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Posts Tagged ‘Written Questions’

Lockwood raises the bar, again

Posted by on January 22nd, 2013

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.

Paula Bennett shamed into releasing full benefit stats

Posted by on September 9th, 2010

National has had a good run convincing Kiwis that it is an “open and transparent” government where “sunlight is the best disinfectant” etc etc.

It’s a tremendous bit of spin. The reality is somewhat different.

For the past 20 months, John Key’s ministers have acted in concert to block access to public information though the Official Information Act and written parliamentary questions. They’ve ducked and dived like sports cheats. It is not just the Opposition that has been thwarted. There is some excellent analysis on No Right Turn about National’s cheating.

Journos too have told me they are getting increasingly frustrated by National’s trickery.

In this context, I’m treating as a win for open government Employment Minister Paula Bennett‘s reaction this week to my media statement of a fortnight ago criticising her for burying bad news.

To recap, she was pinged for sneakily trying to hide bad unemployment data as the economy has slowed. As the jobs news got worse each month, the length of time before she would allow official data to go the Parliamentary Library got longer.

So I am pleased that she has been shamed, at least for now, into ending her dodgy practice. This week, on the same day as issuing her dishonest statement on benefit numbers for August (she said 6000 had come off main benefits – what she didn’t say was the situation had actually worsened again, with more than 8,800 people going on to main benefits over the same month), she quietly released to the Library the full summary of benefit stats for the month. You can see why she’s so shy, it’s pretty grim reading.

I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but whatever next? National Party ministers dispensing with their haughty contempt of the OIA and WPQs?

Credit where it is due

Posted by on February 10th, 2010

Yesterday I blogged about John Key not answering a bunch of written parliamentary questions that I had put to him before Christmas. Well, that obviously rang a few bells over in Key’s office because the answers were hand-delivered to my office yesterday afternoon. Credit where it is due, Key has fronted up, and from a quick scan, it looks like he has given pretty comprehensive answers to most of my questions. I’ll read through them over the next few days and blog further, but in the meantime, kudos to Key for fronting up.

Will Key ever answer questions?

Posted by on February 9th, 2010

Parliament resumes today after the summer recess. Hopefully that will prompt John Key to finally stump up with answers to the Written Parliamentary Questions I put to him before Christmas. I asked him 67 questions late last year. In all cases he said he couldn’t give me an answer within the 6 days required by the written questions system, but he assured me I’d get the information as soon as possible.

It’s now 8 weeks since I asked the questions, but alas no answers have arrived. The questions were legitimate questions asking him to account for the spending of his ministers at a time when they were telling us all to tighten our belts.

We saw last year that National Ministers do not practice what they preach on fiscal responsibility and the public deserves to know what they are spending, e.g. the Bill English rort to finance his family home and the last minute changes to let ministers use self-drive cars meant to help them serve their electorates in Wellington.

Labour answered these types of questions when asked by a National Opposition so what is Key hiding?

Here is a quick summary of the topics that I asked Key about:

  • Pay rises for staff working in Ministerial offices (remember other public servants have a wage freeze)
  • Use of VIP cars during National’s first year in office
  • Refurbishment costs for ministerial offices
  • Spending on gifts, beer, wine and spirits by ministers
  • Purchase of self-drive vehicles and related issues
  • Issues relating to Key’s changes to ministerial housing allowances

John Key talks a lot about transparency and accountability but it is all talk. The reality is neither he nor his ministers think that the rules that apply to others apply to them. Key’s ongoing refusal to answer basic written parliamentary questions just proves that.

Transparency and accountability

Posted by on February 5th, 2010

Nathan Guy wins the inaugural “Richard Worth award for transparency and accountability”. Much like his predecessor, Guy has consistently demonstrated a high level of skill in ducking questions and providing as little information about his ministerial activities as possible.

Late last year I poked a bit of fun at his expense when he answered my written parliamentary question about his priorities over the next 6 months by saying he needed more time to come up with an answer. He’s finally answered that one, even if it amounts to little more than a cut and paste from DIA’s Statement of Intent.

However, when asked any questions about briefings that he has received from DIA or his official engagements, he simply dismisses them saying they aren’t specific enough. It doesn’t seem to be a problem for his more senior colleagues, who regularly answer written questions listing the reports/briefings they have received.

Guy’s predecessor confirmed that the DIA has a database recording all the briefings he gets, so it would simply be a matter of extracting the relevant data, a job that would take no more than a couple of minutes. Why is he so reluctant to be open and transparent about what he is working on?

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)?

Question watch #2

Posted by on December 22nd, 2009

My post yesterday on John Key’s non-answer to some of my written parliamentary questions certainly got the Key apologists worked up. When Key does finally front up with the answers I’ll post the info here and people can then judge whether they were fair questions to ask.

The Key apologists seem to have forgotten that National MPs used to routinely ask tricky questions of the then Labour government. One of their favourites was to ask about staff Christmas parties and presents. Most government departments do some sort of end of year function for their staff, so National’s questions were basically intended to find examples of where they’d gone a bit over the top so that they could shout from the rooftops about “waste”.

Interestingly, they aren’t so keen to answer now that the shoe is on the other foot. I asked a written question of each Minister that’s almost identical to one Brownlee, McCully etc used to ask and they have all come back with the same answer: “The question the member asks relates to an operational matter which is the responsibility of the Chief Executive.”

Interesting to note that when Labour was the government and National was the opposition the questions were OK, but now that National is in government they seem to think a lower standard of accountability should apply. In 2005 Annette King even went so far as to compile all of the answers into a handy little table for the Nats, so why are they suddenly ducking for cover?

Question watch #1

Posted by on December 21st, 2009

On the 8th of December I lodged a number of Written Parliamentary Questions to John Key in his capacity as Minister Reponsible for Ministerial Services. They all involved spending on services provided to ministers (eg. self-drive cars, VIP cars, ministerial housing etc). I had assumed that given the “Double Dipton” debacle they’d be keen to be seen as open and transparent.

So far John Key has replied to all of them with the same answer: “I am unable to provide the member with the information requested in the timeframe available. I will provide the member with the answer as soon as possible.”

All of the questions were lodged on the 8th of December, so he’s already had several weeks. In almost all cases there are examples of similar questions having been asked of Helen Clark in the past. I’m sure John Key isn’t going to argue that he should be subject to a lower standard of accountability than his predecessor, so I’ll look forward to getting his answers before he takes off for his holiday in Hawaii.

Parliamentary system can’t take the pressure

Posted by on December 16th, 2009

10.30 today is the time  for written questions to be lodged for the year.

In the old days it involved dumping a pile of paper in the Clerks office.

The system is now totally on line. Problem is it doesn’t appear to have the capacity to deal with a number of people who like me work to deadlines. System alternates between dead slow and dropping out.

Not good enough.

Update  the Speaker has extended the deadline to 11am.

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. (more…)

Transparency and accountability

Posted by on May 11th, 2009

Fronting up and answering parliamentary questions and Official Information Act requests is a basic ministerial function. Fundamentally it is about accountability. On that score the Minister of Internal Affairs, Dr Richard Worth, has failed miserably. Since December I have been trying to get information out of Dr Worth about what he has been up to whilst receiving his $240k a year ministerial salary. I’ve used written parliamentary questions and Official Information Act requests and he has stonewalled repeatedly. He won’t even answer questions as basic as one asking what reports he has received from his Department.

One would have thought given his recent troubles Dr Worth would be going to some lengths to prove that he had nothing else to hide. Could it be that he is embarrassed by his total lack of action since becoming a Minister? Does he think that he should be exempt from basic accountability requirements? Or does he have something to hide?

I’m pleased that John Key made a commitment on Breakfast TV this morning to investigate Dr Worth’s refusal to answer. I look forward to Dr Worth’s forthcoming conversion to the principles of openness and transparency following Mr Key’s intervention. If he isn’t willing to front up, he shouldn’t be a Minister.

Selection of Dr Richard Worth’s answers (PDF – 60K)