Which statutory body advises the Minister about the National Library? Are they forthcoming about their meetings and their discussions? Or are they merely a committee that rubber stamps the requests of the management of the National Library, the institution they are meant to oversee? Publicly available documents suggest that governance of the National Library is an area that could do with some fresh air – some transparency.

The Library and Information Advisory Commission (LIAC) is the statutory body whose purpose, as per the National Library Act 2003, S. 23, is “to provide advice to the Minister on library and information issues, including mātauranga Māori.” The relevant minister, since the National-led government revoked the independent status of the National Library and Archives NZ in 2010, and bundled them into the Department of Internal Affairs, has been the Minister of Internal Affairs.

A Book Guardians Aotearoa investigation into what LIAC does, and whether it is really working in the public interest for the public funding it receives, has raised more questions than answers – and very disturbing questions they are.

We started with the LIAC webpages on the Department of Internal Affairs website. These do not appear to have been updated since November 2015, at the latest. This is the date of the most recent agenda of the quarterly meetings of LIAC which is published there. So the public has no idea what LIAC is even talking about, let alone what LIAC tells the Minister, as the minutes of the meetings are not published at all.

Under S. 26 of the National Library Act LIAC “is required to report to the Minister each year on the performance of their functions during the preceding year.” There is precisely one such report on the LIAC ‘Publications and Reports’ webpage. It is for the year 2012, and it is six pages long.

BGA has been told that LIAC is not required to make its reports public. We want LIAC to say whether this is true or not, and if true on what basis. Is LIAC really legitimately entitled to deny the public’s right to know what government agencies are doing? The presumption underpinning the Official Information Act is that all information should be available unless there is a bona fide reason why it should not be. Can LIAC show us that it has such a bona fide reason? What on earth could it be? What have LIAC and the Minister got to hide? Surely library and information matters would benefit from more public input, not less. Especially when it comes to helping the National Library fulfill its statutory purpose of enriching “ the cultural and economic life of New Zealand and its interchanges with other nations”. Is it wise to entrust the government’s advice on this important purpose to just six Commissioners, who change every three years, and do all their work in secret?

Or, for that matter, to staff at the Department of Internal Affairs, who clearly abandoned updating the LIAC Publications and Reports web page five years ago. The page on Matauranga Maori is also at least two years out of date. It says “We are monitoring Wai 262′s progress for its impact upon libraries in general and the National Library in particular. We understand the matter is under consideration by Ministers, led by the Attorney General, and by officials in several Departments, but the Government is not yet ready to declare its reaction to the Waitangi Tribunal’s findings. We consider that until the Government position on Wai 262 has been enunciated or we are consulted, we will not be able to give the Minister any further advice. Accordingly this note represents our position in respect of our legal obligations under the National Library Act.”

For the DIA’s information, on 8 April 2019 the government made its position quite clear (see Developing a Whole-of-Government Strategy for WAI 262. Obviously no one at DIA (or LIAC) noticed, or perhaps decided that there was no urgency when it comes to fulfilling its legal obligations on Matauranga Maori.

When Brian Pauling conducted a review of the first ten years of LIAC (2003-2012) he noted that some Commissioners thought that LIAC was too much in the pocket of the National Library – an understandable view given that the National Librarian is an ex officio member of LIAC (the only one). Also that the $300 per day plus all travel and other expenses which the Commissioners receive for meeting for one day at a time four times per year comes from the National Library’s appropriation. But we hope those former Commissioners would be shocked and horrified by the cosy relationship their successors have enjoyed with the National Library, as evidenced by the email exchange in the footnote below, which BGA obtained by making an OIA request.

It shows that someone from LIAC (whose name is redacted) has written a letter to the ‘Minster’ about the Overseas Published Collections. A letter which they clearly expect to find favour with both the National Library management and the ‘Minster’. Therefore presumably a letter which supports the decision to dispose of the OPCs. They are asking the National Librarian (Bill Macnaught) and the bureaucrat above him in the Department of Internal Affairs (Lewis Brown) to check the letter and make any improvements deemed necessary. The National Librarian then asks his Deputy National Librarian (Rachel Esson – who suceeded Macnaught as the new National Librarian at the end of 2020) if she has any comments to make. Does this mean that over one year after that decision was made by the Minister (in December 2018) LIAC is finally indicating support for it? If not this, then what? It is also clear from the email exchange that the NL will provide the necessary secretarial service. If that doesn’t look like a too-cosy relationship, tell us what does.

Does it matter? Only if you think that open government is a good and necessary thing, and that the advice government receives on all matters should be both independent and transparent. In Manifesto for the Text (February 2020) Brian Easton suggests one way to improve things (and indicates why things are currently so bad) as follows:

“5. The statutory guardianship committees of Archives New Zealand, the National Library and the Alexander Turnbull Library should be appointed by Parliament rather than by the Government. (Currently the members are appointed by the minister on the recommendation of the officials who have little interest in independent guardians; hence their anodyne performance in recent years.)”

BGA thinks that this is a necessary first step. Meanwhile, we are putting in another bunch of OIA requests to try and find out more about what LIAC has been doing in secret these past five years.

Footnote:

From: Bill Macnaught
Sent: Thursday, 13 February 2020 5:16 PM
To: Rachel Esson <Rachel.Esson@dia.govt.nz>; Lewis Brown
<Lewis.Brown@dia.govt.nz>
Subject: FW: Information requested from National Library – Overseas Published Collections/Services to Schools
Any comments?
From: [redacted]
Sent: Thursday, 13 February 2020 1:53 PM
To: [redacted]
Cc: Bill Macnaught <Bill.Macnaught@dia.govt .nz>; Lewis Brown
<Lewis.Brown@dia.govt.nz>
Subject: RE: Information requested from National Library – Overseas Published Collections/Services to Schools
Kia ora, attached is my letter to the Minster [sic] which I request that you put on LIAC letterhead and send to the Minsters’ [sic] offices.
Bill, Lewis, please check that there are no clangers or wrong emphases that need fixing.

We recommend taking a look at the following short Canadian documentary, which looks at how government actors are getting around the requirement to document and make available the records of their decision-making by adopting a “oral culture”: talking about what they are doing and not taking minutes, but relying on public servants to remember what was decided and going away and doing it.

Any paper trail forms a part of the public record and needs to be archived and then made available via Freedom of Information legislation – so if you want to get around that, don’t leave a paper trail.

It is well worth a view: https://www.infoandprivacy.ca/duty-to-document/

One thought on “Who takes care of the (book) caretakers?

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