Openness championed

By: Terry Moore

Free speech is in the news and in this regard, a recent local debate on euthanasia in Orewa (see story p30) was an example of how people can express views that others heartily disagree with, or find offensive, on an emotive topic in a public forum, without a fight breaking out.

For journalists, the importance of free speech goes hand in hand with freedom of information. The witch-hunt into who leaked Simon Bridges’ expenses was a distraction from the key point – the National leader’s excessive spending. We are not talking about state secrets here. In the Bridges case, the revelations were made anyway – this was just a week earlier than planned.

Whistle blowers brave the threats held over them for divulging information for two main reasons – because they believe the public has a right to know, and/or they stand to gain from the revelations. It is because of those threats that journalists never reveal their sources, in effect making it possible for people to speak freely, if anonymously, without fear of reprisals and for that information to go out to the community.

Closer to home, our local board last month debated, for the fourth time (since 2014) the issue of whether to open the doors of its workshops to media and the public. Workshops, which include briefings by Council staff and the circulation of information, are held almost weekly. Agendas have the word ‘confidential’ stamped all over them, although few, if any, of the items would meet the criteria for a closed-door discussion at a public local board meeting. No Minutes are provided.

The issue of opening workshops is divisive with our local board evenly split and, for the second time, the chair using her casting vote to keep workshops closed.
Among the reasons put forward were the lack of “clamour from the public” for open workshops, that staff feel uncomfortable presenting in front of the media and that some members think free and frank discussions would be difficult with the public present.
In most cases, closed-door discussions are not principally because of personal privacy or commercial sensitivity concerns. It is about control. Controlling the message, including what is said and when, is of prime importance to many organisations – not only Auckland Council.

This paper challenges the Hibiscus & Bays local board members who voted in favour of more transparency to back their words with actions. If they truly believe in principles of openness, then when an issue has no right to be discussed in confidence, they should share it – whether through this paper or by any other means. Actions speak louder than words and it’s time for our elected members to put the community’s right to know first.

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