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.

Speaker’s ruling on written questions

The Speaker Trevor Mallard gave a ruling in Parliament yesterday on the Government tactic of avoiding answering written questions.

SPEAKER’S RULINGS

Written QuestionsReplies

Mr SPEAKER: I have reviewed some replies to written questions provided recently. The Minister for Economic Development has responded to a series of questions saying that they are out of order under Standing Order 380. That is not an answer to the question. It is not for Ministers to rule things out of order. Only I may rule on relevance and admissibility. If it appears to a Minister that the question is not in order, then the proper course is to return it to the Clerk’s office or to enter into a discussion with the Clerk’s office, or to enter into a discussion with the Clerk’s office.

I have also seen written questions asking what meetings a Minister has attended between certain dates that have been answered by “What is meant by meetings?” That is not an answer to the question. If a Minister is not clear what a question means, he or she could contact the member who has asked the question in order to seek clarification. A Minister’s office should be able to receive clarification and provide a reply to the question within six working days.

I remind Ministers of their duty to the House, and through the House, to the country to account for the public offices they hold. Ministers should give informative replies to the questions they are asked, where it is consistent with the public interest to do so—Speakers rulings’ 176/5 and 177/5.

The questions that I have mentioned today will be returned to Ministers, and I would expect that they would be replied to urgently. I will continue to review answers to written questions periodically to ensure questions are being addressed.

 

MPs on notice over written question feud, reform possible

Trevor Mallard continues his very promising start as Speaker. He has introduced innovations to try to help the flow of questions and answers, he has been balanced, and has penalised interjections that breach his guidelines in a balanced way. And he has been prepared to adjust his guidelines as he sees how they work in practice.

Question time (Oral Questions) has been working better as a result.

See Speaker Mallard plans to let the game flow

Trevor Mallard says he wants to be a hands-off Speaker in Parliament — if MPs are prepared to play ball. Mallard spoke to Sam Sachdeva about which predecessor is his role model and his plans for parliamentary reform.

On Friday Mallard warned all MPs over the written question feud that had escalated into large numbers of questions to Ministers being submitted by the National Opposition.

Newsroom: MPs on notice over written questions furore

Speaker Trevor Mallard has put both sides of Parliament on notice in the war over written questions, warning them he expects a higher standard once the House resumes in 2018.

Speaking to Newsroom, Mallard said it was “very early days” in the new Parliament, but he expected both sides to resolve the situation by the new year.

“There’s clearly a bit of ‘young bull, old bull’ head bashing going on, and that is pretty inevitable as a settling down of new and different roles.

“I think it’s fair to say I wouldn’t be happy if the current approach from either side continued in the long term … I don’t want us to be in this situation after Christmas.”

“Members are meant to be individually approving each of their questions and I’m not convinced that’s happening, and ministers are meant to be individually approving each of their replies and I’m not convinced that’s happening either, but it’s not my role to dig deeper into either side.

“What I hope is that the Government eventually gets to the point of fulfilling its undertakings to be open and transparent.”

That’s a gentle but pointed reminder of what Jacinda Ardern had promised but have not yet delivered.

Mallard said he would not comment on the quality of the Government’s answers, “other than to say if it continued like that for a long period of time then I would get anxious”.

Asked specifically about decisions to decline written questions asking for a list of briefings, he acknowledged he had used the same approach while in opposition.

He has asked thousands of questions of Ministers in the past. He knows most of the tricks of Parliamentary process, a lot of it from his own experience.

While there were some cases where it was justified to withhold information, Mallard said “most stuff … should be able to be got out there by one route or another”.

However, he described written questions as “sort of like a last resort”, and instead believed it would be better to establish an automated method of releasing information.

“There was a strong view [in past discussions] that if you could get a system that was pretty much automatic, transparent, didn’t require application, then that would be better.

That sounds like significant reform, not just of systems but also of attitudes and practices of Ministers and their departments.

“That obviously takes time, it takes a bit of discussion with the Ombudsman to work out where lines should be.

“Eventually getting some websites going which contain most of that material, for example, Cabinet papers two months after they’ve been to Cabinet automatically up unless there’s a good reason not to, just that sort of stuff would mean you’d have a lot of access to, actually quite boring information, but access to what’s going on.”

Opening up more public mechanisms for transparency was the best approach, he said.

“Frankly, the idea that the written parliamentary question is the mechanism for transparency generally … it would be very sad if it had to be that, because I think it’s not just parliamentarians, everyone should be able to access the matters which should be publicly available.”

I hope Mallard has success with this sort of reforming and the necessary cultural shift.

National MP and shadow leader of the House Simon Bridges said the Opposition remained concerned that the Government was “simply not giving any respect to” the written questions process.

Leader of the House Chris Hipkins refused to speak to Newsroom about the issue, with a spokesman saying he had said all he intended to on the matter and was focused on “delivering for New Zealanders”.

There is little sign of progress so far.

 

Government not walking the transparency talk

Prior to and on becoming Government Labour and the Greens talked the transparancy talk.

From the Labour-Green Confidence and Supply Agreement:

20. Strengthen New Zealand’s democracy by increasing public participation, openness, and transparency around official information.

From Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s Speech from the Throne:

This government will foster a more open and democratic society. It will strengthen transparency around official information.

But they are not walking the walk – instead they seem to be sticking a finger up to the Opposition and to media.

The refusal of Ministers to properly answer written questions is covered here: Parliamentary question spat

Media are also getting frustrated at being denied information they should be provided with.

Stacey Kirk in Labour promised transparency in Government, but they seem to be buckling on that early

Labour is also yet to release what’s known as the “Briefings to Incoming Ministers” – or BIMs.

They are the documents prepared by the experts and officials, delivered to ministers in their first week to give them a crash course on the portfolio they’ve just been handed – in some cases rendering them responsible overnight for the spending of public funds totalling billions.

All of them have been requested under the Official Information Act by reporters across New Zealand. All of them have been denied by the Government on the grounds they’re about to be released publicly anyway.

The trouble with that is the law actually applies to occasions where the document in question is yet to be printed or the minister hasn’t had a chance to read it first.

These were read by the ministers more than a month ago, and its understood to decision on when to release the BIMs – state sector wide – is to come from the Prime Minister’s Office.

“[The section] should not be used to delay the release of information which is intended to be incorporated in other material which, although to be made public at a later date, may still require the making of other policy decisions,” is the expressed order of the Ombudsman.

Kirk also comments on the written question spat:

They can lodge questions to ministers on matters related to their portfolios, and ministers must respond within six working days. There is no limit as to how many questions can be lodged, they must be concise and targeted.

Undoubtedly, 6000 written questions in a month is a lot.

But is it fair to demand those answers? Absolutely. Is it hypocritical of National to be complaining they’re being blocked? You bet. Does that matter? Not one bit.

Because the answers, or at least the willingness to provide those answers, benefit New Zealand as a democracy.

In July 2010 Labour asked 8791 questions in a single month.

More than 7000 of those questions came from MP Trevor Mallard alone.

Now in the Speaker’s chair, it’s his jurisdiction to force answers where they are not fairly being withheld if a complaint is laid.

Labour is getting off to a poor start on transparency.

That’s certainly how it looks, and it seems a deliberate tactic not to be transparent.

Where is Jacinda Ardern’s leadership on this? She has promoted absolute transparency. Like in Debate #1:

Ardern managed to get in a couple of references to the generation factor, including “your generation” directed at her opponent. He pushed hard at the tax nerve, and Ardern’s response was all about being “absolutely transparent”, which is evidently a cousin of relentlessly positive.

But the even then the walk didn’t match the talk.

Ardern’s insistence she was being “transparent” and “clear” about her refusal to reveal any detail on tax – or really anything much at all – started to grate as the hour progressed.

And at election time:

Ardern unilaterally ditched her party’s commitment not to implement tax changes in a first term, declaring herself absolutely transparent about profound uncertainty.

Ardern in particular has benefited from at times very favourable media coverage, but transparency alarm bells have also been sounded, during the campaign and since.

 

 

“This government will foster a more open and democratic society. It will strengthen transparency around official information.”

Ardern and her Government need to start walking that talk.

Otherwise he light may be shone through a thin veneer of Ardern insincerity and Government bull.

If journalists don’t get Government information they are entitled to they may get increasingly grumpy.

They may be more inclined towards their own transparency tricks “allowing light to pass through so that objects behind can be distinctly seen”.

 

 

Parliamentary question spat

Labour Ministers are effectively refusing to answer written questions submitted by the National Opposition.

National MPs are submitting many more questions in response, and Labour are crying foul.

Last Friday:

Other media picked up on this.

NZH: National denies questions are ‘Parliamentary spam mail’

Labour has called it the Parliamentary equivalent of spam mail but National is unrepentant about lodging more than 6000 written questions to ministers in the past month.

Opposition MPs can lodge written questions to ministers, with the answers then published online. Since Labour came to power National has lodged thousands, with many asking what meetings a minister held on a specific date.

National’s Leader of the House, Simon Bridges…

…acknowledged a “side effect” of that approach would be to test the new Government and its staff.

“Is part of this around testing the Government more broadly and is that a side effect of what we are doing? Okay, maybe. But the primary reason for doing this is to get substantive answers on what they are doing at this stage of their Government so we can understand their priorities.

“We are not getting answers inside or outside of Parliament. That necessitates us asking more detailed and specific questions. If we were getting answers to what we feel are reasonable questions, we wouldn’t have to ask so many.”

Labour Leader of the House, Chris Hipkins…

…said the tactic was the parliamentary equivalent of spam mail, and would not lead to much useful information.

“All New Zealanders, regardless of whether they voted for us or not, want the Government to be effective. I don’t think they want a Government that’s bogged down with trivialities and time-wasting. If the Opposition want to focus their energies on that, we’ll just get on with the job of delivering for New Zealanders,” Hipkins told Newshub.

“At the end of the day, questions like this don’t really serve the public interest. They simply soak up huge amounts of time, and that’s time and money and energy that could be put into serving the public.”

Bridges…

…said his party would continue to ask questions, but numbers would drop if “good, basic” answers were provided.

New Zealand Parliament (August 2016): Hundreds of written questions asked every week, even when Parliament isn’t meeting

Written questions, and especially their answers, provide a huge amount of information of interest to New Zealanders. Even during the recent month-long recess, the questions kept flowing in and being answered.

Written questions are a key tool to help Parliament hold the Government to account. During the July recess, 1159 written questions were asked.

MPs can direct a written question to any Minister about a subject that the Minister is responsible for. There is no limit to how many questions an MP may ask. The total number asked in 2015 was 16,180.

Ministers have six working days to provide a written answer to each question. Each answer is first sent to the MP who asked the question. Three days later, the answers are published on Parliament’s website.

What is the aim of Parliamentary questions?

Both written and oral questions are used by MPs to get information from Ministers.

Written questions usually seek information that may be used in an upcoming debate or question time in the House, or through the news media.

Oral questions are asked and answered on days that Parliament is sitting. An answer is required from the Minister during that day’s question time. That answer can be tested during question time with supplementary questions.

This process keeps Ministers and the organisations for which they are responsible on notice that their activities can always be under scrutiny.

So it’s an important part of our Parliamentary process. Asking written questions is an important job for an Opposition.

Graeme Edgeler gives some examples of non-answers at Public Address: Questions, but no answers

To NZ First Minister Ron Mark:

8560 (2017). Hon Mark Mitchell to the Defence (Minister – Ron Mark) (16 Nov 2017): What meetings, if any, has the Minister attended between 26 October 2017 and 15 November 2017, including subject, attendees, and agenda items?

Hon Ron Mark (Defence (Minister – Ron Mark)) replied: I meet regularly, formally and informally, with officials and various stakeholders. A range of issues are discussed. If the Member would like to be more specific I will endeavour to answer the question.

To Labour Associate Minister Kris Faafoi:

8449 (2017). Hon Simon Bridges to the Immigration (Associate Minister – Kris Faafoi) (16 Nov 2017): What meetings, if any, did the Minister attend between 26 October and 29 October inclusive, including subject, attendees and agenda items?

8448 (2017). Hon Simon Bridges to the Immigration (Associate Minister – Kris Faafoi) (16 Nov 2017): What meetings, if any, did the Minister attend between 30 October and 05 November inclusive, including subject, attendees and agenda items?

(to 8449) Hon Kris Faafoi (Immigration (Associate Minister – Kris Faafoi)) replied: I meet regularly, formally and informally, with officials and various stakeholders. A range of issues are discussed. If the Member would like to be more specific I will endeavour to answer the question.

(to 8448) Hon Kris Faafoi (Immigration (Associate Minister – Kris Faafoi)) replied: I meet regularly, formally and informally, with officials and various stakeholders. A range of issues are discussed. If the Member would like to be more specific I will endeavour to answer the question.

A narrower question to Labour Minister Stuart Nash:

8393 (2017). Chris Bishop to the Police (Minister – Stuart Nash) (16 Nov 2017): Did the Minister have any meetings in his capacity as Minister of Police on October 27, if so, what people and organisations did he meet with on that day, where were the meetings held and what were the main items of business?

Hon Stuart Nash (Police (Minister – Stuart Nash)) replied: I meet regularly, formally and informally, with officials and various stakeholders. A range of issues are discussed. If the Member would like to be more specific I will endeavour to answer the question.

Same fobbing off response. That both Labour and NZ First Ministers are using the same non-reply suggests a coordinated tactic from the Government.

Bishop has followed up:

11778 (2017). Chris Bishop to the Minister of Police (22 Nov 2017): Did the Minister have any meetings in his capacity as Minister of Police on October 27 between 8 and 9am, if so, what people and organisations did he meet with at that time; where were the meetings held and what were the main items of business?

11779 (2017). Chris Bishop to the Minister of Police (22 Nov 2017): Did the Minister have any meetings in his capacity as Minister of Police on October 27 between 9 and 10am, if so, what people and organisations did he meet with at that time; where were the meetings held and what were the main items of business?

That’s why the number of questions is so high.

Edgeler, a stickler for proper Parliamentary process, commented:

The replies are due by Thursday. Hopefully Bishop, and the other MPs (all of whom seem to have been specifically invited by Ministers to ask more granular question) will have the answers to which they are entitled.

So far, Bishop’s hour-by-hour requests only cover the first two days the Minister of Police was in office, although the essentially rejected day-by-day requests covered several weeks. The Minister should consider himself lucky. Far from being aghast that National MPs have asked “a whopping 6254 written questions”, I am instead surprised by their forbearance. They are being denied information they ought to have. By rights, they should have asked more.

Ministers seem indifferent (at best) to their responsibilities.

National has escalated things and has now got some publicity. This will put pressure on the Government and it’s Ministers to comply sensibly.