Speaker reprimands Phil Twyford

The Speaker Trevor Mallard has come down quite hard on Minister of Housing and Urban Development Phil Twyford for giving flippant answers to written questions submitted by Judith Collins. Twyford wasn’t in Parliament to face the flak.

The Opposition (National) were given 20 additional supplementary oral questions, which seems quite a significant penalty for the Government.

Mr SPEAKER: Replies to some written questions to the Minister of Housing and Urban Development have been drawn to my attention. In particular, I have considered the answers to written questions Nos 12234, 12225, 11652, 11710, and 11715. The answers are an abuse of the written question process. In my view, they show a contempt for the accountability which a Minister has to this House. The Minister knows that they would be completely unacceptable as answers to oral questions, and the same rules apply.

Ministers are required to endeavour to give informative replies to questions—Speaker’s ruling 177/5. While the Speaker is not responsible for the quality of answers, I do expect Ministers to make a serious attempt to provide an informative answer. These questions do not come close to meeting that standard.

As a result of these answers that I have seen, I rule that: (1) the Minister will provide substantive amended answers to the questions concerned by midday on Tuesday, 3 July; (2) since the Opposition has been denied an opportunity to use written questions to scrutinise the Government in a timely manner, they will receive an additional 20 supplementary oral questions, to be used by the end of next week.

I have also written to the Minister indicating a form of reply he is using to avoid giving substantive answers is unacceptable, and that he has until next Thursday to provide corrected answers.

There was more later when Leader of the House Chris Hipkins raised a point of order.

Hon CHRIS HIPKINS (Leader of the House): I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. At the beginning of question time today, you made a ruling regarding written question answers that my colleague, the Hon Phil Twyford, had put forward. I’ve had a chance to now look at those questions. I know that you have written to me about this matter as well.

Certainly I can understand the concern that you have raised about some of the answers that my colleague has given, and I agree with you that some of the flippant comments that he has made in those do not reflect well on the House. However, the question that I would like to raise with you is around some of the ironic expressions that are made in some of the questions themselves and whether, in fact, one or two of those answers were in fact appropriate given the context of the question. For example, in question No. 11652, the operable part of the question was how many more sleeps are required before a decision is made regarding KiwiBuild eligibility rules and income testing, to which the Minister replied, “it depends how frequently the member sleeps”. The point that I would make there is that the question itself did set itself up for that kind of answer. So—

Mr SPEAKER: No, you will sit down.

Hon CHRIS HIPKINS: I fully understand a more rigorous approach to the answers and I wouldn’t contest that at all. The question that I would ask of you, Mr Speaker, is that a rigorous approach is also taken to the accepting of the written questions themselves, because some of these questions do invite answers that would not reflect well on the House because the questions themselves don’t reflect well on the House.

Mr SPEAKER: I can deal with that point of order very easily. If the Minister of Housing and Urban Development had not used the expression “not many more sleeps” in this House to the member when she asked the oral question, then I would not have allowed it in the written question. The original offence, the original irony, was quoted from the Hon Phil Twyford, and, from my perspective, that is an acceptable use within a written question. If the Minister had not used the expression, he wouldn’t have been subject to what looks like an ironic question but, actually, is just a straight response to what was almost certainly an inappropriate comment that he made in the Chamber.

Hon CHRIS HIPKINS (Leader of the House): A further point of order, Mr Speaker. Are you, therefore, ruling that the phrase “so many sleeps” is out of order, because that is an answer that has been given for many, many, many questions in the House.

Mr SPEAKER: No, no, I’m not doing that. But what I am indicating is that when that is quoted or used in a written question which relates to the answer given in the House, I’m not going to rule it out; whereas if it didn’t have a context, then at that stage it could well be considered ironic.

Twyford has frequently shown signs that he hasn’t been able to step up to the responsibilities of being in Government and being a Minister.

McClay reprimanded over Chinese trade issues

The Trade Minister Todd McClay has been publicly reprimanded by John Key for not being open and honest to Key or to the public after a story broke about alleged Chinese threats over trade.

Stuff: McClay rebuked by PM after failing to reveal wider fears of China retribution

After days downplaying Stuff reports, McClay on Monday revealed officials have been “for months” examining reports that China could retaliate if an investigation into steel dumping in New Zealand went ahead.

He also apologised to Key for not seeking more detail on the issue, but he stopped short of offering his resignation.

Key said McClay’s answers to media at a joint press conference in Indonesia, after Stuff broke the story, left the impression “that the only correspondence, the only discussion, had been between Zespri and a non-Government organisation and that’s not true”.

It’s not uncommon for Ministers to avoid telling the public everything about an issue, sometimes to try and protect themselves, sometimes to protect others from revelations that could be embarrassing.

But to not be up front with the Prime Minister can create serious problems for the Government, as it did in this case due to Key giving responses to media that turned out to be inaccurate.

There had been discussions and correspondence with others.

“He should have made both the media and me aware of that.”

“I think he took a very literal interpretation of the question that was asked of him. While that …may have been technically correct the point I was making to him is that’s giving a very specific and, I think, ‘dancing on the head of a pin’-type of answer to what was really a broader question. “

Key says that McClay has apologised to him but has not offered his resignation. McClay should be on notice not to stuff up like this again.

Labour leader Andrew Little called for Key to sack McClay. 

“A Minister who does not appreciate the seriousness of possible retaliatory action by our biggest trading partner against some of our biggest export industries simply should not be in the job.”

I have no idea whether it warrants the sacking of McClay, but Opposition calls for sackings tend to be not infrequent and often overplayed. In any case McClay may have appreciated the seriousness of the issue with China, but not the importance of properly informing the PM.

McClay was hamstrung in what he could say about a possible complaint about steel dumping because under WTO rules the Government could not confirm that until a formal investigation was launched.

How much to tell the PM is an ongoing judgement call by ministers, in this case poorly judged by McClay, but if Ministers resigned or were sacked over every stuff up there would be a drastic shortage of experience in Cabinet.

Key still played down the seriousness of the trade threats.

Key continued to describe the fears of China retaliating as “unsubstantiated rumours”.

“I think it still does fit in that category.”

There had been “engagement” like the one between an NGO and Zespri.

“What has happened is where there have been questions raised about whether, if there was an action taken, there would be retaliatory action the minister and the ministry have sought assurances that wouldn’t take place,” Key said.

“And to the best of our knowledge they have received those assurances.”

There have been claims ranging from serious trade threats from China to the story being an over-egged political hit job in New Zealand.

If the latter then jeopardising trade relations with China for political purposes deserves some attention, but don’t expect openness with the public or resignations for stuff ups in that respect.