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.


  1. It’s not just with written questions where the Government is failing their transparency test.

    • PDB

       /  21st November 2018

      Considering Ardern thinks it appropriate to give answers unrelated to the questions actually asked of her (ala Hosking interview) probably a waste of time anyhow.

  2. Ray

     /  21st November 2018

    Whining that you are being overloaded with Parliamentary questions while ducking and diving answering any direct ones is not a good look.
    Add that to a super secret look into the OIA system, we don’t know who is looking into it or what their recommendations are going to be and you really do have a possibility a breakdown of the democratic process.
    And all this from the self proclaimed “most transparent and open” Government, who it seems see Orwell’s “1984” as a textbook to govern rather than a warning.

  3. FarmerPete

     /  21st November 2018

    Gustafson is hardly an objective commentator. He has been a labour person for decades, not that that means he should be automatically disbelieved. just that his views should be read with caution.

  4. duperez

     /  21st November 2018

    Good thing averaging the numbers out. 115 a day, weekends included? That certainly shows how serious the Opposition is. They have their teeth into so many issues at such depth that each one of them, seven days a week, asks at least two questions.

    Was the maths done before Jami-Lee Ross departed? 🙃

  5. It’s patently obvious that the National Opposition is, in all its actions, doing something other than “performing its duties as an Opposition”. From the post:
    “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.”
    Well away. Well away. Again, i’s patently obvious.

    • Trevors_Elbow

       /  21st November 2018

      Oh dear Robert…

      By example of why questions need to be asked in such volume….Minister Jones was asked about who he had been meetings with and he needed to correct himself multiple times. I.E. he could answer correctly and the opposition knew his answers were wrong and so asked again… and again…

      He wouldn’t need to be questioned on such matters if he, and other Ministers in this Government, just published their diaries – though they would need to accurately record all their meetings first I suppose, which they don’t have a good track record on. Not looking at Ms Curran at all…

      So obviously questions are required….

      Knowing who Ministers meet with, what papers they see etc etc is important information for the public to know, as well as for the opposition to know.

      Your beloved Greens wailed incessantly in opposition about ministerial access for lobbyists and those meetings not being disclosed…. but seem to have gone a little quiet on openness and transparency now the baubles of power are flashing in their eyes…

      your trolling knows no bounds and is ceaseless… don’t you have trees to sing to?

  6. robertguyton

     /  21st November 2018

    “So who should decide which questions are too trivial?”
    You, Pete? Ray? Corky? Alan? God help us, PDB?
    Perhaps the assessment from someone in the know would be worth heeding???
    I reckon the good professor has got it right. In any case, your post is [deleted, don’t make things up about others – PG] – ” what they haave prteaced.” – and is unbalanced and patently…wrong.

  7. robertguyton

     /  21st November 2018

    “National were bad in how they played Official Information requests.”
    Fair enough. And the point that avoiding the flood of questions by publishing full accounts is fair enough too.

  8. robertguyton

     /  21st November 2018

    Pete, your insistence that commenters here shouldn’t “make things up about others” is a good one. May I quote you, whenever it happens?

    • PDB

       /  21st November 2018

      Seems to be an unfortunate trend for you Robert – spam/ derail one of PG’s posts (especially one’s critical of the govt and/or Greens) with multiple comments essentially saying the same thing.

      I think it money well spent if more people are needed to help answer questions from the opposition, especially with the large amounts of taxpayer money being wasted elsewhere by this govt. This would be very small-change stuff in comparison.

      • adamsmith1922

         /  21st November 2018

        Well said

      • robertguyton

         /  21st November 2018

        Nonsense, PDB. I’ve made the valid point that the professors claims are correct. You and others don’t agree and are belabouring the point that some Government Ministers aren’t doing all they should. Spam? How so? Derail? How so? Interested in a reasoned answer.

  9. David

     /  21st November 2018

    There is a lack of confidence in their own abilities as Ministers hence the avoidance of answering in the proper spirit of an open democracy. I would guess the staffers in the Ministers offices charged with answering are probably a bit nervous about dropping their masters in trouble when they have a front row seat to observe how ill equipped this government is.

  10. alloytoo

     /  21st November 2018

    It would appear we finally have a focused, functional opposition, after 9 years of neglect…

    • robertguyton

       /  21st November 2018

      National, good in Opposition?
      Just as well…

      • Gezza

         /  21st November 2018

        Why, exactly?

        • robertguyton

           /  21st November 2018

          Because they’ll be there for some time…

          • Gezza

             /  21st November 2018

            What’s good about that? What if the next lot turn out to be shockers and tax the hell out of everybody and waste a lot of it with no measurable improvements in the key areas they promised to fix?

            Why would a National-led alternative not be something worth considering because voters eventually won’t stand for that. That and the holier than thou we know better than you approach did the last Labour-led government in.

            Jacinda’s kindness speeches and Joyce-type waffle at twice the speed (like she displayed yesterday on the drug reform issue) won’t work on its own if it’s not matched by achievements satisfactory to voters. They wouldn’t even be in government if it weren’t for Winston Peters being allowed to control them when he wants to.

            • Jaw still sore, huh?

            • Gezza

               /  21st November 2018

              No, it’s not, hardly hurts at all, everything seems to be healing already – but I had my zip-up green jacket collar pulled right up over my lower face when I went shopping today. The right lower jaw is looking pretty bloody spectacular. I read up on it on the interweb and it said the swelling & bruising usually really cranks up on days 2 and 3 after surgery on the jaw. They weren’t bloody wrong ! :/

              Time to move from cold to warm compresses now. I think the swelling’s starting to subside, but the bruising has spread everywhere. It’ll be multi-coloured in a couple of days.

              But, regarding my question, you don’t have any problems with anything about the way National governs, you just hate them because they’re not the Greens or Labour or NZ First. Does that summarise your detailed reasons for hating them?

            • robertguyton

               /  21st November 2018

              Arnica to reduce swelling. Gardening to relieve frustration over how we’re governed. I don’t really rate any of them, but know full well it’s a tough job and those that do it run the gauntlet of losing much. I don’t really care much for any particular party, I just like to think my way through issues. Commenting on blogs isn’t real political discussion, Imo, it’s theatre of the absurd and a place where nothing gets resolved or even teased out satisfactorily. There are some gaffs, but too few for my liking.

            • “Commenting on blogs isn’t real political discussion, Imo, it’s theatre of the absurd and a place where nothing gets resolved or even teased out satisfactorily.”

              It is what you make of it. If that’s your expectations then you are likely to see what you want. It also explains a bit.

              I think that blogs can serve useful purposes, and beyond the simple surface stuff that you seem stuck on.

              Why do you try to make a theatre of the absurd out of something that others find useful? Don’t you want them to get something out of what they’re doing?

            • Alan Wilkinson

               /  21st November 2018

              Can you give an example of your thinking through issues?

            • robertguyton

               /  21st November 2018

              Oh, there have been many, Alan, but you’ve missed their point almost invariably. So, yes, I could, but it’d be wasted on you, experience tells me.

            • robertguyton

               /  21st November 2018

              Oh, and “gaffs” should be “laffs”, but gaffs can stand – makes no difference.

            • robertguyton

               /  21st November 2018

              Good points and questions, Pete. Do you reckon you’ve affected the political machine at all in all the time you’ve been posting? If so, do you think it has been in a positive or a negative way?

            • I’m certain I’ve affected ‘the political machine’, probably to a slight degree, overall in a positive way. It takes a lot of cogs of different sizes for a machine like politics to work – at times to overcome the effects of some people seem to prefer to throw sands of absurdity into the cogs.

              Don’t you think the political machine would work better if fewer people tried to disrupt and discredit discussion that they disagreed with (or just for the hell of it)?

            • Robert, what state do you think our democracy would be in if less people tried to make a positive contribution, and more people tried to piss on the political parade?

            • Alan Wilkinson

               /  21st November 2018

              Actually I don’t believe you’ve done any thinking at all here, Robert. You just blurt out the first thing that comes into your head which is usually just a varuant of the last thing that came into your head. You hardly ever introduce a new and interesting idea or fact. Most of your comments are banal and that irritates everyone.

            • Gezza

               /  21st November 2018

              Good points and questions, Pete. Do you reckon you’ve affected the political machine at all in all the time you’ve been posting?

              That’s an interesting question. I don’t expect this blog to affect the political machine. In amongst all the fun and games I find a lot of information and perspectives that I hadn’t considered and that informs my next vote, based on what I think – not what someone else or some party leader does. And that, in my own small way, affects the political machine.

  11. robertguyton

     /  21st November 2018

    “Don’t you think the political machine would work better if fewer people tried to disrupt and discredit discussion that they disagreed with”
    That’s…free speech … isn’t it? Shouldn’t people speak up about the things they disagree with?

  12. robertguyton

     /  21st November 2018

    “Actually I don’t believe you’ve done any thinking at all here”
    I can see that, Alan.

  13. robertguyton

     /  21st November 2018

    “Robert, what state do you think our democracy would be in if less people tried to make a positive contribution, and more people tried to piss on the political parade?”
    Dunno, Pete, but if fewer people “tried to make a positive contribution”, we’d be worser off 🙂 How many of your commenters here, Pete, make positive contributions, rather than negative ones, do you reckon, given that the game seems to be ‘ping the Government for everything imaginable’?

    • Gezza

       /  21st November 2018

      I think you would probably be best posting on TS. I don’t think you can comprehend the idea of a blog author just posting critiques on political issues from several different perspectives so that others can express theirs and debate the whys and wherefores. You’re too invested in your own perspective to see another one. You’re not alone there but you are pretty singular in your inability to comprehend that posts are here for critique and analysis – not for constantly whining at the blogmeister for not seeing things your way.

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