Nonsense over written questions

National have been criticised for the number of written questions they have been submitting to Ministers. But National claim that Ministers are refusing to answer questions and avoiding answering questions, forcing National MPs to write multiple versions of very similar questions.

I think it’s sad to see such petty use and abuse of democratic processes. I think the responsibility is largely on Ministers to live up to their transparency hype.

RNZ: National’s written questions blitz at a new level – professor

A barrage of written questions from the National Party is heaping pressure on ministerial offices, prompting one to restructure and a government agency to hire a new staff member.

In the year since forming the government, ministers have received 42,221 written parliamentary questions from National MPs. That’s around 800 a week, or 115 a day, weekends included.

Several ministers have been caught tripping up over the process – which the National Party calls incompetence.

But Auckland University Emeritus Professor Barry Gustafson said the exercise appeared to be more of a fishing expedition than anything to do with policy.

That’s an odd comment from a professor. There’s more to effective Opposition than querying policy. Aren’t written questions basically there to enable fishing expeditions?

“They cast a hundred or thousand hooks into the sea and hope that they’ll pull up one fish.”

The opposition was searching for inconsistencies in ministers’ answers or something they could develop to embarrass the government.

“It’s getting well away, when you do that, from the original intention of written questions – which was to hold the government accountable on major policy matters and actions.”

“…and actions” is an important addition there.

The actions of two Ministers have already resulted in them stepping down or being sacked.

A spokesperson for Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway said his office had requested additional staffing to deal with the high volume of written questions and official information requests.

“This was unavailable so the office restructured to employ a staff member to coordinate responses,” he said in a statement.

There have been important questions to ask about the deferral of an extradition.

Housing Minister Phil Twyford said the KiwiBuild unit in the new Ministry of Housing and Urban Development had to hire someone with the primary job of answering opposition questions.

Mr Twyford said he was committed to answering questions properly as they were an important part of the parliamentary process.

But he said “there’s no doubt that the volume and the trivial nature of some of the questions is a deliberate tactic by the opposition to tie up government staff resources.”

I think there’s quite a bit of doubt about Twyford’s claim.

National housing spokesperson Judith Collins stood by every one of her questions.

Opposition MPs had to ask very specific questions when a minister refused to answer broader questions properly, Ms Collins said.

“You end up having to send maybe five or six questions, when one decent answer was all you actually wanted.”

I’ve seen examples of this.

I thought the Greens were supposed to be into transparent Government.

Other ministers’ offices had pulled people off their usual posts in various ministries, which Prof Gustafson said was a waste of taxpayer money.

“You’re going to clog the system up with a lot of quite trivial and unnecessary [questions].

So who should decide which questions are too trivial? It certainly shouldn’t be left to the Ministers.

Prof Gustafson said both sides were guilty.

In 2010 the Labour MP Trevor Mallard, now Parliament’s Speaker, wrote and sent 20,570 questions to National ministers.

While Mr Mallard would not comment on whether he thought that was appropriate, he said he had noticed that “ministers who proactively release material are subject to fewer questions”.

In other words, Ministers who are transparent don’t get hassled with so many questions. Ministers who try to play avoidance games get more questions. There’s a simple answer there.

National MP Chris Bishop (@cjsbishop):

Here are some things written questions are used for:

  1. To find out who Ministers are meeting. Because that matters.
  2. To find out what papers they’re getting. Because that matters (I usually then OIA ones I’m interested in).
  3. To see what they’re taking to Cabinet
  4. To get stats. Eg how many new police have been hired by new government. Because they made promises around that.
  5. To track how the govt is going on fulfilling its commitments in the coalition document. Eg thanks to written questions we know that Stats Minister James Shaw as done absolutely nothing about starting a review of the official measures of unemployment, even though it’s in the coalition document.
  6. To dive further into detail behind Ministerial answers in the House, where supps are severely limited.
  7. To get the government to provide evidence for statements they make. What Ministers say matters. And the proof for statements (or lack of it) matters.

In short, written questions are bloody important. We’ve asked a lot, cos we’re working hard. Written questions brought down Claire Curran and have provided material for innumerable press releases and oral questions.

Good government matters. Good opposition makes governments perform better. Written questions are a vital tool of Parliamentary accountability.

I thought the Greens had committed to something like that, but James Shaw or his staff don’t appear to be practicing what they have preached.

All parties play games and play the system in ways they think will help them achieve what they want.

National were bad in how they played Official Information requests. But this Government is looking like they could be worse, despite ‘promising’ to be better.

What I think the main problem here is – we have a Government that claimed they would improve transparency, that they would be the most transparent government ever, but their actions suggest the opposite.

Tax is theft, tax is love

I have seen tax referred to as theft for yonks. That’s a silly description. Tax is an essential part of any modern society. We can choose to opt out by becoming hermits if we can find some land to squat on. Otherwise we need to contribute to the costs of a running an advanced civilisation.

We can debate what sort of taxes should be levied, and how much tax we should pay, but tax is an essential part of how things work.

‘Tax is love’ is a new term for me. It sounds Orwellian.

But these two odd ways of describing tax are being debated.

‘Tax is love’ sounds ridiculous to me.

US drone strikes in Somalia

So the US military is active Somalia still. They have been there a while.

From Gezza:

The reality:
https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/trump-decree-killing-innocent-civilians-somalia-180114091717319.html
Trump’s new relaxed rules of engagement are killing civilians and breeding the next generation of anti-US fighters.

https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/11/hidden-toll-american-drones-yemen-civilian-deaths-181114081521898.html
Investigation by the Associated Press finds that more than 30 killed in drone attacks in 2018 were not al-Qaeda members.

https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/03/trump-deadly-drone-policy-ngos-180307204617166.html
US drone attacks in Iraq and Syria shot up 50 percent while civilian deaths rose 215 percent from 2016 to 2017.

https://www.aljazeera.com/mritems/imagecache/mbdxxlarge/mritems/Images/2014/2/12/20142121043484734_20.jpg
https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2014/02/risk-reporting-us-drone-strikes-2014212103345230764.html
Yemen researcher says he received a death threat after investigating deadly wedding-convoy attack.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Civilian_casualties_from_U.S._drone_strikes

Media watch – Wednesday

21 November 2018

MediaWatch

Media Watch is a focus on New Zealand media, blogs and social media. You can post any items of interested related to media.

A primary aim here is to hold media to account in the political arena. A credible and questioning media is an essential part of a healthy democracy.

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Do it here. Please no personal attacks or bickering. Anything abusive, provocative or inflammatory may be deleted.

Open Forum – Wednesday

21 November 2018

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World view – Wednesday

Tuesday GMT

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For posting on events, news, opinions and anything of interest from around the world.

Ardern still very disappointing on drug problems

The Labour led coalition government has been very disappointing with it’s lack of urgency apparent lack of understanding of drug problems. And people with some expertise on drug issues are also getting exasperated.

Jacinda Ardern seems to be leading the problems.

Russell Brown (@publicaddress):

Gawd. Sort yourself out, Prime Minister. This doesn’t help anyone – and apart from anything else, it’s completely unnecessary.

Real talk: Labour has spent long enough chanting “drugs are a health issue”. It needs to take the basic step of identifying an MP (it’s maybe even better if it’s *not* a minister) who can own the drug policy issue and provide a coherent, informed voice. Ginny Anderson maybe?

Minister of Health David Clark has also been disappointing on the drug issue – he doesn’t even need to be the leas minister, under the last government an Associate Minister of Health dealt with drugs.

Rookie backbench MP Chloe Swarbrick has been trying to get things happening but even her Green party don’t see any urgency, as people keep dying, especially as a result of synthetic drug use.

Despite her efforts Swabrick doesn’t seem to be getting very far.

Can NZ really be ‘a bridge’ between US and China?

I still don’t know. Jacinda Ardern was asked by RNZ how New Zealand can act as a bridge between China and the US. She doesn’t seem to have really answered.

On The Nation in the weekend: Trade and Export Growth Minister David Parker

Trade and Export Growth Minister David Parker says New Zealand is trying to position itself as the bridge between the United States and China. “We have a bit of a reputation for the honest broker, and it’s times like this that we should draw upon that reputation”.

Transparency trashed, Official Information Act plans kept secret

The Official Information Act is supposed to enable public access to Government information. It is supposed to improve transparency.

So it is alarming that discussions on a review of the OIA are being kept secret, and are limited to some unnamed people – referred to as “a select group of chosen insiders”.

No Tight Turn: The government’s secret OIA plans

Back in September, when the government announced plans to increase proactive release of official information, we learned by accident that they were also considering another review of the OIA, and “intend[ed] to carry out targeted engagement to inform a decision on whether to progress a formal review”. As someone interested in OIA reform, I was naturally curious about this, so I sent an OIA off to Justice Minister Andrew Little seeking information about the proposal. I finally got the response back on Friday, after a month-long extension for “consultation”. Unfortunately, its not very informative.

You can read the released documents here. As is obvious, all interesting information about the proposal has been redacted. All their specific proposals for reform are secret, as is practically everyone they plan to consult in their “targeted engagement”. People with specific expertise in the law? Secret. Bloggers and commentators? Also secret. They do list some media organisations, and the members of the OGP Expert Advisory Group, but everyone else is secret.

Which is outrageous when you think about it.

It looks outrageous to me.

The OIA is quasi-constitutional legislation, something that belongs to (and affects) all of us. But rather than a full public consultation, they plan to privilege some voices over others, presenting their select secret proposals to a select secret group, then presenting the stovepiped results to us as a fait accompli. And they kept this entire process secret as well: they decided it all back in May, but never announced anything. The only reason we know about it at all is because of a passing reference in another document. Whether these are the actions of a government committed to transparency, accountability, and participation is left as an exercise for the reader.

We deserve better than this. Its not just politicians, journalists and trouble-making bloggers who use the OIA, but all of us. Steven Price’s 2005 study of the OIA contained an extensive list of examples of how ordinary citizens use the Act, and summed it up as “the stuff of democracy”.

According to the Ombudsman’s 2017-18 annual report, individuals made three times as many OIA complaints as journalists, and its 5.5 times as many when you look at the LGOIMA. In short, it’s our Act, not theirs. And any non-trivial changes to it require publicly consulting all of us, not just a select group of chosen insiders.

From Reddit:

As some of you like to point out, I don’t comment often here. I’ll make an exception today in order to endorse this post by No Right Turn, who is something of an authority on OIA issues.

Regardless of your political views, the Official Information Act is an incredibly important tool to hold those in power to account. It’s also one of the strongest freedom of information laws in the world.

Any changes to the OIA need to be taken seriously.

So how can we  demand inclusion in this review of the OIA?

Jacinda Ardern, in a speech at Auckland University of Technology, outlined 12 priorities “looking 30 years ahead, not just three”, which included:

  • transparent, transformative and compassionate government;

Bryce Edwards (1 News september 2017):

“Stylistically it was brilliant but it was fairly hollow in terms of substance,”

This seems to be a repeating theme with Ardern.

Under her leadership the only transformation in transparency appears to be towards more secrecy, and the review of the OIA suggests she is doing the opposite of what her hype has promised.