Request for Treasury analysis on emissions trading scheme
Information part of ongoing stream of work—release, with or without the context, would compromise the policy development process—s 9(2)(f)(iv) applies—overall public interest not served by disclosure of information that would undermine policy development—most advice would be released proactively when the framework document was released
In 2007 the Dominion Post reported that the Treasury estimated there would be a negligible impact on the economy from adopting an emissions trading scheme. A requester sought the relevant Treasury analysis, and complained to the Ombudsman when this was refused under section 9(2)(f)(iv).
The information at issue comprised two very small pieces of information contained within a larger batch of information that was itself ‘compact’. It was clear that this information was part of an ongoing stream of work related to the emissions trading project. Treasury explained that it was neither practicable nor logical to attempt to undertake detailed modelling or analysis of macroeconomic impacts until a clearer picture of the proposed emissions trading scheme had emerged, most likely some months away. Indeed, for all practical purposes, modelling was not feasible until the parameters of the proposed scheme were known.
Treasury argued that the information in question would be of little real value to the requester without broader contextual information, but release, with or without the context, would compromise the policy development process. While this entailed an intensive and high output work programme with officials meeting regularly with Ministers, Cabinet had yet to consider the matter.
The Chief Ombudsman accepted that it was critical that the policy development process was managed in a coherent and orderly manner given the complex and technical nature of the policy work, with a high degree of interconnectedness between different issues. Piecemeal release of preliminary work without full context while the matter was still under very active consideration was likely to be highly disruptive. It would not inform stakeholders or the public at large, and would lead to Ministers being unfairly examined publicly on detailed aspects of proposals still in the formative stages on which they could not be adequately briefed at the time.
While there was undoubtedly a public interest in disclosure of information related to the development of policy, the overall public interest was not served by disclosure of information that undermined the processes in which that development occurred.
The Government recognised that emissions trading proposals were controversial and contentious and that the outcome of the work would be material to both the government and business. It was also accepted that parties potentially affected by the introduction of a trading scheme had a legitimate interest at stake, and that it was in the public interest for such parties to have the opportunity to make a contribution to the policy development process.
The Chief Ombudsman noted that submissions on related policy discussion papers released in 2005 and 2006 were one input to the current stream of work. He also understood that relevant officials had met informally with representatives of business organisations to hear their views on cost/benefit issues. Discussions with other stakeholders had and would continue to occur throughout the policy development process. Furthermore, it was the Government’s intention to engage with stakeholders once a framework document had been prepared and issued.
In the light of the above and the Chief Ombudsman’s understanding that most advice to Ministers would be released proactively at the time of the framework document, he considered that the public interest in disclosure of the requested information did not outweigh the interests in withholding.
This case note is published under the authority of the Ombudsmen Rules 1989. It sets out an Ombudsman’s view on the facts of a particular case. It should not be taken as establishing any legal precedent that would bind an Ombudsman in future.