Share the data

Dr Eric Crampton
Insights Newsletter
15 February, 2019

Only the officials at Inland Revenue know why they commissioned a poll on Kiwis’ attitudes to tax that included questions about the respondents’ general political orientation. Releasing the polling data should be part of fixing any perceived problems.

Hamish Rutherford’s reporting at the Dominion Post raises questions about the Department’s political impartiality.

If the Department had polled Kiwis about potential changes to the tax system in order to assist the government’s messaging around the Tax Working Group’s proposals, or to assist in intra-coalition negotiations around the government’s response to the Tax Working Group, that would be just a little off.

But there are plenty of other potential explanations. Sincere curiosity is one. Testing that proposed tax policy changes are not likely to generate substantial dissatisfaction and affect tax compliance is another, as it might affect staffing decisions within the Department. A tax facing broad opposition may require more auditors and investigators to ensure compliance.

It is even possible to imagine a Department desperately trying to stave off damaging changes to the tax system by seeking evidence that opposition to those policies is not restricted to the rich, or to right-wingers.

We just do not know.

The Dominion Post reports that State Services Minister Chris Hipkins has asked State Services Commissioner Peter Hughes to investigate the polling, with Hipkins laudably noting the paramount importance of a politically neutral public service.

Thorough investigations take time, and the Tax Working Group’s report is due to be released next week.

It seems unlikely the data was collected for partisan purposes. If the Dominion Post had reported that MBIE’s Provincial Development Unit were up to partisan shenanigans in constructing implausible job-creation figures, it would not be that hard to believe. Inland Revenue is different.

Regardless, there is a good way of ensuring the data does not provide partisan advantage, whatever the reason for its collection: release the data to everyone. It is harder for data to provide partisan advantage when all parties have the data – and quickly.

I have consequently made an Official Information Act request for the full survey data. When we receive the data, we will immediately make it public. We hope the data is released promptly, whether to us or as a broader public release, helping preserve New Zealand’s public service’s well-deserved reputation for political neutrality.

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