Ask and you shall receive an answer in Question Time

Last updated 07:31 03/11/2009
PHIL REID/The Dominion Post
UNBRIDLED? Our unicameral system gives governments breathtaking power.

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OPINION: Forcing ministers to front up and answer difficult questions is the sharp end of our democracy.

Countries with more complex constitutional arrangements can impose  multiple levels of scrutiny and decision making. Our unicameral  system gives governments breathtaking power.

While coalition politics has certainly blunted the arrogance with which big parties behave in power, only Question Time guarantees that ministers are given a rocky ride, which is why I always found it so hard to understand why Speakers hid behind the mantra that they weren't there to comment on the quality of ministerial answers - thereby giving carte blanche to those lazy ministers who couldn't be bothered doing their homework or didn't want to front up. My political awareness was switched on in the early 1970s listening to Question Time during the days of the Muldoon ascendancy.

His devastating control of Question Time as Leader of the Opposition had me enthralled. By the time I arrived in the House in 1981 that mercurial brilliance had turned to stone.

It was soon David Lange's turn to entertain and assassinate with words. But throughout, outrageous evasions and irrelevancies went unchallenged by Speakers who stood by the age old tradition of keeping out of the debate.

No prime minister or Opposition leader since has enjoyed such verbal supremacy. Question Time has been a more leaden affair. Shorn of eloquence, ministerial evasions and avoidances have become tawdry and their constitutional disrespect even more objectionable. Until, that is, the arrival of Mr Speaker Smith.

Lockwood Smith did not spend his parliamentary career dreaming of the Speaker's chair. But the infelicitous comments that sidelined him from ministerial office turned out to have a deeply silver lining: Dr Smith is requiring ministers to answer the questions that are put to them. This seemingly obvious requirement is, for our Parliament, revolutionary. For the first time, Opposition members have an ally when a minister contemptuously greets a serious question with a non sequitur or a put down. Finally, voters get to see ministers held accountable. And it is all thanks to an MP who has decided that if he's going to occupy the third highest office in the land, he's going to take that office seriously. Three cheers for Mr Speaker Smith.

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Whether his brave departure from an indefensible tradition sticks will, of course, depend on whoever succeeds him. Labour and its allies will in due course return to office. Will they be prepared to nominate a similarly tough-minded democrat for the job and be prepared to submit to the same treatment? I hope Phil Goff and his colleagues are taking stock of what Lockwood Smith has done for them. He is the best Speaker in living memory - on this one ground alone - and his initiative deserves to be perpetuated.

So much for bouquets. Not all questions are amenable to being settled in Question Time. And some questions never get asked because oppositions have as equally vested interests as governments in not answering them. So we are reliant on the Treasury to ask them. Last week the Government published the Treasury's Long Term Fiscal Statement. It asks all the questions politicians have talked about but ultimately ducked for a generation.

They are only being asked at all because of a requirement to produce a "Statement of Responsibility" under section 26N of the Public Finance Act. We owe it to Ruth Richardson. So in a way it is the ghost of Ruth Richardson who is asking these questions. It is her most important legacy and one that also has its roots in the cathartic decades of the 1970s and 1980s.

Sending bills to the future without proper disclosure was something she was determined to expose. The unromantically named section 26N was her delayed-action explosive device.

The latest Treasury statement is unequivocal. New Zealanders have expectations of government benefits and services that are simply unsustainable. To the extent that to try to meet them we will simply plough deeper and deeper into debt. And the more choices that are taken off the table, the more uncomfortable an eventual face-down with reality will be.

It is here that we need a different sort of Question Time. One in which both major parties are forced to front up. I support a largely pay-as-you-go superannuation scheme funded from taxes. But we cannot ignore the facts of an ageing population and increasing life expectancy in treating the age of entitlement as immutable. Many of the same drivers underpin health expenditures.

With Labour having squandered the uniquely favourable demographic window of the first decade of this century and forced National on to the same ground, it is time for a mature debate. That, or leave our children with an almighty mess. Who is going to insist that both Bill English and David Cunliffe answer the questions set down for them?

- The Dominion Post

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