitive, problematic and/or embarrassing to be shared with the voters, it is entering into a conspiracy against the public good. Why shouldn’t ordinary citizens know who Cabinet Ministers are meeting with – and the nature and content of their discussions? It is, after all, in their name that government decisions are made, and their money which pays for them. Surely, only a politician with something to hide would raise objections to a policy of full and immediate disclosure?

Civil servants and lobbyists would, of course, object that by exposing their interventions to public scrutiny such a government would very quickly end up being told only those things that their advisers would be happy to see on the front page of the NZ Herald. To which I would respond: “And what’s wrong with that?” If their advice is well-founded in fact and devoid of any hint of self-interest, then what possible objection could they have to the public being copied in? Surely, it would only be those offering tendentious, ideologically-driven advice to ministers, or appealing to them on their private clients’ behalf, who would find such a radical open government policy objectionable?

The old adage: “Information is Power”; imposes a real moral burden on democratic socialist politicians. If democracy is all about giving power to the people, then withholding information from them is, objectively, an act of deliberate disempowerment.

A radical open government policy, such as that adopted by Harry Perkins in A Very British Coup, offers something else to democratic socialist politicians: protection from themselves. Unable to hide their words and deeds from the public, deviating from their own principles and/or their party’s policies becomes much more difficult!

Harry Perkins, unlike Steve Maharey, could never quietly abandon a policy with the cynical observation that it was “just one of those things you say in Opposition and then forget about in Government”. His radical open government policy was, at once, a means of further empowering the people who elected him, and of making sure they were governed by decent and more honest politicians.

No wonder the Establishment was so desperate to bring him down!


  1. In recent times (say since 1995) local government and central government have operated a top-down system, in which ordinary folk are completely powerless and the very best scientific and economic evidence is completely ignored by the incompetent fools and zealots that are at the helm.

    I cannot see anything changing because self-serving liars now make up the bulk of the bureaucracy, and cannot be removed because there is no accountability anywhere and no mechanism for holding incompetent fools, liars and zealots to account. Indeed, everything at the local government level is now completely Orwellian and there is no point in attempting to engage with them.

    By the way, in the 2016 Victoria University survey on the matter of who New Zealanders trust, local government scored 12%, down from 49% in the previous survey. In the same survey, cabinet ministers scored about 6%, from memory.



  2. good lord!….i think you may have cracked it!

    However I suspect that even Jacinda Adern can not manage to be a Harry Perkins… those close around would never stand for it.

    Business as usual.

    • It’s all about a national fishing expidition silly boy, you said “information is power”

      We never got transperancy from National, because they operated on “stealth” and the advantage of having that knowledge was their power.

      So no Chris, we all could not tust national with anything as they are just looking for ways to stymie the government before it completes its audit of the last nine years of the worst government we have ever had in our entire history.

      Natioal was/is full of lies lies and more lies, – and since we weren’t allowed to see their papers we could never prove their deception could we.

      An example appear before us yesterday; – like what just came to light about the “hidden EY Rail Values Report; – produced last year by the national government showing rail gave a $1.5 Billion value to our NZ economy, and national and kiwirail kept it secret so who has kept papers from us?

      Yes national did.

      Case closed.

  3. The closer and closer we become with the Chinese dictatorship, the further No Zealand moves from genuine and open government, to an faceless opaque mirror-soled boot, standing on human faces forever.

  4. Trouble with this is, the REAL world is ruled by more or less powerful, vested interest holding lobby groups, many businesses, who follow agendas.

    And as governments are usually only voted in, with the financial and other help of such well resourced lobby groups, the governments, no matter what they subscribe to in political ideology, tend to make compromises and deals, some of which they also rather not wish to be revealed to their supporters, definitely not their opponents.

    That is part of the whole problem of humanity, as we have it.

    That is why we never get substantial change.

  5. How interesting regarding the timing of this article regarding THIS :

    John Key, mass surveillance and what really happened when Edward … › New Zealand

    And when Snowden tried to warn this ignorant head – in – the – sand population ?

    Snowden: ‘You are being watched’ | Newshub

    Edward Snowden says John Key not telling truth on allegations of ……john-key…mass-spying-snowden/5745178

    I think back to ALL of that long , long list of sycophantic far right wing Nat/ Act supporters and trolls who habitually flooded The Daily Blog and The Standard constantly in defense of the most corrupt Prime Minister this country has ever known.

    That is the colossal gall and hostility to democracy that these scum expose themselves as being.

    This country is indeed blessed , for just in the nick of time that corrupt govt was voted out : peacefully.

    And luckily so for those who made up the prior National govt, might I add.

    But we are a slow learning country , all too gullible , too laid back , all too trusting.And it almost resulted in our own dictator and one party system, restrained only by a remnant population of people who knew a more honest and caring NZ, – and a growing number of working poor and homeless and those that became the victims of a false economy based on housing speculation…

    We once knew a better time until the devious Roger Douglas and the then called Business Roundtable ( now the NZ Initiative ) worked their deceit on the nation , their Mont Pelerin Society neo liberalism.

    New Right Fight – Who are the New Right?

    And it was that ‘free for all’ ‘anything goes’ attitude that neo liberalism lends itself to that almost wrecked us. And it was the sort of disgusting anti democratic antics of the likes of John Key and those who used him as they did Douglas as their puppet. And that certainly destroyed any pretense of impartiality in our major newsmedia outlets.

    Now , … in light of Chris Trotters article about transparency in government , … and in light of the deceit of John Key in lying to the NZ public about mass surveillance , – and the vindication of Glenn Greenwald , Edward Snowden , Julian Assange , Robert Amsterdam at The Moment of Truth , – and critically – Mr Kim Dotcom in that he was right all along about Key and his lies ,…

    …Isn’t it time we rescind John Keys Knighthood? .

    That would go a long way towards reinforcing that this country , – will NOT tolerate LIARS in our Government , – either at local body or parliamentary.

    That message needs to be sent.

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