Chief Ombudsman 'troubled' by time Government took to release list of meetings

The country's top watchdog says Government spin doctors appear to be breaking the law when answering media's questions.

It took just under three months for Newshub to get a response on fact-checking the Prime Minister, which the Chief Ombudsman said is troubling.

Pages of black documents; official advice to a minister, but good luck reading it. It's redacted because it's considered free and frank advice.

"We answer more questions and release officially more information than you've seen in the past," Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said of her Government.

Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier has been investigating how transparent the government actually is.

"Transparency generally is better. Why? There is more evidence of proactive release. We found that during the pandemic," he said. 

Boshier's been looking at government agencies - not the Beehive - and their adherence to the Official Information Act - aka the OIA.

"This Act is fundamental to democracy and supply of information," Boshier said.

He's worried about how officials respond to journalists and how they refuse requests.

"Eight out of the 12 agencies we investigated were not complying," he said.

Ardern said gains have been made.

"There's always more to do though."

That could include improving timeliness. 

In June, the Prime Minister said: "In the last 18 months, we have had 100 ministerial or formal engagements with our Pacific Islands counterparts."

To fact-check this, the next day Newshub asked for a list of those meetings from the Prime Minister's Office. To get a publishable list we were referred to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFAT). It was treated as an OIA and the OIA clock started.

Twenty working days later - bang on the legal limit - MFAT extended the request, saying it needed more time to consult. Another 25 working days later, MFAT said it needed until the end of August.

Then on August 25 - 55 working days later or almost three months or more than twice the legal limit - the list is sent. 

It showed there were 140 meetings, more than what Ardern stated. But Boshier's troubled. 

"I am troubled by that timeline and you wonder whether that's a conscientious application of the Act," Boshier said. 

Ardern said her Government has worked hard to be the most transparent Government ever. 

Boshier has also been looking into rogue Labour backbencher Dr Gaurav Sharma's claims the Beehive is dodging the OIA. But said he hasn't detected a substantial problem, so isn't taking it further.