Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Lying with impunity

Earlier in the month, my OIA excavations revealed that the Prime Minister had lied to Parliament when answering questions on his cycleway. Asked

What analysis did Treasury do on the cost-effectiveness of the national cycleway scheme in producing jobs, and is he prepared to provide the Treasury analysis, oral and written, to members of this Parliament; if not, why not?
Key replied "Rigorous analysis was done" - an answer his own Chief of Staff later admitted was strictly false and implicitly misleading [PDF]. Key's lie became the subject of a complaint of Breach of Privilege, and the Speaker has now ruled on it. Unfortunately, his ruling [PDF] leaves a lot to be desired, notably by creating a new standard requiring that words misleading the House must have been delivered "in a situation of some formality" and not merely in Question Time. Given that Question Time is the opportunity for Parliament (which in practice means the opposition) to hold the government to account, this seems to give Ministers carte blanche to lie with impunity. Secondly, while explaining the framework guiding his decision, he did not actually give a reason for it or explain which of the limbs he was relying of in dismissing the complaint. Was it too informal, trivial, or both? Basic standards of open government require reasons to be given so that those reasons can be scrutinised (and, where necessary, subjected to review). The Speaker - an MP from a different, less accountable era - has failed on that basic test.

As for the substance, unlike the Speaker, I believe it is a serious matter when the Prime Minister attempts to mislead the House, whether deliberately or casually. The ability (and custom) of the PM to lie his way out of tricky questions brings not just the House, but our entire political system into disrepute. As we're seeing in the UK, spin and lies destroy public faith in politics. By failing to demand a high standard of behaviour from Ministers, the Speaker has failed our democracy today. And we are all the losers.