It was Covid Response Minister Chris Hipkins who was punished by the Speaker for poor behaviour at a select committee last week. Political editor Jo Moir looks at whether it’s time for officials to start taking some responsibility.

Officials have been appearing at select committees for decades to answer questions in all sorts of areas and provide some of the more in-depth context and rationale to government decision-making.

After all, it is ministry officials who provide advice to ministers and ultimately Cabinet, so it is imperative that MPs on both sides of the political fence have an opportunity to ask how they came to land on that advice.

Last week, officials from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment and the Ministry of Health – including their respective heads Carolyn Tremain and Dr Ashley Bloomfield – fronted the health select committee (alongside managed isolation and quarantine head Brigadier Jim Bliss) to answer questions related to the Government’s Covid-19 response.

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What unfolded was a shambolic process whereby most of the allocated time was sucked up by officials making statements and rehashing already well understood or well-canvassed topics, some as ridiculous as the “customer journey’’ for a person going through MIQ.

While someone who hasn’t read any news since the pandemic first hit our shores might be fascinated by how a planeload of people end up in a hotel room, that isn’t the threshold that exists within Parliament.

Politicians, officials and the media are immersed in the inner workings of MIQ on a daily – sometimes hourly – basis, and the level of information that is being traversed in a select committee is unsurprisingly expected to be at a much higher level.

Officials know that, which is why they often preface their appearance at committees with a disclaimer along the lines of: “I’m just going to make a very brief opening statement then will hand it over to questions.”

It was the Labour MP chairing the committee, Dr Liz Craig, who ultimately allowed officials to use 23 minutes of a 50-minute session to make inane statements, but the officials shouldn’t be let off lightly.

Former Attorney-General Chris Finlayson, a minister under the previous National government, told Newsroom it was a waste of time for everyone having officials turn up and conduct a “speak-fest’’.

“Officials should take things as read by the committee or provide information for five minutes but then get straight into questions,” Finlayson said.

Chris Finlayson says nobody at Parliament is well served by a “speak-fest” of officials at select committees. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

“The same goes with ministers. When I was Treaty Negotiations Minister presenting at the Māori affairs committee for example, I’d keep my comments very short. If you’re not answering questions then you shouldn’t be there.”

National’s Covid Response spokesman Chris Bishop was so livid with the way the health select committee ran, he wrote to Speaker Trevor Mallard about it – but he wasn’t the only one calling foul.

Green MP Elizabeth Kerekere, who also sits on the committee, didn’t even get a single question on Wednesday. Her co-leader James Shaw expressed frustration about that but didn’t go as far as Bishop, who proposed the return of the Epidemic Response Committee.

The committee was set up during last year’s Level 4 lockdown and chaired by then-National Party leader Simon Bridges as a way of holding the Government to account during a national crisis.

Mallard takes a side

After reviewing the select committee himself, Mallard took the dispute into his own hands in Question Time on Thursday and awarded Bishop four extra supplementary questions to use in his interrogation of Hipkins.

No one seemed more surprised by that decision than Bishop himself, who has a rocky relationship with Mallard at the best of times.

Speaking to Newsroom afterwards, Mallard said he didn’t think adequate time had been given to the Opposition in select committee to ask questions and this was “the first opportunity from my perspective to partially remedy that’’.

He acknowledged it wasn’t the perfect solution given it wasn’t Hipkins who had wasted MPs’ time at select committee.

“It’s not my responsibility to give the Opposition what they want, or to worry too much about the view of the Government.

“I think what I was attempting to do was send a message that the select committee process is an important one, and to run a 50-minute session with 23 minutes from officials and very little chance for most members to ask questions is not satisfactory.’’

Mallard said it was “contrary to the spirit of the standing orders report, and it was inconsistent with assurances given to the Business Committee’’.

The Speaker doesn’t have the ability to fix past mistakes in select committees, but the allocation of supplementary questions is one of the levers he does have to rectify what he sees as wrongs.

Mallard said it was a “clear indication to select committee chairs that it’s their job to provide the opportunity for officials to be held to account’’.

“I think ministers will now have a discussion with their own officials to make sure they don’t try and block questioning by taking up all the time with statements.’’

That speaks to the issue raised by Finlayson – it is officials who are responsible for answering questions.

Neither Bloomfield nor Tremain are new kids on the block, and both would have been well aware the longer they spent making statements, the less time there would be for them to answer direct questions.

Finlayson told Newsroom “all the tools are there to make select committee very useful, provided you don’t have officials wittering on and everything is taken as read’’.

Is it time to bid patsies farewell?

Finlayson, one of the better performers in the House over the years, has little time for patsies (soft questions lobbed by backbench government MPs to ministers).

“I used to avoid people asking me them when I was a minister because they’re embarrassing for the questioner and the minister in my view. We might as well be rid of them, they’re a complete waste of time,’’ he said.

Mallard isn’t a fan of them either, and “lives in hope we’ll have some more incisive questioning’’.

“Some of them are not as well thought-through as they could be, but that’s the same for the Opposition…they could be a lot sharper and a lot better,’’ he said.

Bishop, who is also shadow leader of the House, doesn’t think there’s much place for patsies, and it’s understood Leader of the House Chris Hipkins has little time for them either.

But as one former Labour minister who spent time in both government and opposition told Newsroom, defining what exactly a patsy question is would be difficult if a ban was seriously being considered.

The majority the Labour Party won at the election last year means it gets plenty of opportunities to ask patsies of ministers and has majorities on all select committees.

It’s public servants – the officials – who are consistently present regardless of who is in power. That means they’re responsible for transparency and accountability as much as any minister is.

Speaking anonymously, the former minister said the “crocodile tears from both sides of the House about not getting a fair go is old news’’.

“Governments have always had a majority whether it’s absolute or not. If you win an election you win everything, that’s just how it goes.’’

Finlayson agreed, saying: “National can moan as much as it likes but it didn’t perform well at the election and to the victor comes the spoils’’.

“When you’ve got an Opposition who ran a hopeless campaign and couldn’t get their acts sorted, they can’t be expected to be given a leg up,’’ he said.

A complete overhaul of Parliament and how questions are allocated is unlikely to happen anytime soon, for the same reason four-year terms won’t be implemented in a hurry.

While political parties favour some ideas from opposition, they lose interest when they’re in government, and vice-versa.

It’s public servants – the officials – who are consistently present regardless of who is in power. That means they’re responsible for transparency and accountability as much as any minister is.

A starting point would be taking last week’s health committee sideshow and using it as a permanent example of what not to do.

Jo Moir is Newsroom's political editor.

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