Does it matter when politicians don’t answer questions?
Nick Smith is Minister of Housing, and the interviewer – Patrick Gower who was standing in for Lisa Owen – was having a grand old time trying to pin Minister Smith down on the issue of housing affordability. Now, Nick had some important points he wanted to make to defend the Government’s record in this area. These points included things like the fact that more houses are being built in Auckland at the moment than any time in the last 25 years; that the Government has been successful in promoting housing development in Christchurch; and the ideological position that the private sector should be running housing supply.
Those are all fine points, as far as they go and as far as you accept their accuracy. But Gower didn’t ask about any of those points. He asked pointed, specific questions about whether an average house price of $1 million in Auckland is a sign of failure, and whether the Minister was more concerned about supporting developers over first home buyers. These are great questions, but they are questions that didn’t receive an answer because the Minister felt it was easier to largely ignore the thrust of the question and simply make the points he wanted to make.
Does it matter that the Minister effectively refused to answer the questions put to him?
Before we answer that question, let’s put some context around it. First, this post is not meant to target Nick Smith. He is just the most recent example that comes to mind. The previous week on The Nation a bunch of Auckland Mayoral candidates employed exactly the same technique over and over to the point that the interview became quite tedious. So all politicians do it, at all levels of government and across the political spectrum.
Second, it happens not just in the media, but in the House of Representatives. Question time is one of the key ways that Parliament holds the Government to account. The idea is that the Opposition asks the Government hard questions, and the public gets to judge the Government on its response. But the Standing Orders require only that the Minister being questioned address the question, not answer it. This leads to things like blaming the Opposition and name-calling in an effort to avoid discussing the Government’s record at all.
So providing answers that the public can judge is important, but politicians almost always avoid doing this. Should we be concerned about this from a ‘great government’ perspective? I would say no in theory, but in practice it might be more complicated.
One of the reasons the Standing Orders only require Ministers to address the question they are asked, not answer it, is because the public is entitled to judge the Minister on his or her refusal to answer. If it is clear that the question hasn’t been answered, then we can draw the skeptical conclusion that the full, truthful answer may not be kind to the Government’s record. So when Nick Smith doesn’t address the fact that the average Auckland house price is $1 million, then we can assume this is a very bad thing that the Government should have done more to prevent. When Phil Goff refuses to explain how he is going to cut spending in Auckland Council, we are entitled to assume that he doesn’t know how and is just saying what he thinks we all want to hear.
If we judge politicians in this way on their tricky non‑answers, then there is no real democratic deficit. Politicians that can’t answer questions put to them are punished and voted out of the system. In practice, however, I’m not sure the public judges non‑answers as harshly as it should. Regardless of your political leanings, a non‑answer does nothing to reassure you that a politician has your best interests at heart. Perhaps not enough people have the time to watch every interview or catch up on what’s said in the House, and that’s okay because we are all busy people. But our role in democracy is to judge politicians on their views and their justifications for their actions. If we let them get away with simply not answering reasonable questions, what else might they be getting away with?