Wednesday, June 24, 2009

A suggestion

The opposition has spent a lot of effort in Question Time over the last week trying to excavate John Key's reason for sacking Richard Worth, and been frustrated by the ability of Ministers to refuse to answer if it is not in the public interest. While I favour transparency, even I must admit that there are times when a Minister should not answer - for example, where a question concerns a court case - but at the same time, there is an unavoidable suspicion in this case that the Prime Minister is abusing this power and refusing to answer in order to protect not the public interest, but his private interest in not being politically embarrassed. He is aided in this by the (absolutely correct, IMHO) ruling from the Speaker that the question of whether an answer would be in the public interest is a question for the Minister and the Minister alone to decide.

As I have noted before, there is an oddity in that thanks to the OIA, random members of the public seem to be more entitled to a straight answer out of a Minister than an MP who asks it in Parliament - and when a Minister attempts to withhold information from us (but not MPs in the House), they must give reasons (which can then be assessed and if necessary investigated by the Ombudsmen). Which suggests an obvious amendment to Standing orders: echoing the OIA in requiring Ministers to give a reason for their refusal.

This would be relatively easy to do: simply amend SO 377 (which governs contents of replies) to insert a new section:

(1A) If an answer cannot be given as it would be inconsistent with the public interest, the Minister must say why.
If this was in force, then John Key would still be able to refuse to answer questions about his sacking of Richard Worth - but he would have to say why. His reasons could then be publicly assessed, and we could call bullshit if they do not measure up. Which is why the government (and the opposition, who expect to be government one day) will never agree to it...