27 August 2015
Sometimes Parliament’s attention is distracted for the most trivial of reasons to deal with issues that it should never have needed to deal with, but for which there is no other option. Confused? Well, the sort of thing I am thinking about in the main is where Parliament has to step in and tidy up a mistake – the recent example of having to validate years of local roads speed limits because some local authorities had failed to meet the requirement of the law was a case in point. In such circumstances, the cases invariably sound silly, but there is no other alternative to a Parliamentary repair job.
More unusual and certainly more infuriating are the cases where Parliament has to step in – not to correct a mistake as such – but to clarify the law, either because of a drafting ambiguity, or a woefully obvious misinterpretation of intent or timidity of action by the administering agency. The recent emergency legislation regarding the opening of bars during the Rugby World Cup is a case in point.
I applaud David Seymour for picking up the issue, and the overwhelming majority of Parliament (the chronically anti-fun Greens excepted) for supporting his initiative. But it should never have had to come to that. David Seymour had to act because the Police had taken such an overly rigid approach to the provisions of the Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act to make external intervention necessary to resolve what had all the makings of a ludicrously unintended problem. And when the Greens’ Kevin Hague saw the legislation as an opportunity to exact some form of obscure utu on James Shaw for beating him to the co-leadership, an already banal situation descended into sheer farce. The Greens managed the rare accomplishment of a double U-turn within a few days to end up back where they started from – against fun and out of step with public opinion – which was no mean feat.
Yet while Parliament went through its contortions and the public enjoyed the various gymnastics, the Police officials whose original bureaucratic rigidity had caused the problem remained curiously aloof, and of course unaccountable.
It is a worrying trend these days – the very agencies that cause the problems seem more adept than ever at keeping below the radar screen when it all goes awry. There were elements of this approach also at work by Workplace Safety and ACC during the debate about worm farms and the like in the latter stages of the Workplace Safety legislation.
I am strongly in favour of Ministerial accountability and am not arguing in any way for a diminution of that, but Ministers should not be left to defend the indefensible as a consequence. “It’s ultimately the Minister’s problem” is no defence for bureaucratic incompetence; nor is “It is really nothing to do with the Minister, even though he is technically responsible”. Ministers are accountable for the overall performance of the agencies for which they are responsible, but the quid pro quo is that they should not be left holding cans they never knew even existed.
If nothing else, recent events are a timely reminder our system of government relies on Ministers and officials working together professionally, and not at arms length, to achieve proper policy outcomes.