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.