Red Alert

How not to answer questions

Posted by on December 7th, 2009

One of the jobs of an opposition MP is to try to find out stuff that the government isn’t making publicly available. There are several ways of doing this. An oral question in the House, written questions to the Minister, and Official Information Act requests (OIAs). Sometimes people just give you information.

I’m making available here the answers to 12 written questions I lodged in mid November to Communications Minister Steven Joyce to try to elicit some more information about his new broadband scheme. Information I believe is in the public interest. To understand the context, here’s the media release he put out on the process for bidders to get a piece of the action on the government’s $1.5 billion broadband scheme.

I realise that to many people this won’t mean a great deal. That’s not the point of this post. I want you to see how a Minister does his best not to answer questions .  Gives you some insight into how government’s ought not to act. And I wonder what you think?

PS: Needless to say I have lodged more questions. And OIAs.All questions were sent to Communications and IT Minister Steven Joyce on 19 November 2009. The answers were received on 30 November.

1. Question: What concerns, if any, does the Minister have about the government’s ability to fulfil its promises relating to the roll out of broadband, following the responses of the 38 groups who expressed interest in participating in the government’s urban fibre roll-out through the Invitation to Participate process

Answer Text: None.

2. Question: How many of the groups who expressed interest in participating in the government’s urban fibre roll-out through the invitation to Participate process are publically-owned companies and which companies are these?

Answer Text: Please see my answer to question for written answer 18357 (2009).

3. Question: Which areas of New Zealand, if any, were not covered by Proposed Coverage Areas, in respect of the Proposals put forward by the 38 groups who expressed interest in participating in the government’s urban fibre roll-out through the invitation to Participate process?

Answer Text: The Notices of Intention to Participate did not specify proposed coverage areas.

4. Question: How many, if any, of the groups who expressed interest in participating in the government’s urban fibre roll-out through the invitation to Participate process are community-owned organisations and what are the names of these community-owned organisations?

Answer Text: Please refer to my answer to question for written answer
18357 (2009).

5. Question: Are any of the groups who expressed interest in participating in the government’s urban fibre roll-out through the invitation to participate process owned by the Government of New Zealand, the Crown in right of New Zealand, a State-owned Enterprise or a subsidiary of any of these; if so, what are the names of these groups?

Answer Text: Please refer to my answer to question for written answer
18357 (2009).

6. Question: How many of the groups who expressed interest in participating in the government’s urban fibre roll-out through the invitation to Participate process are privately-held companies and what are the names of these companies?

Answer Text: Please see my answer to question for written answer 18357 (2009).

7. Question: What areas of New Zealand were covered by Proposed Coverage Areas, in respect of the Proposals put forward by the 38 groups who expressed interest in participating in the  government’s urban fibre roll-out through the invitation to Participate process?

Answer Text: The Notices of Intention to Participate did not specify proposed coverage areas.

8. Question: Are any of the 38 groups who expressed interest in participating in the government’s urban fibre roll-out through the invitation to Participate process wholly based overseas; if so, where are these groups based?

Answer Text: Please see my answer to question for written answer 18357 (2009).

9. Question: How many of the 38 groups who expressed interest in participating in the government’s urban fibre roll-out through the invitation to Participate process are based in New Zealand and owned overseas?

Answer Text: Please refer to my answer to question for written answer
18357 (2009).

10. Question: How many of the 38 groups who expressed interest in participating in the government’s urban fibre roll-out through the invitation to Participate process are New Zealand owned?

Answer Text: Please see my answer to question for written answer 18357 (2009).

11. Question: Who were the 38 groups that expressed an interest in participating in the government’s urban fibre roll-out through the invitation to Participate process?

Answer Text: I do not consider it appropriate to provide any further detail regarding the nature of parties that provided Notices of Intention to Participate beyond those that are already in the public domain. There is a significant public interest in maintaining the integrity of the Invitation to Participate process to encourage the most competitive possible proposals.  The development of these proposals may be unduly influenced if proposers are aware of the details of other parties that may also intend to make proposals.

12. Question: What were the main issues that emerged from the invitation to Participate process recently undertaken as part of the government’s broadband plan?

Answer Text: The Invitation to Participate process is ongoing.  The Notices of Intention to Participate, which were due on 13 November, were a first step in which potential participants signalled their interest in the process and provided their contact details.  The Notices of Intention to Participate did not provide an opportunity for any issues to “emerge”


19 Responses to “How not to answer questions”

  1. Spud says:

    That must be frustrating!

  2. I’m not making any judgements here, but I’ll note that the question 11 in this list is the Question 18357 (2009) referred to in answers 2, 4, 5, 6, 8, and 10.

    Questions 2, 4, 5, 6, 8, and 10 are clearly subquestions of question 11, and a quick inspection of Parliament’s website shows it’s not uncommon for Ministers to answer written questions by referring to a previous or concurrent answer.

    Of course, Joyce’s answer to 18357 (2009) is probably not what you were hoping for; but he did provide a (superficially plausible) public-interest rationale for not giving details—viz commercial sensitivity—: this is, and please correct me if I’m wrong here, within his right.

  3. Clare Curran says:

    @BK Yes right on the first part. And on the second and third. That’s not the point I’m making BK. He provided a superficially-plausible reason to not the answer the questions, because that’s what he does. Not unusual. But is it right?

  4. Sorry for the double comment: #3 and #7 are also practically duplicate questions (they’re dual questions at the very least).

    I’m not defending Joyce here: I’m not competent to judge if his public-interest rationale for stonewalling is valid. I’m just pointing out that he dodged at most three questions, and not twelve. (I take Q1 to be a gimme: what did you expect?)

  5. Argh! I didn’t see your comment. Sorry.

    I agree: I’d like Cabinet to be a whole lot more open. As a general principle, I don’t think it’s right to dodge any questions at all without good reason. It’s just tacky.

    But I’m simply not competent to judge the validity of the public-interest question here.

    I suppose it comes down to this: how do you weigh up the competing goods of protecting commercially-sensitive information and openness of the Executive?

    It doesn’t strike me as an easy question. I’m open-minded: Joyce may be in the wrong here. But I’m not yet convinced.

    Sorry for the (now-)triple-comment. I’ll shut up now.

  6. James says:

    I have been working my way through the written questions, and so far I have found that Paula Bennett is the most useless. Sometimes Anne Tolley is quite reponsive though. While Paula Bennett MP will just say ‘That is covered under employment and operational issues which is under the direction of the chief executive, this is also my response to questions 00000,00001,00002,00003 etc.’, Anne Tolley will actually answer the question, and on occasions actually offer more information than the question demanded, for example, using a similar question to the Bennett one above, ‘I am advised that the Tertiary Education Commission employed 303.4 Full-time Equivalent staff as at 9 December 2008.’. Finance Minister Bill English will actually provide a comprehensive, but informative attachment, actually answering the question.

    While saying this, you will note that your [the previous labour government] had a very similar habit. Hon. Heather Roy asked a question to the Minister of Commerce, Lianne Dalziel. She actually refered Heather Roy to another question, one that was not even her own. She said, ‘I refer the member to the answer to written question 9454 [(2005)]‘, which was a question to Hon. Annete King, Minister of State Services, who replied, that the question itself potentially includes a wide range of payments such as redundancy and superannuation payments, is too broad to answer meaningfully, and offers somewhat more irrelevant information.

  7. Richard Morgan says:

    So what’s new Clare??

  8. Sean says:

    On a connected topic: does anyone know how’s Murray McCully is going at answering OIAs this time around?

  9. Nevyn says:

    I think this just highlights a fundamental issue with the way parliament is run. Can we be sure that those we’ve elected to represent us are, in fact, representing us? Especailly when you take into account that there is no requirement to do so.

    Hidden information has lead to mistrust over the years and I think we need to turn a corner to the same extent that America has had to turn a corner. Follow Obama’s lead in making government more transparent. Information may be power, but lording it over our heads isn’t helping anyone.

    If $1.5 Billion is going to be spent on a piece of essential infrastructure, then there has to be transparency on how this process is happening, how the money is going to be spent and what is being done to assure that we’re getting what we’re paying for. I say this with some trepidation as I’ve recently heard about the Auckland City Council’s spending habits which I can only describe as a culture of waste – lets hope the government isn’t the same.

  10. Jeremy Harris says:

    Some of his answers to transport questions are equally frustrating… I think the answer is simple, remove Parliamentary exception from the the OIA process…

    A Labour policy for the 2011 election..? Didn’t think so…

  11. Kaine T says:

    There’s some great theatre involved in addressing written and oral questions. One of my all time favourites was when Annette King was asked “What did she mean when she said…” and replied “I meant what I said” and resumed her seat. GOLD!

    Admittedly, there is sufficient flexibility within the system under Standing Orders and in the OIA to address without answering or to decline on some very interesting grounds.

    There are reasons for why governments may or may not release information, and some of it is robust, such as genuine commercial sensitivity. If you make it completely open, you won’t get robust decision making processes as governments will stifle the challenging of logic. As a result, it generally comes down to how well you stage your questions and how many angles at the same thing you can develop without repitition.

    The issue Clare raises though is when this becomes a natural pattern, the natural conclusion has to be “they’re hiding something”. There’s nothing wrong with running the rule of order through the development of replies to questions, but you run a credibility risk because it isn’t just junkies who read the replies.

  12. James says:

    I further to my comment above, I agree with aspects of a number of the comments placed above. I understand it must be frustrating for the opposition, but in this case I have a mixed view.

    View 1: I agree that Cabinet should be more open, and I believe that they are not being open enough about a number of issues, privatisation being one of my most ‘passionate’ ones.

    View 2: Occasionally I have limited sympathy for the Opposition due to the history of doing a similar thing yourselves. If you want to avoid this happening in future National/Opposition governments, make sure that you don’t do the same thing in your own future ones, it would be ignorant and obscene to say you are angels in this department aswell.

  13. jennifer says:

    I’m leaning toward James’ view number two. At the risk of being banned for life, it’s the questions that are your problem, not the answers.

  14. James says:

    @Clare By the way, what is the ‘appeal’ process for questions for written answer.

    In questions for oral answer, you can just use the Point of order system, and the Speaker can then make a ruling as to the appropriateness of the anwser, but for written questions, what do you do? Is it something for the Speaker to deal with?

  15. kaine T says:

    @James… For written questions, there are specific rules for both questions and answers laid out, timing, addressing the question and ensuring there is no repitition etc. For Oral Questions, the Speaker is often called upon to adjudicate on appropriateness but they can’t, all they can do is determine whether the question was addressed, whether the reply was appropriate (in order) and to determine whether there is jurisdiction.

    The rules of appeal, by virtue of the looseness of the rules -as such – mean that there is seldom much space for appeal. The key thing to be determined in replying is whether that reply has “addressed” the question which is all the Speaker can really require of Ministers.

  16. jarbury says:

    Yes some of Joyce’s answers to transport questions are pretty frustrating. Surely that’s part of the fun of putting together good questions though Clare, to get past the stonewalling.

  17. David says:

    Great, this from the Party who put Margaret “the minister has addressed the question” Wilson in as Speaker.
    Pot. Kettle. Black

  18. Draco T Bastard says:

    I’m not competent to judge if his public-interest rationale for stonewalling is valid.

    He doesn’t appear to be using public interest as the reason for the stonewalling but the private interest of the people and businesses responding to the invitation to participate. Public interest would be best served if those people and businesses were identified and their proposal made publicly available. This would allow proper debate of the proposals.

  19. j abba says:

    the Nats had 9 long years in opposition to learn how not to answer a question and now along comes Lookwood, Mr 9.5% Smith how must really annoy them . Labour have it sweet.