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)?