Saturday, March 25, 2006

John Armstrong: No one expects an inquisition

When a politician not prone to hyperbole describes Parliament as a Star Chamber fuelled by a new McCarthyism, you have to sit up and take notice.
Jeanette Fitzsimons struck a chord on Tuesday by expressing her absolute disgust at the current bout of mud-slinging and character assassination.

Something is rotten in the state of Parliament. But the rot is not confined to throwing dirt and raking muck.

While there has been a major advance in select committees flexing their powers, the progressive debasing of some of Parliament's other mechanisms for scrutinising the Government and holding ministers to account is arguably more damaging.

The deterioration in standards is most evident during question-time - the Opposition's daily opportunity to grill ministers.

By no means are all ministers guilty of the practice. But there has been an unmistakable trend towards more and more ministers giving perfunctory replies or, in the worst instances, ignoring questions.

This week Parliament was treated to the ludicrous, yet disturbing sight of a minister pretending not to be a minister in order to duck questions about his breaching collective Cabinet responsibility - a constitutional convention which has also become a moveable feast.

The slow suffocation of question-time does not make headlines, but it is as insidious and as destructive of the institution of Parliament as personal attacks.

The current round of the latter is notable for being more sustained, the innuendo nastier and the targets - Labour's up-and-coming ministers - clearly not random.

But personal attacks are not something new. They come and go.

MPs are now taking a cold, hard look at just where the dirt-chucking might end up - as they always do when it gets to the point where nobody wins.

Sooner or later, someone is going to get hurt who should not. Sooner or later, Labour is going to retaliate big-time, instead of merely spraying hints of misdemeanours on the part of National MPs around the parliamentary chamber by way of interjection.

Sooner or later, everyone will work out there are no votes in scrambling around in the gutter because the public simply does not like it. Well, maybe not everyone.

Disgruntled Act members will give their leader a hurry-up on that score at their party's annual conference this weekend.

Fat chance he will listen. Rodney Hide is a serial scandalmonger. The more he mongers, the more people come to him with scandal worth mongering.

Hide's hounding of ministers is a major aggravation for Labour. But what angers Labour is National living vicariously off the exploits of Hide and Investigate magazine while keeping its own hands clean.

In threatening to expose the alleged misdemeanours of some National MPs, Labour is effectively telling National to put pressure on Hide to back off.

Conscious of the public's mood, National has made a peace offering to Labour by holding back from overly criticising David Parker after the Cabinet minister was rumbled for making false statements to the Companies Office and he lost his portfolios.

At the same time, National reaffirmed its right to ask questions when standards of ministerial behaviour are at issue.

There was little upside anyway in having a go at Parker. The truth is that Helen Clark sacked him. But the perception rapidly grew that Parker was an all-too rare example of a minister falling on his sword without having to be told.

In doing so, he has become a shining beacon of self-sacrifice highlighting the supposed sea of murk around him - even though he broke the law.

Fitzsimons' speech contributed to the creation of that perception. She spoke with moral authority. The Greens have never indulged in personality politics. They have watched Parliament with a mixture of horror and frustration - as have the Maori Party and United Future, who also deserve bouquets for treating Parliament with respect.

Yet, Fitzsimons' speech was also highly political. She blamed Opposition parties for Parliament becoming New Zealand's version of the Spanish Inquisition.

That is not fair. National had every right to go after David Benson-Pope after he made misleading statements to Parliament. National had nothing to do with Parker's demise.

If things have got worse in the House - and behaviour varies greatly from week to week - that is down to two crucial developments over the last decade: the advent of a multi-party Parliament and the arrival of television cameras in the chamber.

The fierce competition among Opposition parties for the attention of those cameras has exponentially boosted the scandal quotient because that makes the news, whereas debate on more weighty issues does not.

These factors have contributed to question-time becoming even more of a political circus. The hour-plus session is rarely informative. Ministers are hardly likely to parade the failings of their policies or their departments in front of the cameras.

Or their own failings. It is indefensible, but it is possible to understand why Benson-Pope's memory was so selective for so long.

However, he escaped punishment. He has not necessarily lowered the benchmark for what is acceptable. The benchmark will be lowered only if the next minister who misleads Parliament is not punished.

Benson-Pope is also the product of a climate where some ministers do not even bother to make any effort to answer Opposition questions. The rules are lax. The Speaker is relatively powerless. The minister can fulfil standing orders by "addressing" the question in the most vaguest of terms.

It is one thing to fudge answers. It is another to effectively treat the questioner's right to ask a question with contempt.

This is a source of great frustration on the Opposition benches - and a major factor in inciting the kind of disorder which helps give Parliament such a poor reputation.

National puts the deliberate obstruction down to a mixture of ministerial arrogance and bureaucratic secretiveness.

In an unusual move, National's shadow Leader of the House, Gerry Brownlee, this week pleaded with the Government to address the standard of replies, both to spoken and written questions.

Labour is unlikely to oblige. It lives in morbid fear of history repeating itself and that it will suffer the same fate as the third-term National Government between 1996 and 1999.

That administration fell victim to charges of sleaze and croneyism. Labour believes the current dirt-digging is designed to have similar effect.

While there is some co-operation between party whips to try and calm things down, all bets are off when the attacks in the chamber once more get personal. Parliament's standing suffers accordingly.

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