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.

The National opposition has been battling with the Labour-led government over more than 6000 written questions to ministers it has submitted in the last month.

Labour has accused the Opposition of the parliamentary equivalent of spam mail, while National argues it has been forced into submitting the high volume of questions due to ministers’ failure to answer more basic queries.

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.”

Mallard said he had no doubt that the Government’s responses were within standing orders, but believed there was some fault on both sides.

“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.”

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.

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”.

“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."

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 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.”

"Here you've got a government that's not only not perfect, it's showing contempt for the system."

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.

"We all appreciate the position that no government is perfect in relation to these sorts of issues, but here you've got a government that's not only not perfect, it's showing contempt for the system."

Bridges said National had made it clear it would submit fewer questions if it received "reasonable answers" from government ministers. The previous Speaker, David Carter, had at times pulled up ministers for an unsatisfactory response to questions and received "an upping of the game, if you like".

He was hopeful of reaching a compromise with the Government, but said National would "simply have to consider our options" if nothing changed.

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”.

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