Best reply ever

June 29th, 2012 at 11:33 am by David Farrar

From the parliamentary written questions database:

3061 (2012). Gareth Hughes to the Minister of Energy and Resources (20 Apr 2012): Where, to the best of the Minister’s knowledge, has hydraulic fracturing occured in New Zealand?
Hon Phil Heatley (Minister of Energy and Resources) replied: Underground.
Heh. MPs need to be precise with how they ask questions 🙂

The Lusk fixation

April 17th, 2012 at 12:00 pm by David Farrar

Labour seem to have an obsession with Simon Lusk. Trevor Mallard has been blogging on him for over a year, and then in a rush of blood to his head (or somewhere) decided he was the secret leaker in the ACC saga. Never mind that the ACC Minister hasn’t spoken to him once in the past year.

As Trevor’s defamation defence will be based on proving his wild theories had a semblence of credibility, he set his assistant defence counsel Chris Hipkins to work. Chippie filed no less than 259 written questions to Ministers on Mr Lusk. Putting aside the cost to the taxpayer of their paranoia, his fishing expedition was very wide. He asked every single portfolio Minister the following:

Has he or his representatives had any written communication with Simon Lusk within the last six months in his Ministerial capacity; if so, on which date or dates and what was the nature of the communication?

Has he or his representatives had any oral discussions with Simon Lusk within the last six months in his Ministerial capacity; if so, on which date or dates and what was the nature of the discussion or discussions?

Has he or his representatives met with Simon Lusk within the last six months in his Ministerial capacity; if so, on which date or dates and what was the nature of the discussion or discussions?

One or two Ministers are yet to reply, but from what I can see 100% of the responses are “No”. So Trevor’s defence strategy is looking pretty shaky.

Plus anyone who knows Simon knows that at this time of year the last thing he worries about is politics. His main activity is being out on a grassy knoll with a high powered rifle looking for venison to go in the freezer.

Operational Matters and PQs

December 24th, 2009 at 3:50 pm by David Farrar

Labour are taking a while to get the hang of Opposition. We saw this at the beginning of the year when former Ministers couldn’t even word oral questions in the House, and we have seen this at years end, with their 4,000 written questions to Ministers in one day.

But a source tells me Labour have made a major fuck up with many of their questions. They are questions that should have been asked of Departmental CEOs through the annual select committee financial review. This is how National MPs got their information in Opposition – because asking about operational matters through a Ministerial PQ would get declined.

And it seems Labour asked relatively few questions during the annual select committee financial reviews – a small fraction of the numbers asked by National MPs in Opposition. Maybe they thought they didn’t need to, and they could just ask them as Ministerial PQs. Rather silly not knowing the rules, considering how many of their MPs are ex-Ministers or ex-Ministerial staff. Maybe they just are not quite as clever as they think they are.

PQs continued

December 22nd, 2009 at 4:00 pm by David Farrar

Chris Hipkins just doesn’t learn and continues to misrepresent. He blogged today:

My post yesterday on John Key’s non-answer to some of my written parliamentary questions certainly got the Key apologists worked up. When Key does finally front up with the answers I’ll post the info here and people can then judge whether they were fair questions to ask.

The Key apologists seem to have forgotten that National MPs used to routinely ask tricky questions of the then Labour government. One of their favourites was to ask about staff Christmas parties and presents. Most government departments do some sort of end of year function for their staff, so National’s questions were basically intended to find examples of where they’d gone a bit over the top so that they could shout from the rooftops about “waste”.

This is a red herring. I have not once said the Opposition should not ask questions. It is an important right. But responsibilities go with rights. And you look like a whining wally when you file 4,000 questions in one day, and then complain they are not all answered within the five day target.

Incidentally I am told staff in the Office of the Clerk were forced to work until 11 pm to get all the 4,000 questions asked by Labour MPs onto the website. This would not have happened if they were organised or considerate enough to lodge them over a period of time.

Chris again fails to mention he and his colleagues have asked almost as many questions to the Minister of Ministerial Services in two weeks, than Helen Clark had over three years. And he commits further truth abuses.

Interestingly, they aren’t so keen to answer now that the shoe is on the other foot. I asked a written question of each Minister that’s almost identical to one Brownlee, McCully etc used to ask and they have all come back with the same answer: “The question the member asks relates to an operational matter which is the responsibility of the Chief Executive.”

Interesting to note that when Labour was the government and National was the opposition the questions were OK, but now that National is in government they seem to think a lower standard of accountability should apply.

Chris must think people are stupid and/or do not know how to do searches of the PQ database.

Searching the 2005-2008 Government for the phrase “responsibility of the Chief Executive” finds Ministers used it 745 times. So when Chris tries to lie that there is some “lower standard of accountability” he is being a prize hypocrite.

For those who like percentages, the 2005 to 2008 Labour Government used that response to 1.4% of questions. The National led Government has used it 162 times, which is 0.7% of questions. So Labour used that response twice as often as National.

But it gets worse when you look at the Prime Ministers. John Key has not used that response once, for the 739 questions he has had (all portfolios).

Helen Clark got asked only 569 questions over three years (around one quarter of the number asked of Key per annum) and used the phrase Chris Hipkins complains about on 25 occassions, which is 4.4% of the time.

At this point I must mention that before he became an MP, Chris Hipkins worked in Helen Clark’s office. He in fact probably wrote or approved the very answers that he is now complaining about.

How lucky we are not in Parliament, so people can use the H word.

Now again to keep it simple, here are the percentages for parties and PMs in using the “responsibility of the Chief Executive” dodge:

  1. Helen Clark 4.4%
  2. Labour 1.4%
  3. National 0.7%
  4. John Key 0.0%

I do so hope Chris carries on whining like this. It is such fun pointing out the facts.

More question abuse

December 22nd, 2009 at 12:00 pm by David Farrar

I blogged yesterday about how Chris Hipkins forgot to mention that he and his colleagues had submitted almost as many written PQs to John Key as Minister of Ministerial Services in December 2009, as Helen Clark had over three entire years. Clark as MS Minister averaged 1 question a week and they bombarded Key with 128 in two weeks.

But it gets worse than that. A search of the PQ database finds that Labour submitted 4,000 questions across all portfolios on the 16th of December.

Even worse Trevor Mallard whined that the online system “doesn’t appear to have the capacity to deal with a number of people who like me work to deadlines. System alternates between dead slow and dropping out.”

Of course the system doesn’t cope with 4,000 in one day. Hell it normally takes three months to have that many questions asked, and Labour filed them all in one day – and in the week before Xmas.

Now again it is important that the Opposition can gain information from the Government through PQs. But that doesn’t mean you have to be inconsiderate jerks about it, and file 4,000 questions in one day, which is almost done as a spiteful act to force people to work massive amounts of overtime just before Xmas. So much for the worker’s party! There is no reason at all their questions couldn’t have been submitted over a number of weeks. It is either incompetence or spite to file 4,000 in one day.

The right to ask written questions is an important one, and I would not support any limit on how many questions can be asked by an MP or Party, But there does need to be some incentive for MPs to not file 4,000 questions in a day, and to consider the cost of collating all this information.

The costs are quite considerable. Many Depts have entire teams of staffers who do nothing but answer these questions, so the more there are, the more staff you need. And as each answer is in the name of the Minister, it has to be checked for accuracy. Generally each answer will be compiled by a Departmental staffer, checked by their manager (at least), also checked by a staffer in the Ministers office, and finally seen and approved by the Minister.

I suggest Ministers do what Max Bradford used to do. He worked out the costs of staff time (say $70 an hour) in responding to questions and as part fo every answer, would include the estimated cost of answering the question.

This would allow the media, and others, to then add up over say a year the cost of all the questions from a particular MP or party. This doesn’t mean the MP will necessarily ask fewer questions, but it means they will have an incentive to consider how reasonable their questions are.  And the public can consider whether the cost of all the questions for an MP, was good value in their opinion.

Author of own misfortune

December 21st, 2009 at 5:43 pm by David Farrar

Labour MP Chris Hipkins blogs:

On the 8th of December I lodged a number of Written Parliamentary Questions to John Key in his capacity as Minister Reponsible for Ministerial Services. They all involved spending on services provided to ministers (eg. self-drive cars, VIP cars, ministerial housing etc). I had assumed that given the “Double Dipton” debacle they’d be keen to be seen as open and transparent.

So far John Key has replied to all of them with the same answer: “I am unable to provide the member with the information requested in the timeframe available. I will provide the member with the answer as soon as possible.”

All of the questions were lodged on the 8th of December, so he’s already had several weeks. In almost all cases there are examples of similar questions having been asked of Helen Clark in the past. I’m sure John Key isn’t going to argue that he should be subject to a lower standard of accountability than his predecessor, so I’ll look forward to getting his answers before he takes off for his holiday in Hawaii.

A snide wee post from Chris where he laves out certain key information. And we won’t even touch on his assertion that a period of 12 days is “several weeks” except to comment this proves the case for national standards in numeracy.

Now the first big omission from Chris is how many questions Helen Clark got as Minister of Ministerial Services. Over an entire three year term from 2005 to 2008, she got 150 – an average of one a week.

And how many have Chris and his mates submitted in just December 2009? 128!!!!

I am all for Ministers answering parliamentary questions – they are important. But frankly you look like a wally if you file 128 questions in the weeks before Xmas (and during a time when the PM is known to be overseas) and then complain that you don’t get replies promptly.

Also important to note is that many of the questions are not ones seeking just one item of information – ie something one staffer can do in under an hour. Some examples are:

How much office or administation area was leased by Departments, Ministries or Crown Entities for which they are responsible in the 2008/09 year listed by department/ministry/crown entity, building name, total area leased and rental cost?

How many days sick leave was taken by staff in each of the Departments, Ministries or Crown entities for which they are responsible for each month in 2009?

What was the total cost to date of petrol for ministerial self-drive cars received by their minister on or after 19 November 2008 and how does that figure break down by month?

Just imagine the scores and scores of hours it will take to compile that sort of information for 128 questions.

Now I am a firm defender of the right for the Opposition to ask these questions and gain the info. But frankly they should not expect to get 128 replies within a couple of weeks and have only themselves to blame for not asking earlier, or spreading them out more evenly.

Again remember, Chris and his colleagues have almost asked more in two weeks than Helen Clark got in three years for this portfolio – a piece of information he forgot to mention in his little snideness.


May 12th, 2009 at 10:00 am by David Farrar

My general stance on OIA requests and PQs is that Ministers should look to comply in a timely manner with their obligations. Yes they can be annoying fishing expeditions, but that is the price of an open Government.

So I have had some sympathy for Chris Hipkins inability to get answers out of Richard Worth.

However upon reading that Chris has filed a massive 1,500 questions already, and how braod they are, my sympathies are starting to lean back. I’m not advocating MPs should have a limit on how many they can ask, but the broadness of Hipkins’ request is very very wide. Tracy Watkins has details:

8530 (2008) Question: Chris Hipkins to the Minister of Internal Affairs (10 Dec 2008): What are the dates and titles of all reports, briefings and submissions he has received from the Department of Internal Affairs since 19 November 2008?

8532 (2008) Question: Chris Hipkins to the Minister of Internal Affairs (10 Dec 2008): Which stakeholder groups has he met with since becoming Minister for Internal Affairs and on what date did he meet them?

8533 (2008) Question: Chris Hipkins to the Minister of Internal Affairs (10 Dec 2008): Has he received any reports, briefings or submissions from any department, ministry or agency other than the Department of Internal Affairs since he became Minister, if so, what are the dates and titles of those reports?

8751 (2008): Chris Hipkins to the Minister of Internal Affairs (15 Dec 2008): What official engagements has the Minister had to date as Minister of Internal Affairs; for each, when did they occur, and what was the purpose?

Maybe National did this also, but asking every Minister for the details of every report, every meeting, and every engagement is getting close to abusive.

Now don’t get me wrong – National also did fishing expeditions – but normally more targeted ones in my memory. Stuff like “How many staff have credit cards and how much was charged to them in the last year”. This would then allow the MP to do a press release which would often get picked up.

Other questions I recall are “How many communications staffers does each agency have”. This then leads to a PR saying the Government has 872 spin doctors or whatever the amount is.

Personally if I was Chris, I would try asking more specific questions to Dr Worth, and seeing if he then got more helpful answers.

At the end of the day though an MP does have the right to ask these questions, and should get helpful answers, where practical. But as Tracy says there is a cost:

It might pay to remind MPs, however, that taxpayers are bearing the costs of this little game of cat and mouse – and the costs involved are by no means tiny.

MPs will often lodge dozens of questions, one to every minister, requiring information that, in some cases, can date back years. The man hours involved are staggering. Reams of bureaucrats have been employed throughout the public service in recent years whose jobs mostly involve responding to PQs.

My recommendation to Ministers is to do what Max Bradford did in the 1990s. Answer all questions submitted, but include in the answer the estimated cost of answering the question. And keep a running total so at the end of the year the taxpayers can find out how much money each MP has cost through PQs. That would provide an incentive to be more targeted with your requests.