Last week I posted about Parliamentary statistics, suggesting that we needed British-style participation tools (in the style of the Public Whip) to keep track of whether our elected representatives are actually doing their jobs. One idea was to take a look at Question Time, the time each day when the Opposition is supposed to hold Ministers accountable to Parliament, and (by extension) the government accountable to the public. Who is asking these questions (and more importantly, who isn't) may provide useful insight as to which MPs are worth their salary.
However, it's not quite so simple as that. Two factors which weaken the link between "number of questions asked" and job performance are:
- Ministers answer questions, rather than asking them, so they will be systematically under-represented (and conversely, the "patsies" they get to ask soft questions so they can attack the Opposition will be over-represented); and
- While questions are distributed to parties on a per-capita basis (meaning that every MP theoretically has the same chance of asking a question), they are not distributed equally within parties. Generally, the party leaders and front-bench get to hog the questions - and these positions reflect ability in political infighting and faction-building as much as any ability to hold the government to account. That said, a long-serving backbencher who never asks the government anything is probably a strong hint that they are a talentless time-server.
So, Question Time is more a guide to identifying systematic underperformers than anything else. But then, those are exactly the people we want to identify.
Last night I built a crude parser to extract the data on primary and supplementary questions. Unfortunately, the Hansard Office uses Word (bletch!) to produce their HTML - making it difficult to parse, and meaning that there are definitely some errors in the resulting data. But looking at the output and the various flags raised, it seems that the error-rate was less than 1%, and mostly corrected with manual checks. However, there were still around 5 questions (out of more than 2600) which could not be attributed. The sample covered Question Time from 12th February 2003 to 2nd of August 2005. The results are in this spreadsheet. I've identified some ministers and Parliamentary officers to provide context for their scores.
Focusing on the opposition parties, there are a few notables that stand out. ACT's Gerry Eckhoff and the Greens' Mike Ward both asked far less than their compatriots. Fortunately they are no longer with us, and neither are most of NZFirst's tail (with the notable exceptions of Pita Parone and Doug Woolerton). Unfortunately, all of National's notable underperformers - Shane Ardern, Sandra Goudie, Pansy Wong, and Lindsay Tisch - are still with us, and all hold positions of responsibility in National's new lineup.
It would be nice if, for the next term, we had a searchable database with both statistics and links to the questions asked, so we can see what our MPs are actually doing. But unfortunately, I just don't have the time...