Why is she in trouble, and what could happen if she’s found in contempt?
Scorn and entitlement. Or, at least, contempt and privilege. In the strange world where constitutional law and politics intersect, people are bad at naming things. Parliament has “privileges”, and even a whole committee specially devoted to considering them. And politicians (not to mention the rest of us, if we have any dealings with parliament) risk being found in “contempt” if those privileges are breached. But these words don’t exactly mean what we commonly understand them to mean in this context. The scorn you might feel for a particular politician doesn’t mean they will be found in contempt.
For the first time in a while, these issues are in the news. The last time an MP was referred to the privileges committee was in 2008, when NZ First leader Winston Peters failed to disclose a large donation from billionaire Owen Glenn. The committee recommended that parliament censure him.
This time, it’s Labour’s Jan Tinetti, the minister of education. In February, in her role as minister, Tinetti was subject to questioning by the parliamentary opposition about the timing of a release of school attendance data. When an opposition member asks a question of a minister in this forum, the minister’s response is made to the House of Representatives.
Except, back in February, Tinetti didn’t directly answer the question. Instead, the minister made a statement to the effect that release of the school attendance data wasn’t her responsibility. The minister said releasing the data was a matter for the Ministry of Education that did not have input from the minister’s office. National MP Erica Stanford challenged Tinetti further on the point, at which point Tinetti informed the House that she could “categorically tell that member that the Ministry of Education is responsible for the data, I have no say over that”.
Strong words. But those claims that Tinetti made back in February were incorrect. Not a great look – a minister not understanding what they are responsible for – but probably a minor matter in the scheme of parliamentary politics. Tinetti’s staff apparently informed the minister of her mistake that same day. Good learning moment, now we can move on. Except we can’t. From this point the minister knows that she has provided incorrect information not only to Stanford (who asked the question), but to the entire House of Representatives. The House has been misled, and Tinetti knows this.
The matter is becoming more of a big deal, but again it’s not really any drama if you know what to do. Politicians give incorrect information to the House sometimes. The important thing is that when the mistake is realised, the responsible person appears before the House again to correct the record. Ideally at the first available opportunity.
Tinetti failed to do that. The minister let her incorrect statement sit on the record uncorrected until early May, when the Speaker of the House sent the minister a letter pointing out what needed to be done. The Speaker is responsible for the rules and reputation of the House, and so takes these matters seriously. Very seriously.
The long delay before Tinetti corrected the record concerned the Speaker so much that he referred the matter to the privileges committee. That committee, made up of representatives from different political parties, decides if the special rights and powers that allow the House to operate properly and hold the government to account – which we call “privileges” – have been breached.
Now that the matter has been referred to the privileges committee, what next? The committee takes on the role of Benoit Blanc for this stage of the story, inquiring into the matter, asking questions of Tinetti and others to established exactly what happened and why, and determining whether Tinetti’s actions in this case amount to “contempt”. Contempt in this context is really a serious act of disrespect or disobedience towards the House as an institution. Contempt can include breaches of privilege, but it is broader than this. As the House needs accurate information from ministers to hold the government properly to account, leaving an incorrect statement uncorrected could amount to contempt.
But circumstances matter too. Tinetti claims that she did not know about the need to correct the record, and she did so as soon as she was informed that she needed to by the Speaker. But that only suggests a wider set of questions. How could no-one in the minister’s office know of the requirement? Why did no-one in government – another minister, for example – help Tinetti understand her obligations? The scope of the inquiry is up to the committee, but as far as parliamentary matters go this is serious and should be looked at closely. Our Benoit Blanc needs to peel back all the layers of this onion, for the audience (us, the public) as well as those involved.
If a finding of contempt is made, what next? The committee can recommend a punishment be imposed on anyone found in contempt. The whole House then decides, by way of majority vote, whether to impose that punishment. Possible punishments include formal censure by the House, requiring an apology, or a fine of up to $1,000. Technically jail time is on the cards in contempt matters, but that is so unlikely it almost doesn’t bear mentioning.
Or nothing. It is possible that nothing will happen. Tinetti might not be found in contempt because the facts don’t bear out that claim, or because the privileges committee is made up of politicians who might not agree on findings and recommendations. This is a risk as there is a 4-4 split on the committee between government and opposition members. In the event of a tie the official position is that no findings or recommendations have been reached. So nothing happens.
But whatever the formal parliamentary outcome, it is important to remember that processes like this are subject to public scrutiny. We all get to make up our minds about how we hold ministers and politicians accountable. Privilege and contempt may be technical matters for others to determine, but whether we consider that our representatives have displayed a misplaced sense of entitlement or deserve our scorn rather than support is something we all get to decide for ourselves. That’s our system of democracy, and what the concepts of privilege and contempt are ultimately trying to protect.