Monday, August 03, 2009

Misleading the House

At the beginning of last month, Question Time saw the following exchange in the House:

Hon Phil Goff: 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?

Hon JOHN KEY: Rigorous analysis was done.

Based on a previous OIA response showing a complete absence of any cost-benefit analysis on the cycleway project, I called bullshit - and sent away another OIA request for the "rigorous analysis" the Prime Minister was referring to so I could prove it. The response to that request arrived on Saturday. I had expected it to contain either some new analysis, or nothing. I had not expected it to open with a candid admission of guilt from the Prime Minister's Chief of Staff [PDF]:
The response to the question was only "that rigorous analysis had been done", and not that this analysis was by Treasury, or that it was a cost-effectiveness analysis.

As stated in Clause 3 of the Executive Summary of the Cabinet paper provided in response to your previous request of 14 may 2009, the objective is to develop a series of 'Great Rides'. The actual development of a joined up network is part of a long term vision and may be achieved through branding supported by signage. Consequently, no economic analysis has been undertaken for a continuous 'national cycleway'.

(Emphasis and link added)

So, it turns out that the correct answer to Phil Goff's question was in fact "none". But that answer would have looked bad for the Prime Minister and his pet project, so instead of admitting it, he responded in a way designed to give the impression that a) there had been a cost-benefit analysis; and b) that analysis was performed by Treasury - both of which are false (and it is unthinkable that Key would not know that to be so unless he is a total lightweight who does not pay attention even to his own pet project). In short, he lied. But while you can get away with that in the business world, when you do it in Parliament it is called "misleading the House". And it is a very serious contempt of Parliament. This is where Key's government by spin gets us: casual lies, and contempt both for Parliament, and its function of overseeing the executive.

Unfortunately, from the discussion here, it looks unlikely that Key will face formal sanction for this. According to Standing Orders, a complaint of breach of privilege must be laid "at the earliest opportunity", and before the next sitting of the House. When it takes 20 working days to OIA the evidence, then Ministers can effectively lie with impunity. But if they can't be held to account in the House, they can at least be held to account in the court of public opinion. John Key lied to Parliament. And we should remember that every time he opens his mouth there.

Update (04/08/09): This OIA has now led to a complaint of breach of privilege against the Prime Minister. It will be fascinating to see where it goes.