Regional economic development minister Shane Jones is refusing to make public messages backing his criticism of Fonterra chair John Wilson.
Self-styled “provincial champion” Jones launched a blistering attack on the long-serving dairy co-operative boss last month. Defending his remarks, Jones then claimed 365 people had sent messages supporting his stance.
But the NZ First Minister is now refusing to release those text messages. And that raises questions about the Government’s official record-keeping processes.
“The messages I was referring to were received predominantly on my private phone and not in my capacity as a Minister. They therefore do not fall within the scope within the scope of the Official Information Act 1982,” Jones said in a letter to Stuff.
After further questions from Stuff, Jones appeared to soften his stance.
“We should not have declined your OIA on the grounds that the messages were received to his personal phone,” a spokeswoman said.
She said the request would now be declined “because of section 18 (f) – [of the Official Information Act] that the information requested cannot be made available without substantial collation or research.”
Jones’ office did not explain how members of the public had obtained his private cellphone number.
“The minister has two cell phones and he pays the bill for his personal one. When he receives messages to his personal phone in a ministerial capacity, the minister forwards them on to his staff,” the spokeswoman said.
“It’s worth noting that many messages of support were received from the minister’s wide social network as well as being received verbally.”
Jones had claimed Fonterra was disconnected from the farming community and that Wilson should “take the next cab out of town.” He made the comments on a ministerial visit to Fieldays in Waikato. He even launched a forestry scholarship at the event. Later that day, he repeated them to media on his way into the debating chamber at Parliament.
He defended his stance, saying: “It’s not unreasonable as the provincial champion for me to challenge on behalf of the 365 people who messaged me last night, the corporate culture of our largest company.”
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern later tried to distance the Government from the attack, claiming he “did not make them [the remarks] as a minister.”
How politicians communicate has come under increasing scrutiny. Then-United States presidential candidate Donald Trump made his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server a centrepiece of his 2016 presidential election campaign.
And in 2015, then-Prime Minister John Key was subject to an inquiry by the country’s chief archivist Marilyn Little after he deleted texts from Dirty Politics blogger Cameron Slater. Little concluded he broke no rules – but was poorly advised by officials on public record-keeping.
The Public Records Act says: “Every public office must maintain in an accessible form, so as to be able to be used for subsequent reference, all public records that are in its control, until their disposal is authorised by or under this Act or required by or under another Act.”
University of Otago law professor Andrew Geddis said it didn’t really matter how the messages were received.
“The fact the messages were on a ‘private phone’ is not dispositive – the question is, in what capacity did Jones receive them? If he did so with his Minister hat on, then it is Official Information and also must be retained under the Public Records Act. Focus is on the capacity info is received in, not the mechanism of receipt.”
Jones did release nine emails to Stuff, in praise of his comment.
“Given that … Jones made his original comments as a Minister for Regional Development … public responses to those comments presumptively were in his capacity as minister,” Geddis said. “Indeed, [officials] appear to have recognised this by releasing the email correspondence that he received on the issue.”
National’s economic and regional development spokesman Paul Goldsmith said Jones should be prepared to back up his claims of support.
“We can only conclude that like many of his boasts, this was hot air.”
Goldsmith said Jones has “repeatedly been secretive and misleading”. He said $130 million of funding has been announced for his provincial growth fund “and he has refused to release any details about the funding for those projects.
The Department of Internal Affairs Ministerial and Secretariat Services (MaSS) provides guidance to Ministers and their staff on their compliance with the Public Records Act (PRA).
A spokewoman said Ministerial offices were advised by the Prime Minister’s Office in January 2018 to install WhatsApp on Ministers’ phones instead of using SMS text messages.
“While the guidance does not specify WhatsApp, it does cover text messages as public records. Messages sent and received through WhatsApp would require the same treatment as text messages. MaSS also provide advice to Ministers and their staff on compliance with the Official Information Act 1982,” she said.
“Ministers of the Crown, including the Prime Minister, are part of the Executive branch of Government and are therefore public offices for the purpose of the PRA. The PRA defines public records as information, regardless of format, created or received by a public office in the conduct of its affairs.
“If a public office, or a Minister, uses text messaging or another instantaneous, nonsequential electronic communication mechanism to conduct official business, then these communications are considered records under the PRA and as such, must be managed accordingly.”
By: ANDREA VANCE