Friday, July 24, 2009

Thwarting Parliamentary oversight

One the chief purposes of Parliament is to oversee the government and hold it to account. An important part of this is the annual Estimates cycle, in which Ministers appear before select committees to answer questions on their appropriations for the year and how they will be used. Select committees must report back on these hearings within two months of the budget - i.e. by Monday or Tuesday next week - and so the reports are flooding in.

Unfortunately, it seems the government has been abusing its majority on the committees to prevent proper oversight. So for example, we have this complaint from the Law and Order Committee's report on the 2009/10 Estimates for Vote Police [PDF, p. 4]:

The ability of opposition members of Parliament to scrutinize the Executive is a critical part of our democracy in order to ensure accountability and transparency especially those that relate to the expenditure of public money. It is anti-democratic to prevent open questioning of the Executive and promotes the notion that the interests of the Executive are being protected. Labour members are very concerned at the Chair’s refusal to accept a list of supplementary written Estimates questions that we would like to gain answers to even though there was surplus time available to the committee for consideration of the questions. Therefore, Labour members had no choice but to submit the questions via the Parliamentary written question process. We append that list of questions for the record
The list is four pages long. It includes basic questions about budgetary allocations and the performance of police - how much money they're getting for specific types of crime (gangs, drugs, illegal street racing) and its allocation, where the money saved in the "line by line review" came from, how many vehicles will be cut from each district, how much it is having to pay out in redundancy and in personal grievance payments, how many staff they have in various roles etc. This is all basic stuff, the bread and butter of a select committee holding the government to account; the chair abused their power and the government abused its authority because the Minister couldn't be bothered answering any of it.

There's a similar complaint (with 6 pages of questions the Minister - Judith Collins again - thought were beneath her) in the committee's report on Vote: Corrections [PDF], and judging from this question in the House on Tuesday (the first of four), there will be more in the Education and Science committee's report on Vote: Education.

And so one of the best changes of MMP - increased accountability of the executive to Parliament - has been rolled back in an instant by a government with an easy majority. The result is the 80's all over again - committees reduced to a rubberstamp, and a government free of oversight. And that is something we should all be afraid of.