30 years of the OIA in NZ
30 years ago today, on 1 July 1983, the Official Information Act (OIA) came into force. Described by then Prime Minister The Right Honourable Sir Robert David Muldoon as “A nine day wonder”, the Court of Appeal later said in 1988 that “the permeating importance of the Act is such that it is entitled to be ranked as a constitutional measure”.
The OIA allows the public to seek access to information held by government. The Ombudsmen have the role of independently reviewing OIA decisions made by government on access requests.
Chief Ombudsman Dame Beverley Wakem considers the OIA has stood the test of time. She believes it is important to recognise the anniversary, stating “Over 30 years the OIA has become part of the very fabric of citizen’s interaction with government in a modern democratic state”.
Prior to the OIA, officials worked under the regime of the Official Secrets Act 1951, which stated that official information should never be released without specific reason or authorisation. There were even criminal sanctions for releasing information without authorisation. Following a growing movement for change and a review in 1978, the Danks Committee recommended that the Official Secrets Act should be replaced and “The Government should reaffirm its responsibility to keep the public informed of its activities and make official information available unless there is good reason to withhold it”.
The Danks Committee’s findings are reflected in the overriding principle of availability set out in the OIA – that information must be made available unless there is good reason for withholding it. This principle effectively turned the Official Secrets Act on its head and heralded the beginning of a new era of openness and accountability by government in New Zealand.
The key purposes of the OIA are to:
- progressively increase the availability of official information to enable more effective participation, promote accountability, and enhance respect for the law and promote the good government of New Zealand; and
- protect official information to the extent consistent with the public interest and the preservation of personal privacy.
Dame Beverley considers these purposes are as relevant today as they were 30 years ago, stating “I look forward to continuing developments in this area over the next 30 years”.