Crying a river over Parliamentary written questions

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Poor, poor Labour. How tough life in government must be for them. Or so you'd think with all the tweets over the past 48 hours regarding National submitting a whopping 6,254 written questions to Ministers.

Now it's fair to say that's a bloody huge number of questions. As way of comparison, the nearly ousted opposition in 2008 asked 619 questions in the first three weeks of the new Parliament - though keep in mind that the new Parliament only started on 8 December 2008, so they were pretty quickly into the holiday break.

In 2011 the Christmas break didn't curtail Labour, with the first three weeks of the 50th Parliament seeing 3,712 questions asked. In fact, those 3,712 questions were all lodged on one day - 21 December 2011.

As Newsroom's Sam Sachdeva noted, in the three weeks following the start of the 51st Parliament, 964 questions were lodged. Though what's missing from that analysis is that at the same time Labour was embroiled in its own leadership context, so evidently didn't really have much time to spend actually being an opposition. Plus they'd also been on the receiving end of one of their worst ever election defeats, so there was obviously a bit of wound licking going on. Whereas National managed a fantastic election night result for a three term government, so it makes sense that they're going to launch into opposition with a sense of vigour.

One thing that's been severely lacking from all this talk of Parliamentary questions is analysis of why there have been so many. What it's all stemmed from is a stoush between the Labour-led government and the National Party over getting answers to the question of who ministers have been meeting with during their first month in the job.

Who ministers meet with in their ministerial capacity is important, and there's a long history of both opposition parties and journalists trying to get that information released. National is just as guilty as Labour is at playing silly buggers with the release of that information in the past. But what seems to have happened this time is that National has had a host of questions about ministerial meetings knocked back as being too broad so, in retaliation and to make a point, they've gone ultra-specific instead.

As National's Chris Bishop pointed out, he was told that his day-by-day questions to Police Minister Stuart Nash were too broad, so instead he's asked for an hour-by-hour breakdown.

In many respects, the Labour-led government have only themselves to blame for the deluge of questions. If they'd played ball a bit more when the initial questions were asked of their ministerial diaries, they could have saved everyone, most importantly themselves, a lot of time.

Certainly, National isn't free of blame here, as they're going to an extreme to make a point, and weren't necessarily always forthcoming about the diaries of their own ministers during their time in the hot seat.

But the reality is that who and when ministers meet with people is important public information. We'd want to know if the Minister of Health had been meeting with pharmaceutical executives prior to a health announcement, just as it's useful to know if a Minister is guilty of white lies by professing prior engagements in avoiding Question Time.

The obvious solution is for Ministerial Services to introduce a system where by, say mid-month, a list of meetings that the Minister attended in the previous month for each of their portfolios, is released for the public. We already have a convention of sorts in play around Briefings to Incoming Ministers (BIMs) which are released around four to six weeks after they've been presented to Ministers, and a similar convention for meetings could do wonders for the openness of our government.

While New Zealand already ranks well for transparency, there's always improvements we can make, and this appears to be an easy area to make such an improvement.

Ultimately though, the reality is if the Labour-led government doesn't like the opposition asking questions about who they have, and haven't been meeting with, I'm sure the opposition would be more than happy to swap places if it's all too onerous for ministers.