[Sitting date: 28 June 2012. Volume:681;Page:3504. Text is incorporated into the Bound Volume.]
GARETH HUGHES (Green) to the
Minister of Conservation: What are the conservation impacts of having oil exploration permits in marine mammal sanctuaries and an exploration licence to prospect for rock phosphate in a benthic protection area?
Hon TONY RYALL (Minister of Health) on behalf of the
Minister of Conservation: I am advised that the conservation impacts of any exploration in marine mammal sanctuaries would likely be localised and minimal due to the limited activities undertaken at this stage. Addressing the second part of the question, I am advised that the conservation impacts of exploration licences to prospect for rock phosphate are also likely to be minimal, as there is very limited disturbance to the seabed, apparently, while surveying and sampling, due to the small number of samples taken.
Gareth Hughes: Is it not true that trawling, set-net fishing, seabed mining, and oil and gas exploration and production activities are allowed to occur in parts of the West Coast North Island marine mammal sanctuary?
Hon TONY RYALL: I am sure that member is able to give quite a lot of detail on what is in that management plan, because that management plan was agreed and put in place under the Labour-Green Government in 2007.
Gareth Hughes: I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. That was a clear, simple question: “Is it not true that those activities …”. All that the Minister referred to was me and the Green Party.
Mr SPEAKER: I think the Minister was not disagreeing. He was pointing out that the member is likely to be well aware of what was in it, and he was probably right. I do not think the House could object to that.
Gareth Hughes: Given that marine mammal sanctuaries are set up to protect our most endangered mammals, will the Minister recommend that our marine mammal sanctuaries be added to the schedule 4 regime so that they cannot be mined?
Hon TONY RYALL: I know that this Minister of Conservation has a very strong commitment to conservation in New Zealand. I think her record demonstrates that. But I am certainly not aware that the Minister has considered their inclusion in schedule 4. I am sure that it must have been considered in 2007 when Labour and the Greens put the marine mammal sanctuaries and their requirements in place.
Gareth Hughes: Given that benthic protection areas, which prohibit bottom trawling and dredging, were established for conservation purposes, will she advise the Minister of Energy and Resources to decline mining permits to dredge for phosphate in these areas?
Hon TONY RYALL: Although benthic protection areas come under the fisheries legislation, and exploration and mining permits are administered by the economic development department under the Crown Minerals Act, and that is a responsibility of the Minister for Energy and Resources, I am sure that both Ministers discuss various issues on a regular basis. I am unaware whether her ministry had previously discussed that matter with the Ministry of Economic Development when Labour and the Greens put in place the zones that currently applied in 2007.
Gareth Hughes: I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. I am sorry to have another point of order, but the Minister spoke about what might have happened in the past, and spoke about the Green Party once again, but did not answer the question, which was whether she will advise the energy Minister to do that.
Hon John Banks: Some of us listen carefully to the questions and listen carefully to the answers, and I refer you to Standing Order 383(1). It says: “An answer that seeks to address the question … must be given …”—an answer that seeks to address the question must be given. That answer given sought to answer the question. The point I
want to make is that during this question time we have had members standing up and asking—seeking, really—to ask the question again on seven occasions—
Mr SPEAKER: Order! I have heard from my good learned colleague. The way that Standing Order is being interpreted has changed in recent times, while the member was not a member of the House. The way that this Speaker interprets that Standing Order is that an answer must be given to the question asked, if it can be given consistently with the public interest. If Ministers do not want to be held to account, the answer is very easy: do not be a Minister. You know, question time is for members of this House to hold the executive to account. Members have a right to ask questions. Where members lace their questions with comment or unnecessary assertions, you have heard the Speaker make it very clear to them that they cannot seek the Speaker’s help if the Minister picks on those unnecessary bits of lacing that are added to the question and focuses on those. But where a straight question is asked, in a parliamentary democracy the House deserves an answer, unless the Minister deems it not to be consistent with the public interest to give an answer. And that accountability of the executive is a fundamental function of this House.
The question is about whether or not on this occasion the Minister did answer the question. Members have to be a little bit reasonable with the kinds of questions they are asking. Where members are asking hypothetical questions, it is very difficult for Ministers to give absolute answers. There is a tradition in the House where members try to press Ministers for yes/no answers, and there is a tradition that Ministers are not always expected to answer those. But in so far as it is possible, where members are seeking information I will try to make sure they get that information, if it is reasonable to expect the Ministers to have that information, and sometimes, given the primary question, it is not reasonable. But on this occasion, to avoid any confusion I will allow the member to repeat his question, but members need to think about their questions. I mean, some questions are clearly simply highly political, and it has to be reasonable that Ministers can give a political answer to them. This is a fine judgment, but on this occasion I will allow the member to repeat his question.
Hon Peter Dunne: I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker.
Mr SPEAKER: I will hear the Hon Peter Dunne first.
Hon Peter Dunne: Speaking further on the point raised by my colleague to my left, I think the point that he was drawing attention to was not so much to challenge your judgment in terms of what constitutes an answer, but the fact that answers being given by Ministers are constantly being challenged by other members who feel that they are not getting the adequacy of answer that they think they are entitled to. The question then becomes who challenges the Minister in terms of the validity of the answer given: the questioner, or you as the arbiter, as the Speaker? I think there is a sense emerging that there is a constant challenging occurring of answers that people do not like. This is not to in any way move away from the point you have just made, but it does raise the question of whether the Speaker is the arbiter, or the House is the arbiter.
Mr SPEAKER: I do not wish to take more time of the House on this matter. I draw the members’ attention to the questions on today’s Order Paper. On some question sheets we get a lot of questions such as “Do Ministers stand by their statements?” and all that sort of thing. The Speaker cannot assist members when they seek opinions like that. The first two questions on today’s Order Paper asked straight questions: “When did he become aware of the decision …”, and the second one was “Why is he conducting an aerial survey …”. When Ministers see questions like that, they should make sure they answer them. We got into some difficulty today because—
Hon Steven Joyce: No, those were supplementaries.
Mr SPEAKER: But supplementary questions based on clear primary answers like that, and the supplementary questions asked were clear supplementary questions. Again, the remedy is in Ministers’ hands. We have seen many Ministers answering questions very clearly, and it has been very helpful to the House. Questions like that crop up on the Order Paper, and those first two questions I am aware caused some points of order to be raised today, but they were straight, fair questions. That is where the House deserves an answer. We have heard some questions being asked today, though, where I have sat questioners down because they had laced their questions with superfluous information instead of asking a straight question. But question time is where Ministers are held to account. It is important that this House can do that. The public expects it. I try to make sure that where a question is just a political statement, it is no use seeking the Speaker’s assistance. I am not going to rule out the ability of members who have asked questions to raise a point of order to seek the Speaker’s assistance, because I think that puts just too much onus on the Speaker altogether. But I do ask members to be reasonable. Some members are, in my view, going over the top. They need to think more about the question they are asking before they seek the Speaker’s intervention. I thank members for their contribution to this issue, but it is an important issue for the House, and I have got to say that I think Ministers have been answering questions very well. I think question time has been going very well, and I do not want to see it in any way derailed. That is why I ask all members to treat it with the seriousness that question time deserves. But I will allow Gareth Hughes to repeat his question.
Gareth Hughes: Given that benthic protection areas, which prohibit bottom trawling and dredging, were established for conservation purposes, will she advise the energy Minister to decline mining permits to dredge for phosphate on the seabed?
Hon TONY RYALL: As acting Minister, I am not in a position to be able to answer that question. I do know that this Minister of Conservation works tirelessly in the interests of conservation in New Zealand.
Mr SPEAKER: I thank the Minister very much.
Gareth Hughes: What will she do to make sure New Zealand’s marine mammal sanctuaries actually provide sanctuary, and New Zealand’s benthic protection areas actually provide protection from seabed mining, oil exploration, and indiscriminate fishing?
Hon TONY RYALL: As the member knows, the Minister has been considering these issues. Her motivation is to make sure that New Zealanders can have confidence, I am sure, in the marine mammal sanctuaries that were put in place in 2007 by the Labour-Green Government.