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Brownlee Refuses To Answer Parliamentary Question

Brownlee Refuses To Answer Parliamentary Question

During Question Time in Parliament today Minister of Energy and Resources Gerry Brownlee declined to give any answer, or reason for not responding, to a supplementary question on mining conservation land from Green MP Metiria Turei.

Ministers are expected to answer parliamentary questions, but Speaker Lockwood Smith quoted speaker’s ruling 162/5, as specifically allowing them not to do so. Other rulings appear to contradict this. (Rulings and transcript follow.)

The ruling will have surprised many, including everyone at the Scoop office. The quality of answers given during question time is often debated, but as an opportunity for holding the government to account responses are expected – and have been assumed to be required.

A subsequent answer by Brownlee stated that, “In answering questions this afternoon I have made it clear that the Government has no intention of mining high-value conservation land. From the member’s question, she does not seem to want to accept the answers given. It is no wonder that she gets no answers to her questions.”

See also:

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Relevant speakers rulings
speakersrulings2008_5.pdf

162

Obligation to answer

3 An answer to a question ought to be given if it can be given consistently with the public interest; an answer can be absolutely refused if, in the opinion of the Minister interrogated, the public interest would be imperilled by giving the information sought.
1892, Vol. 78, pp. 374–5. Steward.
1991, Vol. 514, p. 1241. Gray.

4 A Minister must give an answer “if it can be given consistently with the public interest”. The Minister is instructed under Standing Order 377(1) to consider the public interest in framing a reply. In considering consistency with the public interest, the Minister may address such principles as privacy, commercial sensitivity, or national security. But, ultimately, the judgment of whether a particular reply is consistent with the public interest is for the Minister to make. It is not a matter for the Speaker to judge. Nor is it a matter for the member asking the question to suggest that because that member considers the matter to be a matter of public interest, the question should be answered in a particular way.
2008, Vol. 648, p. 17177. Wilson.

5 It is not obligatory on a Minister to answer a question. It is certainly customary but there is no sufficient reason for saying it is binding.
1968, Vol. 357, pp. 2181–2. Jack.

163

1 A Minister is not obliged to seek the call in answer to a question if the Minister does not intend to answer it. In these circumstances the Minister is treated as having refused to answer. There is no obligation to give reasons for a refusal to answer although it is preferable to do so. To avoid a series of supplementary questions it may be preferable to indicate the refusal to answer on a point of order.

1980, Vol. 433, pp. 3244–5. Harrison.
1991, Vol. 514, p. 1241. Gray.


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Transcript:

[Full transcript of question here]

1. Mining—Minerals Stocktake in Conservation Areas

[Uncorrected transcript—subject to correction and further editing.]

1. METIRIA TUREI (Co-Leader—Green) to the Minister of Energy and Resources: What does he hope to achieve by his stocktake of minerals in New Zealand’s highest-value conservation areas, as announced in his August 26 speech?

Hon GERRY BROWNLEE (Minister of Energy and Resources) : The purpose of the stocktake is to identify areas of land in schedule 4 where the conservation values are relatively low but mineral potential high. The Government will consider removing those areas of land from schedule 4 so that environmentally responsible mining can take place on very small sections within that land. New Zealand is a mineral-rich country, and responsible mining of low-value conservation areas can contribute significantly to job and economic growth in this country.

...

Metiria Turei: When the Minister said in his speech that “… New Zealanders need to know that this country is also well endowed with natural resources.”, is it not the case that Kiwis already know how blessed we are, already know that our magnificent conservation places are like gold to the New Zealand economy, and are aghast at his attempts to plunder those areas for fool’s gold and dirty coal?

Mr SPEAKER: The Hon Gerry Brownlee.

Metiria Turei: I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. The Minister has to at least attempt to answer a question properly put to him by another member of Parliament.

Mr SPEAKER: Unless the Minister considers it not to be in the public interest, he should answer the question. I call the Hon Gerry Brownlee. The Minister clearly has nothing to say in response to the question.

Metiria Turei: That is fine. If the Minister is simply—

Mr SPEAKER: Order!

Metiria Turei: —speechless—

Mr SPEAKER: The member will resume her seat immediately.

Metiria Turei: Are you going to make him answer the question?

Mr SPEAKER: The member will not interject while I am on my feet. The Minister has indicated that he has no answer to give to that question, and that is the end of that matter.

Hon GERRY BROWNLEE: I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. Ministers are required to answer questions when it is consistent with the public good to do so, but questions must also be within a band of what I think are reasonably answerable questions. I have made it very clear that this Government has no intention to plunder the conservation—

Mr SPEAKER: The member will resume his seat. We will not now handle the question by way of points of order. The Minister chose not to give any answer to the question. That is the end of that matter.

Hon Darren Hughes: I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. We are in unusual territory now. I think this is the first time in this term of Parliament that a Minister has refused to even get up and make any response to a question put to him or her. Mr Speaker, you accepted the question as being in order, so there was nothing wrong procedurally with the question put by Metiria Turei. I think it is important for you to indicate to the House now that if a Minister believes that answering a question is not in the public interest—which is the only reason they cannot answer it—the Minister should get up and say that, not just sit there and do nothing. Mr Speaker, I think you have to give a steer to Ministers here, because we regard that as an unacceptable performance when you yourself had accepted the question from the member.

Mr SPEAKER: It is an interesting issue that has arisen. I refer members to Speaker’s ruling 162/5, which states: “It is not obligatory on a Minister to answer a question. It is certainly customary but there is no sufficient reason for saying it is binding.” It is the public, having heard the question and seen the Minister’s refusal to answer it, that makes the final judgment on the situation.

Metiria Turei: I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. I do not want to spend too much of the House’s time on this issue, but a very serious concern is raised for those of us in the Opposition that a Minister can simply refuse to answer a question without giving a clear indication of the reasons for doing that, particularly as the Standing Orders are clear that a Minister can refuse to answer if answering would not be in the public interest. I expect that some serious points will be raised on this issue. Perhaps, Mr Speaker, you would give your commitment to take an opportunity outside the Chamber to consider the nature of that ruling and the implication of it. What it means is that Opposition members can go to great lengths to prepare relevant and procedurally correct questions to Ministers, yet Ministers can simply refuse to answer, without giving a justification. I am not sure whether that is the kind of process that you or the House would consider acceptable. Perhaps a commitment from you that you will give some consideration to your ruling in those circumstances would be helpful at this time.

Hon David Parker: Speaker’s ruling 162/5 states that a Minister does not have to answer a question—I agree with that. But a Minister does have to address the question, and that is a different matter. The Minister has failed to address the question, and unless he does so on the grounds of his addressing it not being in the public interest, I suggest that, with respect, he is in breach of the Standing Orders. If that were allowed, the effect would be that question time could be rendered completely ineffective, because all of the questions from the Opposition members could be completely ignored by the Government.

Hon Peter Dunne: Mr Speaker, in addition to Speaker’s ruling 162/5, which you have already quoted, I draw your attention to Speakers’ ruling 163/1: “A Minister is not obliged to seek the call in answer to a question if the Minister does not intend to answer it.”, and then it goes on. It would seem to me that that is pretty clear. Although the practice might be unusual, and even undesirable, there is certainly a clear precedent in terms of Speakers’ rulings that a Minister can refuse to answer a question if he does not wish to answer it.

Mr SPEAKER: I thank honourable members, and I do not think I need to hear more on this. If members reflect on the situation they will quickly see that where very clear, straight questions are asked, Ministers would be very unwise to refuse to answer them, because in the court of public opinion a Minister would be condemned for refusing to do so. I think Metiria Turei might be well advised to reflect on the nature of the question she put to the Minister, and why the Minister, therefore, chose not to answer it. It is very simple: where questions are clear-cut and require an answer, no Minister is going to refuse to answer, unless it is not in the public interest to do so. But where a question is of the nature of the question that the member asked, it is in the member’s own hands to ask a more penetrating question if she wants to avoid this situation occurring again. The Hon Peter Dunne is quite correct: there are a number of Speakers’ rulings on this issue, and I am not going to turn all of those on their head.

Dr Kennedy Graham: I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. If it is in the discretion of the Minister not to answer a question on the grounds that answering it is not in the public interest, would he perhaps give this House the courtesy of explaining why, in his opinion, answering the question is not in the public interest.

Mr SPEAKER: There is absolutely no need for that. The Minister is not required to take the call to answer the question. Had the question been a clear-cut, clear question, the Minister of course would have answered it, because the public would condemn the Minister for not doing so. I invite the honourable member Dr Kennedy Graham to look at the Hansard of his colleague’s question. It would be very informative.

Metiria Turei: Is the Minister now willing to admit that the World Bank report upon which he relied to justify his agenda of mining in our most valuable conservation lands does not actually support his mining agenda; to the contrary, it provides clear evidence as to why that would be a bad idea for New Zealand’s economy, in that it is our treasured heritage, our natural forests, and our rich and fertile soils that make us a wealthy nation?

Hon GERRY BROWNLEE: In answering questions this afternoon I have made it clear that the Government has no intention of mining high-value conservation land. From the member’s question, she does not seem to want to accept the answers given. It is no wonder that she gets no answers to her questions.

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