Red Alert

Question Watch #3

Posted by on December 23rd, 2009

Well, a few of the commenters on this and other blogs have gotten a bit worked up about the opposition’s use of written parliamentary questions to hold the government to account. Some of the arguments are valid, for example, Tolley and Bennett have been asked 937 and 840 written questions respectively in the past month, so if they can’t answer them all before Christmas that’s understandable. But it’s not unreasonable to expect they would answer the ones that they could within the timeframe and then come back to the others later, as some ministers have done.

However, some of the critiscism just doesn’t stack up. There has always been a pre-Christmas surge in written questions because after parliament rises for the year no more can be lodged until the House resumes in February. The government seems to think it is OK to make major announcements 3-4 days before Christmas, so I’m not sure why they think they shouldn’t answer written questions during the same timeframe. Keep in mind that the opposition can’t formally question the govt on their most recent announcements till Feb.

Some have also argued that we’ve asked more questions of John Key on issues like housing allowances, ministerial cars and so forth than National asked of Helen Clark. That’s quite true, but we didn’t have the ‘Double Dipton’ debacle and the spectacle of the PM changing the determination on the hoof to make their illegal spending on self-drive cars legal. These are legitimate areas for the opposition to take the government to task. We’d be a pretty poor opposition if we didn’t.

I also think that some Ministers are looking like idiots by saying that they can’t get the answer together in 6 working days. For example, I asked Nathan Guy what his priorities are over the next 6 months. Apparently he needs more time to work on that. Seriously? He’s been a Minister since June, what has he been doing with his time? This guy is paid $200,000+ a year. I’d expect him to be able to rattle off a quick summary of his priorities in 6 minutes, forget about 6 working days! And he’s only had 42 questions in the past month, a fraction of some of his colleagues.

However, I’ll also give kudos where it’s due. I blogged yesterday about ministers not answering questions about Christmas parties. Later in the afternoon I received Corrections Minister Judith Collins’ perfectly reasonable answer: “The Department’s policy is to allow $20 per head as a contribution to one Christmas related function per area. Not all staff attend the function organised in their area, and therefore some funds remain unspent.” Full credit to her. Good to see some are still willing to be upfront.

Written parliamentary questions are an important part of the democratic system, as is the Official Information Act. Labour’s use of both mechanisms isn’t significantly greater than National’s when they were in opposition, so I’m not sure why their cheerleaders are getting so worked up about it. Perhaps they would rather argue about the process than the substance of the answers (yet to be given)?

17 Responses to “Question Watch #3”

  1. DavidW says:

    So your argument Chris is that the Labour Opposition is much like rust eh?

    Never sleeps – check;
    gradually slows things to a grinding halt unless vigorously cleaned away often – check;
    tries to cover every surface in a dull brown/red coating – check;
    can be kept at bay with a programme of regular lubrication – check.

    Sounds about right to me !

  2. mjwkiwi says:

    There seems to be criticism in some blogs that asking the government to answer questions is too expensive a process. Apparently, according to that argument, it is reasonable to say it costs $70 to answer a question with the word “None” or where 40 questions have the same answer, to charge $70 each for those. It is interesting to note that people who demand that kind of weird accounting also don’t like criticism of a right wing government that claims everything is unaffordable! Co-incidence? Unlikely.

  3. DavidW says:

    mjwkiwi : @9:21 talks about complaints over the expense.

    I think that you are being a bit mischevious there mjk, in that every question stands on its own and is subject to all teh rules of accuracy and privilege. It is not good enough for a staffer to write the word “none” on a piece of paper and send it back. ach specific question needs to be checked and verified taht in fact there were none.

    When the question is one of hundreds, each with the same wording except for a change of one reference, there are actually hundres of answers to be investigated and verified in case just one of them by some strange quirk of coincidence just happens to be “one” which of course the questioner already knows and which he will then use to embarass the Minister and try and make a big deal about it going so far as accusations of misleading the House and questions of Privilege.

    Read the questions mjk, and then , with hand on heart, tell me that the MPs doing the asking are really desperate to expand their knowledge on these subjects for the welfare of NZ if you can. IMHO, they generally indicate a lack of willingness to conduct real research using publicly available information, the OIA and the staff who are paid by you and me to conduct the research OR are thinly veiled attempts at creating embarrassment or baited traps down the track. Trevor gave it away the other day when he referred to deadlines he was working to. This can only mean that this question-flood is anly part of some Master-Plan which has been kicked off and has to go to a timetable for it to be effective.

    Either way it is petty politics of a kind we thought we had got rid of last year.

  4. Charles says:

    mjwkiwi – it depends how you allocate the cost.. the other blogs have suggested $70 per HOUR not per question…

  5. @Charles – volume of questions does not necessarily equate to cost. For example, if you look at many of the questions Trevor Mallard has asked of Anne Tolley, they ask for the same information but for a number of individual schools. One database query, output to an Excel spreadsheet, and the whole series could be answered in one go. MOE have the databases (I know, I used to prepare/vet written questions on behalf of previous minister of education) and many hundreds of these questions could actually be answered very quickly (certainly within 5 days).

  6. sweetd says:

    Chris, explaining is loosing. Three posts covering the same thing indicates you have lost this one and are trying to save face. Whats the first thing you do when you are in a hole?

    Give it up, hit the showers, Merry Christmas, have a wee thing about what you are doing and what it has achieved, and lets see you again in the new year.

  7. BLiP says:

    Yes, odd that the critics seem to think democracy stops at Christmas time yet, as you say, major announcements from National Ltd® trickle out. Speaking of which, didn’t you just love the National Ltd® Christmas card to their beloved underclass – yet another round ofBasher Bennett putting the boot in.

    Merry Christmas to you too, Paula.

  8. mjwkiwi says:

    David W; dream on. When the answer to the question is none then it takes less than a second. When it takes half an hour to print out a spreadsheet with 2500 schools information on it, and one second to upload it, that is still only half an hour and one second. Officials’ dithering time shouldn’t be charged for… If it is going to take longer, a Minister can say “I will require more time”, which is perfectly acceptable.

    And lets hear you criticise the Nats for doing precisely the same thing in Opposition, asking lots of questions on the last day of term, about all the same kinds of things. The questions are valid whoever asks them.

  9. DavidW says:

    As sweetd pointed out, the cost was per hour.

    As I pointed out, even negatives need to be verified in answers to PQs

    As you pointed out the answers may be on one spreadsheet – so why does it take 2500 questions unless you had another motive.

    As no-one has yet established that this was a common practice (000s of questions lodged on the last day of term)and that the questions, if asked, were equally vexatious I will reserve my criticism for those who are proven to be trying to force a “denial-of-sevice” attack on the PQ system.

    BTW I have no connection with this and am merely an observer. You on the other hand appear to have a deeper knowledge, hence what I detect is the old “they did it too” defence which is actually only a very short step from admitting defeat in the argument.

  10. Daz says:

    In line one of your post, the word you are looking for is not “gotten” but “become”.

    Until the 1970s, New Zealanders would have found the word “gotten” an illiterate Americanism. That was when we had our own folkways and knew how to be New Zealanders.

    Then Coca-Colonisation stepped up a notch and now Gen X and younger think it’s cool to say and write “gotten”. They’re copying what they have heard on TV, of course, but to many of us it still sounds clod-hopping and illiterate.

    There’s more than one way of being a patriot.

  11. Spud says:

    The opposition is doing nothing wrong and like he said some of the questions can be answered later.

  12. @Daz, you’re a bit off topic, but yep, I’ll take your point. Our blog posts here tend to be written as we would speak, rather than something more formal.

    @sweetd, the fact that the tory commenters and the king of the tory bloggers are so worked up about this suggests otherwise.

  13. Kaine T says:

    David, I’m not entirely sure you have a 100% correct perception on the use of Written Parliamentary Questions. Cynically yes, you could say they are only used as ammunition for a greater effort at destablising the position of a Minister or the Government.

    However, looking at some of the questions asked by Members like Chauvel, Mackey and Cunliffe as examples, I doubt very much you could draw that conclusion in isolation.

    Be that as it may, no matter what the question (which is strictly guided), Ministers have the ability to address the question (Either substantively or addressing in the political vein) within the 6 day time frame for the most part.

    Given the standard of replies, I’d assume a lot are “tailored” by political staff after the matter has been addressed by officials. In which case, both their timeliness and quality can be found wanting.

  14. sweetd says:

    Chris, is that how you measure your success?, by the amount of blog traffic on what amounts to a beltway issue?!?!?!? Really, take time off this holiday period and have a thing about life in general, and ask yourself, is this the best use of your time on this planet?

  15. ghostwhowalksnz says:

    Take time off ?
    When National has thrown its major election promises in the bin.
    The minor parties are in chaos at the end of the year , time off is a way of sweeping issues under the carpet, and Rodney Hide has effectively become a National MP!!. The sign is still on the door but he will stand for national next election

  16. Doug says:

    Looks like you have made a procedural cock up in asking most of the questions maybe you won’t get many answers. What a way to end the year when will you ever learn Chris.

  17. Eden says:

    My understanding is that many parliamentary questions need to referred onto individual schools, and in fact it is a trick of Oppositions to try to bog down the “infrastructure” and induce errors / stress on targets.

    How many of the answers become useful to Oppositions in building their policies. Well in the case of both National and Labour, there was hardly any good education policy in the General Election and what we saw came out in the last few weeks.

    I deliberately say “Oppositions” because I know the National Party were prime offenders in the last parliamentary term. For example how many questions were asked of Labour Ministers of Education in the last parliamentary term and who asked them. A quick scan a few minutes ago threw up names like Tolley and Peachey.