Ardern’s ‘open government’ more secretive than ever

When Jacinda Ardern was elected as prime minister the first time, she stood in parliament and told us her government would be open and transparent. It isn’t. In fact, obtaining information from government appears to be harder today than under former PM John Key and his ‘no surprises’ policy / agreement with civil servants.

The agreement meant civil servants would run any announcement by Key’s office before releasing it to the media or public. Just so he could be prepared, not that he’d want to prevent or alter the response before it was handed out you understand.

Today we have Jacinda Ardern who has a team of people who tightly control what the media and public get to hear. And if her people can’t control it, they trump it with some other event; a child’s birthday, engagement announcement, marriage announcement, apologizing for some historical event, anything will do to flick the focus away from what really matters, to disrupt the news cycle.

This week, Stuff columnist and reporter Andrea Vance turned her attention to this very issue in what can only be called a gutsy pop at Ardern and her government. Remember Stuff (and other media outlets) has been given millions of your dollars by the government.

Vance’s column, highlighting just how difficult it is to obtain answers to sometimes very simple questions, is something many journalists have experienced – including your truly.

Ask even a basic question to clarify a fact, and it will be placed in the OIA queue as a matter of routine…

Ask even a basic question to clarify a fact, and it will be placed in the OIA queue as a matter of routine – meaning the government department in question won’t respond for at least 20 working days.

Vance points out that since Ardern came to power on a ticket of openness, transparency, and being kind, she has bolstered her public relations team. She has four PR advisers, all the other ministers have two each.

  • The Ministry for the Environment used to have 10 PR staff, it’s now up to 18.
  • The Ministry for Foreign Affairs and Trade more than doubled its staff to 25.
  • MBIE’s PR staff numbers are up from 48 to 64 (where do they put them all?).
  • The New Zealand Transport Agency has 72 staff (up from 26 five years ago) – if they were filling pot holes in the roads then it would be brilliant, except they aren’t. They are…Well God knows what they do all day. No wonder the government is building more office accommodation

And these PR staffers are fantastic at slowing down news reporters and journalists from doing their job. They are masters at the game. All these extra staff, and getting information takes longer! It must be policy to be uncooperative with the media.

When the covid issue was at its height Jacinda Ardern held a nationally-broadcast prime-time press conference announcing she would be making an announcement the following day – imagine that! Who else could get away with it?

In one presser, she even admitted to having embarked on two weeks of “solid propaganda” (she used that word) to basically scare people stupid in the early days of the covid outbreak. Anyone have current suicide stats?

Ministers and the PM are also very careful about who they allow to ask them questions. If they think (know) a journalist is going to challenge them then that journalist, as Vance has found out, doesn’t get a look in.

This government is not open. It is not transparent. It makes you wonder whom the ministers work for, because I think they’ve forgotten they are our representatives – put in place by us to do what we want, not what they want.


Steve Hart is a writer and podcaster.