A brute force barrage of questions on a new and under-staffed coalition is not uniquely awful, argues Ben Thomas, but nor is it defensible.
Is there such a thing as a stupid question? What about 6000 of them?
Newsroom’s Sam Sachdeva noted on Friday that the National opposition had lodged 6254 written questions for government ministers in the past month.
Written questions lack the drama of Question Time in the House (that’s the hour or so scheduled most sitting days for Questions for Oral Answer), but they also lack the ponderousness and uncertainty of Official Information Act requests. They are often used to piece together information in the background that will lead to more striking and public attacks. But the number seemed staggering. Numerous journalists weighed in on what appeared to be a Loch Ness sized “fishing expedition” – that is a generalised sweep for information, without knowing what you’re looking for, hopeful something useful might come up.
Labour’s leader of the House, Chris Hipkins, told media National was “spamming” the government with trivial requests.
In reality, a better analogy for National’s purpose here is a denial-of-service attack on a server or website: flooding the system with requests in an attempt to overload and paralyse it.
Answering questions takes time. There’s the actual drafting – which either has to be done by people within the minister’s office or by officials in their departments. Those drafts have to be sighted and approved by the minister. Then the answers have to be uploaded to the parliamentary server. It’s like posting a very short blog on WordPress: clicking, cutting and pasting, clicking again. And, in this case, repeating hundreds of times. That alone can take hours.
The trusted political staff – ministerial advisors and press secretaries – who do this work also face four sitting weeks in the lead-up to Christmas, and have to get manifesto promises underway and advance the government’s programme for the first 100 days. They also have to figure out what the hell they are doing, in new jobs and new portfolios, barely a month after the government was sworn in.
And – crucially – Labour is very low on those staff right now. Partly because of its unique path to power – starting only four months ago with Jacinda Ardern’s new leadership and ending with Winston Peters’ announcement to New Zealand and the Labour party at the same time it would form a government – many offices have temps, secondees from the public service or just vacancies in key roles. National knows this and is making the most of it.
It’s not a new trick. When the National government was returned after the 2011 election – an exhausting year to work at parliament – Labour’s Trevor Mallard (now Speaker, and so responsible for the integrity of parliament) alone asked 2815 questions that had to be answered four days before Christmas.
The opposition also asked 3000 questions that were due on the final day of parliament in 2009.
So National’s latest avalanche of questions is not uniquely awful, but nor is it defensible.
Should the system be reformed? Almost certainly not. Written questions are an important tool for accountability, and one that has not suffered from the same kind of abuse and degradation as the Official Information Act process. It’s faster than the OIA, and ministers still regard parliamentary questions with a sense of institutional gravity that is missing from the OIA regime. MPs can use questions to pick up issues where journalists or advocates have hit stonewalling from officials.
There are very good reasons for asking a huge number of questions, that have nothing to do with bad faith or gaming. Government, after all, deals with a great many things. The more precise a question, the more likely it is to elicit the information sought. Compiling data by regions or other categories takes a lot of specific, individual queries.
Lawyer Graeme Edgeler goes further – he believes National is unequivocally in the right. His point is that they have a legal right to know the things they are asking about, with his example being hour-by-hour accounts of ministerial meetings and movements.
There’s nothing particularly odd about seeking ministerial diaries or lists of briefings.
As a point of principle, he’s correct. In general, there are no grounds to refuse information about what meetings a minister has had and with whom. Maybe government members should fill out daily timesheets for opposition MPs, or publish the same pro-actively online. Maybe cabinet ministers should wear Go-Pros everywhere and livestream Peep Show-style video which will be watched avidly by a dozen Twitter users.
In practice, he’s probably wrong. Government, at least as seen from Wellington, is like the Matrix as seen from Neo’s ship – a stream of data and metadata being produced and coordinated. As Graeme points out, you could ask for all of it, but then you’d face the same challenge as unfolding a map of New Zealand that’s as big as the country itself. parliament operates on convention and – hard as it may be for the public to see – a fair amount of good faith. If, for example, proactive publication of ministerial diaries is to become the norm, it shouldn’t be as a result of what’s essentially trolling.
More to the point, it’s unlikely anyone in National would push hard for it to happen, since they don’t intend to stay in opposition forever.
There are other reasons this is unlikely to remain a parliamentary issue for long. For one thing, it takes time to compose and upload questions, just as it does to compose and process answers. Opposition – even one as big as National – has far fewer resources than government, which is backed by bigger budgets and hundreds of bureaucrats. Eventually, when staff are onboard and relationships with departments are established, trying to swamp a government in paperwork becomes like trying to drown a swimming pool. The government can draw attention to the waste – National in the 1990s used to append a sentence like “answering this question cost $X of taxpayer money” to each answer. You can literally run out of questions, too – it’s understood some of the current crop have already been withdrawn because multiple National MPs submitted double-ups. You quickly cover the same ground again and receive dispiriting referrals to old answers.
And finally, the gambit will probably fail to take hold as a regular practice for the same reason this unlikely internet outrage has largely fizzled out: you just get bored.
There’s no doubt National intends to heavy Labour and its allies over the next three years, using its weight as the largest party to throw some of the fine machinery of government off-balance. National leader Bill English warned “it’s not our job to make this place run for a minority government”. So the question is how will they turn parliament’s rules against Labour?
We know what they probably won’t do. Filibustering – that is, wasting time in order to delay or prevent a bill passing – is demanding. In the United States, representatives can stay on their feet for hours making time-wasting speeches or reading from books, limited only by their stamina and nature’s call.
Perhaps luckily for everyone, debate in New Zealand’s parliament is much more tightly controlled. To filibuster, MPs have to actually turn up and be able to engage with the substance of a bill, in order to keep debate going or move amendments. Just like cheating in an exam, procedural cheating in parliament usually requires as much effort as learning to do something properly.
Even then, most successes in holding up legislation in the House come through drafting mistakes that allow more time to be swallowed up in debate, rather than opposition brilliance.
Example, for nerds only: a private member’s bill supported by National introducing voluntary membership of tertiary students’ associations was not split up into parts as it was originally drafted, meaning each individual clause had to be debated in the Committee of the Whole House, opening the door for excruciating procedural delays over months by Labour MPs. The bill still ultimately passed, though, with the net effect that Labour lost time for advancing its own members’ bills. And remember, this was one of the opposition’s successes.
Sometimes more innovative methods are tried. ACT’s John Boscawen lodged 700 oral questions to members (a mostly neglected tool used for eliciting information about select committee business or publicising members’ bills) to delay the final reading of the National-led government’s legislation to repeal Labour’s Foreshore and Seabed Act. Since each question would have to be asked in person, the theatre would theoretically suck up the rest of the day in parliament, a tactic Boscawen indicated he would use to delay the Bill indefinitely. It was a bad-faith ploy, and it got the response it deserved across the House.
When Boscawen rose to his feet to begin, the Speaker ruled most of his questions out of order. The recipients of the remaining questions, in both Labour and National, slipped out of the chamber – the Speaker assured Boscawen that, whatever they were doing elsewhere, “it’s just as important as the 700 questions lodged”. Boscawen, whose staff spent days drafting questions, faced empty seats. The total delay ended up being 25 minutes. Nobody has reprised the tactic since.
English was actually talking specifically about National’s significant numbers on select committees, meaning the government will not get a free ride. The three government parties will have to work together closely to take advantage of their slight overall numerical advantage. National only has to keep its own house in order. But even that threat is overstated – where select committees are likely to be split along partisan lines on flagship government policy such as workplace relations, Hipkins has ensured a government majority. The committees with parity between government and non-government members, such as Maori Affairs or Foreign Affairs and Trade, tend to consider issues that are more bipartisan or have little legislation to deal with.
This doesn’t mean National is powerless in opposition. It just means it’s probably best to forget the gimmicks, as National almost certainly will. The tried and true ways to hold up a government’s programme are still the most effective: applying careful targeted scrutiny, embarrassing ministers and winning over the public, not playing at student politics with arcane points of order and becoming obsessed with four-dimensional procedural chess.