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23/11/2018 — Economics, Politics and Government
National needs more effective questions
By Dene Mackenzie

The political debate has been somewhat quieter this week with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern overseas at the Apec and Asean meetings.

It has been National which has been under fire for a change, particularly for the amount of questions the Opposition has been asking.

Several ministers have been caught out by the questions, leading National to claim incompetence and for ministers to resign.

However, Auckland University Emeritus Professor Barry Gustafson says the exercise appears to be more of a fishing expedition than anything to do with policy. The Opposition is searching for inconsistencies in the answers from ministers, something to develop further to embarrass the Government.

Prof Gustafson says it was moving away from the original intention of written questions which are holding the government of the day accountable on major policy matters and actions.

One of the questions highlighted by Labour is National’s attack dog Judith Collins asking Housing Minister Phil Twyford whether KiwiBuild houses will have a front door bell. Ms Collins has had some major wins against Twyford, calling into question the viability of the Government’s major policy. But there is some pushback from the questions starting to come.

Former long-serving MP Peter Dunne says the questions are important. The Government of the Day not only holds power, but also controls access to information.

While there have been some improvements over the years, the control of official information remains overwhelmingly under the control of the government of the day. And, as information is power, access is guarded jealously.

This leaves National at a huge disadvantage. When parties first leave office, their outgoing ministers have an immediate advantage over their successors. But the advantage is only temporary as the new ministers get to grips with their portfolios.

Dunne says the reality will have hit National a few months ago. Its information will have dried up and will not be refilled until they next win office, or a few months beforehand when their win seems likely and sympathetic officials start quietly slipping information their way.

National now has to do it alone in a time-honoured fashion, making Labour’s criticism of it hypocritical. The current controversy about the numbers of written Parliamentary questions has become relevant.

As the largest party in Parliament, it is not unrealistic National asks more questions than other Oppositions in the past. Carefully crafted question, along with use of the Official Information Act, are the primary weapons of the Opposition to get answers it needs to do its day-to-day job of holding the Government to account. It also provides information for the development of its next election policy.

National has gained one scalp through its questions. Former broadcasting minister Clare Curran was forced to resign for not providing detail of private meetings.

Regional Economic Development Minister Shane Jones, while escaping a sacking, has been outed as not including 61 meetings in his diary. That information only came through some judicious questioning by National.

Next week the National should concentrate its questions on new information released yesterday from the Ministry of Business, Information and Employment regarding cost overruns associated with KiwiBuild.

If figures are to believed, the programme is about to be hit with massive cost inflation and a lack of buyers.

Affordable housing is needed in most parts of New Zealand. KiwiBuild is not going to provide anything affordable for people unable to service a mortgage on a $650,000 house. National would be better to not worry about the doorbells and worry about the cost to taxpayers by the policy which is stuck in quicksand, preparing to slowly slip away.

*Dene Mackenzie is a Dunedin political commentator.

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