At some stage over the next few weeks, possibly as early as next Thursday, parliament will elect a new Speaker. As an opposition MP I never thought I’d find myself saying this, but we’ll be sad to see Lockwood Smith go. As Speaker, he has raised the bar in terms of ministerial accountability in the House. His most significant ruling, that when asked a straight question ministers should give straight answers, has changed the whole nature of Question Time. That ruling will remain in place long after his departure, although whether the new Speaker has the ability to implement it with the same precision and diligence is yet to be seen.
Just before Christmas, Lockwood raised the bar again, this time relating to ministerial accountability outside the Debating Chamber. Under parliament’s rules MPs are also allowed to ask written questions of ministers. There are a lot more of these and they don’t always receive the same level of attention questions in the House do. But they’re a vital information channel for the opposition, and they’re another way we can hold ministers to account for their performance and the performance of their departments.
Late last year Labour asked a series of written questions about the Novopay fiasco. The Minister in charge Craig Foss tried to brush them off by saying they were ‘operational matters for the Chief Executive’. This reply has been used by successive governments to sidestep bad news. However, the days when Ministers could duck for cover in this way seem to be over. In replying to Labour’s complaint on the matter, Lockwood Smith ruled:
“I note that there is no convention that Ministers are not answerable for operational matters, but that a Minster is not prevented from replying in those terms. These rulings related to a minister being questioned on operational matters for which a crown entity had responsibility. I expect a higher standard for answering questions relating to a department for which the Minister is responsible. A minister should be able to give informative replies about the actions of such a department.”
“As you have noted, the record shows that the Associate Minister has provided the House with information on this matter in response to questions for oral answer. Ministers are no less accountable to give informative replies to questions for written answer.”
Craig Foss subsequently provided more fulsome answers to our Novopay questions. But the effect of this ruling will extend well beyond this one instance. If the new Speaker maintains this new high standard, the improved level of accountability we’ve seen at Question Time will extend beyond the walls of the Debating Chamber. That’s a good thing.
The new Speaker will have big shoes to fill. All the more reason for the government to nominate a candidate who will have the respect of all sides of the House.