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5. Smoke-free Environments Act—Vote Health

[Volume:612;Page:8958]

5. RODNEY HIDE (ACT NZ) to the Associate Minister of Health: Has money from Vote Health been paid to ASH and other anti-smoking groups to: “create a climate of support for amendments to the Smoke-free Environments Act”, to write letters to editors, to liaise with political parties, “visit key portfolio MPs and Maori MPs” and “make formal submissions and presentations to the select committee considering legislative changes”; if so, does he believe that health dollars should be spent lobbying for legislative change?

Hon DAMIEN O'CONNOR (Associate Minister of Health) : Non-governmental organisations receive contracts from the Government, including the Ministry of Health. The key goal of one such organisation, Apararangi Tautoko Auahi Kore—“ATAK” as it is known—is to reduce the negative effect of smoking on public health, in particular on the health of Māori. It has, as part of its key performance indicators, submissions to select committees, and visiting portfolio MPs and Māori MPs. These align with the key objectives of the New Zealand Health Strategy, which include the reduction of smoking.

Rodney Hide: I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. My question has been put down on notice, and the Minister never addressed the second part of my question.

Mr SPEAKER: I heard him address the question. Please ask the supplementary question.

Rodney Hide: I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker.

Mr SPEAKER: I have asked the member to ask the supplementary question. The Minister did give a quite extensive answer, and I thought he did address the question.

Rodney Hide: With respect, my question was on notice, and we are allowed to ask two parts. My question states: “…if so, does he believe that health dollars should be spent lobbying for legislative change?”. I did not hear the Minister answer that point, or address it once.

Mr SPEAKER: I thought the very first words he uttered addressed that part of the question.

Rodney Hide: Does he believe that it is acceptable for civil servants to lobby members of Parliament for a law change; if not, does he think it acceptable for civil servants to pay supposedly independent interest groups to lobby MPs on their behalf?

Hon DAMIEN O'CONNOR: The Government has contracts with a number of non-governmental organisations and other organisations up and down the country. For example, the Accident Compensation Corporation has a strategic partnership with Federated Farmers to run farm-safe programmes. That does not eliminate them or prevent them from bringing their views to Parliament. The same can be said for Government funding that goes through to private hospitals. The fact that we fund them for services does not prevent them from bringing their views to parliamentarians.

Gerry Brownlee: I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. I ask you to consider very carefully whether the Minister has addressed the question. He certainly addressed it in that he opened his mouth and a pile of words fell out, but I ask whether he has, in all fairness to Parliament, addressed the question. It is an extremely important one. The question is whether the Government should be paying outside organisations to lobby MPs, particularly Opposition MPs, to support its legislation. To suggest that the Accident Compensation Corporation contracting Federated Farmers to run safety programmes covering various farm vehicles and other machinery activities is in any way comparable to the sort of activity that Mr Hide’s question is pitched at is, to say the least, a stretch of the imagination. The Minister should answer very clearly. He was asked a simple question, which could have been answered with yes or no, and that is what he should give the House.

Hon Dr Michael Cullen: No doubt a point of order would have been raised had the answer been given in that form. We are back in the same old situation, where the National Party keeps disliking answers and attempts to litigate those answers, one after the other. An answer was certainly given. But it shows the danger of getting into an issue of debates around whether an answer is adequate. A Minister is required merely to address the question. Those are the Standing Orders; those are the Speakers’ rulings. This place, whether or not the Opposition likes it, is a political chamber and occasionally politics intrudes into both questions and answers, in my long experience.

Rt Hon Winston Peters: Mr Cullen misses the point. This is not about whether some Government is engaged with outside groups in implementing Government policy. This is a member’s bill. That is the first thing. The second thing is that I do not believe that any of the expenditure in these three contracts would survive an Audit Office investigation, but we will pretty soon find out. More particularly, the issue is that this legislation is a member’s bill, from the member for Rotorua, and we have Government money out there, being spent on three private organisations. That is what the Minister is being asked about, and he is not addressing the question.

Mr SPEAKER: Let me just say—

Hon Richard Prebble: I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker.

Mr SPEAKER: I have heard quite enough. Did the member just want to add to it briefly?

Hon Richard Prebble: I want to reply particularly to the points made by Mr Cullen, because that is not what the Speakers’ rulings state. If we go to Speaker’s ruling 128/3, we see that it states: “Questions are an important means by which Ministers are accountable to the House. For a Minister to respond in an irrelevant manner is to act contrary to the spirit of the question process. It is incumbent on Ministers to treat questions in a manner that is consistent with their constitutional responsibilities.” The Minister was asked a question that was capable of a yes or no answer. He was asked whether he believed, as a Minister, that it was appropriate for taxpayers’ money to be given to a lobby group to lobby MPs. That was the question—yes or no?

Mr SPEAKER: Let me just say two things. First of all, members may not like the way the Minister answered the question. That is their right, but it was his answer. Secondly, members cannot stipulate a yes or no answer. It is the Minister’s responsibility as to how he answers.

Rodney Hide: I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker.

Mr SPEAKER: I have actually ruled on the matter.

Rodney Hide: It is this matter of determining relevance. I put a question down on notice. The Minister did not address the second part, in my view. I then used a question to ask him whether he thought it was appropriate for taxpayers’ money to be given to a lobby group to lobby MPs. The Minister spoke about other contracts whereby money is paid across to Federated Farmers to do something specific—nothing to do with lobbying MPs. Then he said that that does not stop Federated Farmers from lobbying MPs. That has nothing to do with my question. [Interruption] There is no point in Parliament; we get shouted down, we cannot make a point of order, and we cannot ask questions.

Mr SPEAKER: Mr Hide, I am not prepared to take those sorts of comments. I have listened to you and you have gone to quite some considerable length to make the same point twice. I make the same ruling that I made before: the Minister addressed the question.

Dr Lynda Scott: Can the Minister explain why, when Timberlands’ public relations firm asked people to write letters to the editor and to lobby MPs without payment, the Prime Minister was outraged and it was scandalous, but now, when he pays the piper to do the same thing with money from Vote Health, it is perfectly OK?

Hon DAMIEN O'CONNOR: The organisations that have contracts with the Ministry of Health have a number of objectives. They are not solely lobbying organisations. Their objectives are to improve the public health of New Zealanders. They have, as part of their key performance indicators, some objectives such as strengthening strategic alliances and interagency networks to optimise the impact of smoke-free initiatives. It is up to that organisation, with the Ministry of Health, to work out how best to achieve those objectives.

Rodney Hide: I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. With respect, the Minister has—although I do not think deliberately—put an answer in that cannot be right. In order to put the primary question in I had to justify it, as you know, to the Clerk of the House. It is not something for these lobby groups to negotiate with the department; it is in their contracts that they have to lobby MPs, write letters to the editor, and appear at select committees. The Minister said that it is something for them to negotiate.

Mr SPEAKER: This is debatable material.

Sue Kedgley: Does he think it is more reprehensible for public moneys to go to Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) to try to reduce smoking in New Zealand than for tobacco funding to go to political parties to try to curry favour and support for that industry in its efforts to sell as many harmful and addictive cigarettes as it possibly can to as many New Zealanders as possible?

Mr SPEAKER: In so far as public money is involved the Minister may comment.

Hon DAMIEN O'CONNOR: I am aware of many claims around these issues. I would hope that no political party gains such favours, given the undeniable evidence that smoking kills people.

Hon Peter Dunne: Can the Minister tell the House of any other instance where hundreds of thousands of dollars of public money have been advanced to a private sector lobby group to lobby members of Parliament to support a member’s bill on a particular subject?

Hon DAMIEN O'CONNOR: These organisations that are funded through the Ministry of Health have objectives to improve the public health of all New Zealanders, not just to lobby. I am not aware of any comparison, because these organisations are not solely lobbying organisations.

Hon Peter Dunne: I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. I do not wish to be frivolous, and I say this with respect to the Minister, who is sitting very close to me. Because of the noise I could not hear his answer. I thought I heard him say that he was not aware of any other such instances, but I would be grateful if he could confirm that.

Mr SPEAKER: There was too much noise—I take responsibility for that. I wonder whether the Minister could just repeat that part, for which he is responsible as the Associate Minister of Health.

Hon DAMIEN O'CONNOR: I do not accept the claim made in the question that this is solely a lobby organisation. Therefore I am not aware of any such comparison.

Rt Hon Winston Peters: How does the Minister deem it appropriate that public money should be used for a member’s bill that would see over half a million dollars going to three groups, one of which is a Māori Smokefree Coalition, whatever that means, and that requires that: “Neither of us may during or after this agreement either directly or indirectly criticise the other publicly,”—in short, to buy silence using public funds; how does he justify that?

Hon DAMIEN O'CONNOR: I appreciate that that member has probably not come into this Māori Smokefree Coalition lobbying round—

Rt Hon Winston Peters: I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. What on earth has that opening statement got to do with it? The Minister says that he appreciates that I probably have not been in that round—so he does not actually know. He had a stab in the dark, sort of “I shot an arrow into the air, it fell to earth I knew not where.” That should not be allowed in here.

Mr SPEAKER: Can I just say to the member that is perfectly valid, but it was the Minister’s first comment; I am listening now, and perhaps the Minister could come to the answer.

Hon DAMIEN O'CONNOR: These organisations have been around for a lot longer than this member’s bill. They have been funded by the Government to carry out these key objectives in public health. The member’s bill before the House is a reasonably recent initiative. It is supported by this Government because it will improve the work environment for tens of thousands of New Zealanders, so that they are protected from the dangers incurred through second-hand smoke.

Hon Richard Prebble: I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. I would like to know whether we are going to re-edit Speakers’ rulings. The ruling I quoted to you stated that a Minister cannot answer by giving irrelevant answers. The question Mr Peters asked was a very clear one and, I thought, an extremely important one. Apparently, this contract has a clause in it whereby, for ever more, this organisation can never criticise the Government. The Minister was asked whether the Government is putting out contracts to interest groups, saying to them that here is a bundle of money, and one of the things that they must agree is that from now on they will never criticise the Government. The Minister did not address that question at all, in no shape. Mr Peters might as well not have bothered to ask his question. Everything the Minister told us was completely irrelevant to that point.

Mr SPEAKER: The member has made his point. I am sure he realises that he has made his point. But the Minister did address the question.

Hon Richard Prebble: I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. I am not saying that. What I am saying is that Speakers’ rulings actually say that a Minister is accountable to the House, and for a Minister to respond in an irrelevant manner is to act contrary to the spirit of question time. That was a ruling by Speaker Gray. But I am now saying to you that your rulings are saying that Ministers can get up and give any irrelevant answer, provided they can claim that they are addressing the question. In this case, all that the Minister had to do was mention there is a lobby group.

Mr SPEAKER: The member cannot assume that, and, of course, he is perfectly correct in saying that Ministers cannot do that. I listened very carefully to the answer. I judged that it was addressing the question.

Dr Lynda Scott: Is it appropriate for taxpayer money to be used to lobby for a member’s bill?

Hon DAMIEN O'CONNOR: I consider that it is appropriate for taxpayers’ money to be used to carry out the objectives of the primary health strategy in this country. The Government has laid down some key objectives in its health goals for this country. We must support that through taxpayer funding.

Heather Roy: Has he or any ministry officials received a report on which members of Parliament, ASH, and the Smokefree Coalition have lobbied for the support of the member’s bill, in fulfilment of the Government contracts; if not, why not?

Hon DAMIEN O'CONNOR: No, I have not received a report on that, and I do not expect to receive one. [Interruption]

Mr SPEAKER: Members cannot have it both ways. When a specific question is asked and a specific answer is given, it is an answer to the question.

Rodney Hide: On what date did he learn that the Ministry of Health had paid the Māori Smokefree Coalition to “visit key portfolio MPs and Māori MPs” to lobby them in support of this legislative change, as a performance indicator; and where in his Vote Health has that money come from?

Hon DAMIEN O'CONNOR: I was made aware this morning of the inclusion in the contracts of references to this particular bill. I am aware of a large number of questions that have been asked of the ministry about funding for a wide range of organisations involved in the promotion of public health.

Hon Roger Sowry: Given the Minister’s earlier answer that he does not expect to receive a report on which MPs were lobbied, how will he determine whether the contract that was signed was actually carried out?

Hon DAMIEN O'CONNOR: I expect to get advice and to have assessed the key objectives, which are to strengthen and increase the level of community action on smoke-free issues. Mr Speaker, I am sure, will be aware of the success of that depending on the outcome of the legislation.

Hon Dr Nick Smith: I seek leave of the House to table the statements made by the Prime Minister at the time of the Timberlands incident, saying that it was constitutionally irresponsible for Timberlands to pay a consultant to lobby MPs.

Mr SPEAKER: Leave is sought to table that document. Is there any objection? There is.

Rodney Hide: I seek leave to table the Government contracts with ASH, the Smokefree Coalition, and the other group.

  • Documents, by leave, laid on the Table of the House.