National single-handedly lifting parliamentary productivity

The Productivity Commission has been working on a report on state sector productivity, commissioned by the previous National-led government.    I’m not sure that everyone simply working harder was quite what they had in mind.

But judging by the number of written parliamentary questions lodged in the less than three weeks since the opening of Parliament, National Party MPs (and their research assistants) seem to be generating outputs at a record rate.   Outcomes –  the real focus surely –  might be another matter.

Parliament publishes an accessible record of all written parliamentary questions asked since 2003.   Here are the annual totals.

wirtten PQs annual

The Opposition (largest component being the Phil Goff-led Labour Party) was particularly active in 2010, lodging almost 40000 questions that year (almost all written questions are lodged by Opposition MPs), but in the average year around 17000 questions were asked.

It is an interesting contrast to the Australian Parliament, where a fact sheet records that on average in the last Parliament only 11.6 questions per sitting day were lodged.   Perhaps incentives matter:  in New Zealand, all written questions have to be answered, and within six working days.  In Australia, by contrast, there is no time limit.

In that earlier chart there is nothing unusual about the 2017 numbers.  At the moment the total is a little below average, but there are still four more working weeks of the year.  And here is a chart of the monthly totals back to just prior to the 2014 election.

PQs monthly

There are some zero months: around elections when Parliament itself is dissolved, and the Opposition parties seem to have given themselves (and those who have to answer the questions), a complete break each January.

But look at that total for November 2017: 6254 questions asked already.  The first question wasn’t asked until 8 November and it is only 25 November now.   With four more working days to go, they could yet hit 10000 questions for the (partial) month.   At anything like this pace, the 2010 record will be blown out of the water next year.

But one does have to wonder to what end?  The line from Macbeth “sound and fury, signifying nothing” was springing to mind, perhaps (one would hope) unfairly.

Every one of these questions –  even the really mundane ones –  have to be processed, by the Clerk’s office, by the relevant Minister’s office, and possibly by a government department.  Each one needs an answer prepared, and then submitted back through the system for approval and then lodging for reply.

And it isn’t as if this is a normal phenomenon immediately after an election or change of government.  In December 2008, for example, the first month of the new Parliament, only 619 written questions were asked.   In the two months after the 2014 election, a total of 2339 written questions were asked.

And what bits of vital government information are the Opposition MPs trying to ferret out of ministers?   Dr Jian Yang, a middle to lower ranking National Party MP, spokesman on Statistics, has been more active than the average Opposition MP: he has asked 147 questions so far (the average Opposition MP has asked “only” 110).    These are the five questions he asked on Thursday (he took the day off apparently yesterday)

What reports, briefings, memos or aide memoires did the Minister receive on 23 November 2017?

What meetings did the Minister attend on 23 November 2017?

What meetings did the Minister decline on 23 November 2017?

What events did the Minister attend on 23 November 2017?

What events did the Minister decline on 23 November 2017?

And the previous day he asked the same five questions about the 22 November. And the Minister of Statistics doesn’t actually do very much at all.  From what I could see, not a single one of the 147 questions was substantive.

Now I’m all in favour of open government.  I reckon Parliament itself should be subject to something like the Official Information Act, and there is a good case for making the diaries of ministers open (sunlight being a good disinfectant against undue influence etc).

But quite what is being gained by interminable questions of this sort (when there is presumably no suggestion of any particular inappropriate conduct)?   They aren’t all diary questions of course.  Shane Reti, another National MP, has 587 questions to his name.  A sample includes from yesterday.

Will the Minister commit to visiting NorthTec Rawene Campus in the first 100 days of office?

When was the last time the Minister visited the NorthTec Rawene Campus?

It all has the feel of a rather expensive fishing expedition in the expectations that if they ask enough questions something will turn up somewhere about something.  Another phrase for it might be “sheer waste of taxpayers’ money” (something perhaps the Taxpayers’ Union could get interested in.)  When people set out in pursuit of a political career, with the typical high-minded aspirations such people have, did they really think this is the sort of activity they’d be reduced to?

Meanwhile, I’m sure the public service (and ministerial staff) are fervently hoping for a breather in January.  But I’m not sure I like their chances.

UPDATE:  This post by Graeme Edgeler changes my impression somewhat.

15 thoughts on “National single-handedly lifting parliamentary productivity

  1. Have a listen to Twyfords interview on He is going to disrupt the building industry, the rental house business, import thousands to build houses that no one other than they need.(will they sleep in huts under the scaffolds as they do in Asia?)
    He is going to usurp the RMA (which they didn’t support in opposition), allow compulsory acquisition of peoples private property so he can grandstand on the houses he builds, lower housing standards except fort those who rent out houses.

    Worse is that he is preparing to destroy the superannuation of many people who have scrimped and saved just to own one or two rentals. No doubt to prop up their lousy Kiwisaver.

    All on the advice of three people who actually know nothing at all about housing.
    Minister commissions stocktake of New Zealand’s housing crisis

    Housing and Urban Development Minister Phil Twyford has commissioned three of New Zealand’s leading experts to provide an independent stocktake of the housing crisis.

    “For too long, the previous Government refused to accept the housing crisis and establish the scale of the problem we face,” says Minister Twyford.

    “For instance, it was only once the Labour-led Government came to office that we learned MBIE’s official figures show a nationwide shortfall of 71,000 houses and that projections show house building would fall if not for KiwiBuild.

    “The previous government never acknowledged or accepted the official numbers, and also refused to accept its own official definition of homelessness.

    “Shamubeel Eaqub, Philippa Howden-Chapman, and Alan Johnson are among New Zealand’s foremost experts on housing. Their insight will be invaluable.

    “This report will provide an authoritative picture of the state of housing in New Zealand today, drawing on the best data available. It will put firm figures on homelessness, the state of the rental market, the decline of homeownership, and other factors in the housing crisis.

    “The Labour-led Government is already pushing ahead quickly with initiatives to make housing more affordable and healthy, including banning overseas speculators, passing the Healthy Homes Guarantee Bill, cancelling the state house selloff, and setting up KiwiBuild. This report will help the Government refine and focus that work where it is most needed.

    “I have instructed officials to provide the experts with any and all information they request. The years of spin and denial are over,” says Phil Twyford.

    The report will be due before Christmas.


    ·Shamubeel Eaqub is a respected independent economist and commentator, and author of Generation Rent.

    ·Philippa Howden-Chapman is Professor of Public Health at Otago University. She has led groundbreaking research on the health impacts of cold, damp housing.

    ·Alan Johnson is Senior Policy Analyst for the Salvation Army and author of The Salvation Army’s State of the Nation report, which highlights effects of the housing crisis.

    I have no sympathy for them being put through the wringer. None what so ever considering they are bankrupt of a legitimate mandate to do anything.

    more here;

    Cry us a river of tears. Tell us where Winston is. He has disappeared completely.

    Rant over.


    • Shamubeel Eaqub is a very biased economist as he is has been a renter and therefore feel the pain of advising everyone for the last 10 years to not buy property with a emphasis that everyone should just rent and now he has to go beg his mother for equity to buy his own property in Auckland.

      John Key gave the Salvation Army the option to be the social housing provider of choice with the government selling the houses at market value to the Salvation army and providing the loans for them to acquire those properties. However they declined preferring to fuss on the sidelines rather than take any real action. All talk by the Salvation Army.


  2. Oh I forgot. Listen carefully to the interview because part way through he makes it clear he is going to be very generous to the first tribe who will no doubt operate via a charity and decline to contribute any taxes to the govt.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. So good to see Jian Yang making quality use of his time to ask penetrating questions that improve our lives immeasurably

    He is toeing the party line – his lifetime of conditioned training is paying dividends

    Liked by 2 people

    • I agree (apart from anything else it would avoid the indignity of capable grown men and women being reduced to such sycophantic inanity) – altho of course, the patsy questions are really only the oral ones.


    • At least Angela Merkel has the honor to refuse to form a minority government of the sort that Jacinda Ardern has done. When the opposition party is the largest party it does pose a problem for a small minority government unfortunately.


  4. Next time someone from National squeals about the budget, ask them how much the man hours expended to answer their salvos of questions cost.


  5. According to National’s Town Cryer – In July 2010 – 8,791 questions were asked.
    Over 7,000 of those questions came from one single Labour MP – Trevor Mallard.

    That 8791 exceeds the November 2017 requests from National – (graphic 2)

    The question that remains unanswered is how did the public service and ministerial staff cope in 2010


  6. “with difficulty” I assume!

    Dipping into Mallard’s questions in 2010 at least they look mostly like questions of substance (rather than the pure process ones Jian Yang – and others are asking). It would be interesting to know if Labour gave up because the government changed behaviour, there was some sort of backlash, or they simply lost interest/energy.


    • Mallard must have been very busy asking in excess of 400 questions per day – he must have been the conduit with others preparing the substance and Mallard the point-man


  7. I guess the Opposition research people would have done a lot of it. When i dipped into the 2010 questions, quite a lot were very detailed ones around HNZC, which would have been really easy to submit (how many 1 bedroom places were rented in area x, how many 2 bedrooms in area x, and so on for every number of bedrooms and every area in the country).


  8. Sure, but according to Brett Hudson, National List MP:

    “The volume of questions is purely being driven by Ministers and their offices refusing to answer more generalised questions, such as something along the lines of ‘Who has the Minister met with since being sworn in?’

    A very reasonable question. It not only helps to identify who might be influencing government, it also helps to target further information requests.

    Ministers’ offices have been responding along the lines of ‘The minister meets with many people on many topics. We can respond to more specific questions.’

    No wonder they then face the same question repeated in separate questions for each individual day.

    I can’t give a definitive reason as to why others are seeking information by way of written questions vs. OIA request, but (as I understand it) the timeframe for an OIA response is 20 working days whereas the response for written questions to ministers is 6 working days. That would seem amply good reason to me.

    Ultimately the volume of questions is being driven by ministers not responding to more general, yet reasonable questions.

    Looks to me like this government is backing away from their supposed commitment to transparency and open government. “


    • I take the point in the final sentence, and think it is concerning,

      That said, in what universe is there any genuine interest in asking which events the Minister of Statistics declined, each and every day.

      If there are real concerns about specific ministerial misconduct, i’d strongly back a robust opposition. this feels like a fishing expedition or, worse, in Chris Hipkins’ words, spamming the government.


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