Thursday, March 21, 2013

Norman Questions Government Accountability


This National led Government and its supporters are promoting the view that the only time a government should be held to account is at the ballot box and the only mandate necessary to implement their policies is their election into office. For a party that is driven by ideology, and not evidence, it is problematic to them when justification for their policies is requested and they do not have free rein over the implementation process.

This National led Government come from an authoritarian culture, where those in leadership roles are respected because of their position and not necessarily their capability. While the Green Party and the Labour Party have conferences where policy is debated and their leadership challenged, National Party conferences are orderly affairs where the leadership tell the faithful how it is. This is most obvious with the environmental wing of the National Party (the Blue Greens), when, despite the obvious removal of environmental protections and concerning environmental policy, not a word of concern has been expressed.

While this National led Government promotes individual responsibility and accountability (to levels that are almost fanatical) for teachers, beneficiaries and most working people, this is not something they apply to themselves or their CEO mates. Don Elder's performance and Solid Energy's demise was the result of a "perfect storm", not incompetence. Hekia Parata's inability to have a positive relationship with her staff and officials is obviously their problem, not hers.

A good example of how this Government operates was exemplified by the Christchurch school closures where the Ombudsman was so concerned at the process used that he initiated his own inquiry. He documented a process that ignored proper consultation, was based on limited evidence, blocked access to information and even encouraged public officials to lie. When the Minister, Hekia Parata, was questioned her answers were evasive and her ministerial position has been maintained despite a history of poor management.

All avenues and forums where people have previously been able to hold their Government to account are being ignored. The Select Committee process is is being being treated with disdain, with many submitters who oppose government policy finding that they are treated disrespectfully by National MPs and the final reports ignore the submissions anyway. The enabling legislation for the asset sales' Mixed Ownership Model received over 1400 submissions with 99% of them against. The Select Committee chair shortened the process by 6 weeks and the final report was written before all submissions had been heard.

The most public way for the Government to be held to account is through Question Time during each sitting day when the opposition can ask questions directly of the Prime Minister and his Ministers and a factual answer is expected. While there is often an element of theatre and gamesmanship to the process it is often the only forum where the Opposition can expose and highlight mismanagement and publicly test Ministers' knowledge of their portfolios.

Under Speaker Lockwood Smith, Ministers were required to directly answer direct questions and were expected to keep answers brief and relevant. However this has changed under the new Speaker, David Carter, who has reinterpreted the rules in a way that allows the Government to avoid answering questions at all. When Ministers have not answered a direct question he has allowed the question to be asked up to three times before passing it over with the comment that the public could draw their own conclusions from the response. Carter has also allowed Ministers to get away with just addressing a question without actually answering it. The Government has relished this new freedom from past rules and have turned question time into a farce by refusing to give direct answers and slagging the opposition instead.

Frustrations with the inconsistency of rulings and the lack of accountability are becoming increasingly apparent during each question time, with interjections dominating proceedings and members struggling to have themselves heard. Russel Norman was particularly frustrated when he tried to ascertain the level of depositor liability involved with the Government's "Open Bank" solution to a bank collapse. Steven Joyce (on behalf of the Finance Minister) refused to give a direct answer and continually accused Russel of scaremongering instead. It is in the public interest to know what the level of liability is for ordinary New Zealanders if a bank fails and Russel was not able to get an answer from Treasury through the OIA either.

Gordon Campbell provides a good overview of the risks involved if the stealthy introduction of the of the Open Bank Resolution Policy had been achieved without Russel's exposure and what alternatives exist.

Efforts to work with the speaker and get him to reconsider his rulings around the quality of answers have not been successful and therefore Russel felt compelled to write this open letter:


Rt Hon David Carter
Speaker of the House of Representatives
Parliament Buildings
Wellington

20 March 2013

Dear David

After sitting through another chaotic question time I feel compelled to write this open letter to you as Speaker.

I strongly urge you to revert to the set of rules that Lockwood Smith had developed over the course of his Speakership. These rules can be summarised as “A straight question will get a straight answer”. These rules resulted in a much more orderly question time and a much more effective question time. The Opposition knew that if they asked straight questions then the Speaker would insist that Government Ministers gave straight answers. And we knew that if politically loaded questions were asked then the Ministers would be free to give politically loaded answers. Ministers retained the “public interest” defence for not answering questions.

Your current approach of only requiring Ministers to “address” the question means that Ministers now know that they don’t need to answer questions in Question time. This is causing disorder in the House as opposition members attempt repeatedly to get Ministers to answer questions. It also means that the House of Representatives is unable to fulfil its function of holding the Executive to account for their actions – we can’t hold the Executive to account if the Speaker does not require Ministers to answer questions.

If you continue down your current path Question time will continue to be disorderly, increasingly so, and the House will rightly be viewed as no longer serving its democratic functions.

Yours sincerely

Russel Norman

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