Wellington, November 23, 2018
There is a popular misconception that the apparently clubby nature of Parliament means that all MPs, in Government or Opposition, have pretty much the same access to information.
That has never been the case, even since the introduction of MMP.
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 Public Finance Act and the Fiscal Responsibility Act have made the state of the Government’s finances more transparent, and the overall annual Budget process more open and predictable – the control of official information remains overwhelmingly under the control of the Government of the day. And, as information is power, they regard access to it zealously.
All of which leaves Oppositions at a massive disadvantage. When parties first leave office, their outgoing Ministers have a huge, immediate advantage over their successors in that they have all the information about what has been going on to that point.
But that advantage is temporary – usually, former Ministers’ information loses its currency after about six to nine months as the new Ministers get their feet more fully under the table, and start to take control of their portfolios.
That reality will have hit the National Party a few months ago.
Its information channels will have dried up, and will not be refilled until they next win office, or the few months beforehand when their win seems likely, and sympathetic officials start quietly slipping information their way.
National in solitude
So, as with all Oppositions, National now has to start doing it alone, without the power of the Government bureaucracy to answer their queries or provide specialist advice.
That is where the current controversy about the numbers of Written Parliamentary Questions becomes relevant.
Parliamentary Questions, carefully crafted and camouflaged to disguise their true intent, coupled with a judicious use of the Official Information Act, are the primary weapons of an Opposition to get the answers it needs to do its day to day job of holding the Government to account, as well as the information it needs in the development of its next election policy.
Volume of questions
It is a time-honoured tactic, making Labour’s criticism of it a little hypocritical.
Moreover, as the largest Opposition ever, it is not unreasonable that National should be asking more questions than ever before. Yes, the process is time consuming for the public servants who have to prepare the answers for Ministers’ consideration, and it is tedious for Ministers to have to spend several hours each week poring over the replies before approving them and signing them off. But, by definition, it is not the Opposition’s job to be helpful to the Government.
Besides, every now and then Parliamentary Questions strike gold.
This year, it was the Questions process that brought Clare Curran’s Ministerial career to a close. Discrepancies in Written Questions replies caught out Shane Jones and his failure to disclose 61 meetings, and the ongoing skewering of Iain Lees- Galloway is largely because of the inadequacy of his answers to Parliamentary Questions.
Winner takes all
Parliamentary systems of government, where the Executive is part of the legislature, as opposed to systems of government where the Executive is separate from the legislature (like the United States, for example) tend to be winner-take-all systems. Governments govern and Oppositions are largely bystanders.
But, a Parliamentary system also means Governments are more directly accountable to the legislature and can be changed by changing the composition of the legislature at an election, as opposed to again, say, the United States where both Houses of Congress can be controlled by one Party, while the President in whom Executive power resides, can be from another Party and still retain power.
The immediacy of our Parliamentary system means Governments will always seek to control the flow of information as much as possible to protect their situation, and that Oppositions will always seek every opportunity they can to obtain the information they want.
To pretend otherwise, and to complain when they do so, is as churlish as it is woefully naive.
Peter Dunne was a former Minister of the Crown under the Labour and National governments and Leader of the now-wound-up UnitedFuture Party. He lives in Wellington.