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16 February 2011
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Questions for Oral Answer — Questions to Ministers, Questions to Members

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Questions to Ministers

State-owned Enterprises—Financial Returns

1. Hon PHIL GOFF (Leader of the Opposition) to the Prime Minister: Does he stand by his statement in respect of the payment of a dividend by a State-owned enterprise that the Government expected to receive a return from them because “if we don’t, how do we pay for our doctors and hospitals and the likes”?

Rt Hon JOHN KEY (Prime Minister) : Yes.

Hon Phil Goff: In taking $700 million in dividends from the three State-owned enterprise power companies last year, how much of that dividend went to pay for social benefits to the communities such as doctors, hospitals, and the likes?

Rt Hon JOHN KEY: Given that the Government collects revenue through a huge number of ways—personal and indirect taxation, other forms of taxation, levies, and charges—it is impossible to know exactly, but it is possible that it was all of it.

Hon Phil Goff: If those power companies, which all of us as Kiwis own right now, are so profitable that the dividends cover not only reinvestment back into generation but also huge social dividends to the community, why does he intend to flog off the shares in those companies so that the profit goes to private interests and to foreign companies instead of back into the community?

Rt Hon JOHN KEY: Because it is the Government’s intention to use the proceeds of those initial public offerings to actually invest in other assets that the Government would have to fund through the Government bond rate, or, potentially, to put into other aspects that are generating income.

Hon Phil Goff: Did Treasury advise his Government that even the partial privatisation of those companies would, within 10 years, result in the cornerstone shareholder being a foreign multinational company?

Rt Hon JOHN KEY: Under the model that has been proposed by the Government, although we are seeking further advice on it, I do not think that that would actually be possible, because 51 percent will be controlled by the Crown, and therefore the cornerstone shareholder will, in fact, be the Crown. There will be other investors, of course, but given that Kiwi mums and dads will be at the front, along with the 1.6 million KiwiSaver accounts, plus the Crown entities that will invest, the largest shareholder will be the Crown.

Hon Phil Goff: Is the Prime Minister saying that Treasury was wrong in saying that a cornerstone shareholder could be a foreign multinational company, notwithstanding that he was holding 51 percent of the shares?

Rt Hon JOHN KEY: Treasury did not say that.

Hon Sir Roger Douglas: Could the Prime Minister explain to the House and to the Hon Phil Goff why 50 percent increases in productivity among reformed State-owned enterprises were more important to New Zealand than dividend considerations, and that dividends naturally flow from an increased level of productivity while prices fall?

Rt Hon JOHN KEY: Because the majority of electricity generation assets in this country are owned by the Government. Therefore, if those businesses are not as efficient or as effective as they can be, then New Zealanders ultimately pay more for those services than they should do. If we look at the Labour Government between 1999 and 2008, we see that not only did it not maximise its returns but prices went up 72 percent under that Government, so we certainly know that that model has not worked so well.

Hon Phil Goff: Contrary to what the Prime Minister has just answered, is it not correct that Treasury told him that there was little evidence that privatisation would lead to improved financial performance from the State-owned enterprises; if so, why risk privatising them when the past experience has been that Air New Zealand was run into bankruptcy and New Zealand Rail was asset-stripped?

Rt Hon JOHN KEY: It is funny that the member should mention those. If it is such a bad model, can he explain, firstly, why he did not buy 100 percent of Air New Zealand when he had the chance, and, secondly, can he explain why, given that we bought KiwiRail, we are now having to put $4 billion into fixing it up?

Parity with Australia—Reduction in Child Poverty

2. METIRIA TUREI (Co-Leader—Green) to the Minister for Social Development and Employment: Does the Government’s commitment to closing the gap with Australia include reducing child poverty?

Hon SIMON POWER (Acting Minister for Social Development and Employment): The Government is certainly committed to lifting—

Hon Darren Hughes: She’s out of the country. There must be an Acting Minister.

Hon SIMON POWER: Actually, that is a good point. I am the Acting Minister. She is out of the country. I say thanks to Mr Hughes. That was his most useful contribution this year. The Government is certainly committed to lifting after-tax wages and employment, which will have a positive impact on rates of poverty. [Interruption]

Mr SPEAKER: I want to hear the question.

Metiria Turei: Is the Minister aware that Australia does more to reduce child poverty than New Zealand does, including having a universal family tax credit, better paid parental leave, and a higher minimum wage?

Hon SIMON POWER: I am not sure that the first part of the member’s statement is correct. The advice I have received is that Australia does not publish income poverty levels, reflecting, as I understand it, a longstanding debate in Australia as to how to measure poverty.

Metiria Turei: Why does the Minister’s Government penalise children whose parents lose their jobs by cutting off their Working for Families support, when in Australia the equivalent family tax credits are available to those families, in or out of work?

Hon SIMON POWER: I would not agree with the first part of that question.

Metiria Turei: Is the Minister bothered at all that the Human Rights Review Tribunal has said that the in-work tax credit is discriminatory, causing significant disadvantage to those children concerned?

Hon SIMON POWER: I am aware of the statement, but I understand that this very matter is currently before the courts. Therefore, under Standing Orders 111 and 371(4), it would be inappropriate for me to comment. I understand that the matter is set down to be heard by the courts in early September.

Metiria Turei: I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. My question asked whether the Minister was bothered. The Minister was not asked to comment on the case, but simply on the facts. Is the Minister bothered about this, or not? [Interruption]

Mr SPEAKER: Both members will desist.

Hon Trevor Mallard: If you insist?

Mr SPEAKER: I said “desist”. The member asked whether the Minister is bothered about an issue like that, and the Minister has responded by saying that the matter is before the court and he does not feel it is appropriate for him, therefore, to comment on it at all. That, then, is the end of the matter, as far as this House is concerned. The Minister must be the sole judge of the public interest in that regard.

Hon Sir Roger Douglas: Could the Minister explain to the House why child poverty is higher in New Zealand, no matter what measure is used, than it is in Singapore, despite the fact that the New Zealand Government spends over 40 percent of GDP, compared with Singapore’s 17 percent?

Hon SIMON POWER: Broadly, I can. The Government believes that the best way out of poverty is paid employment. Presently there are 222,000 New Zealand children who are dependent on beneficiaries, and that is precisely why we set up the Welfare Working Group to look at those very issues.

Metiria Turei: Would the Minister not be embarrassed to be driving around the country in a $200,000 brand-new BMW, when one in five New Zealand children lives in poverty?

Hon SIMON POWER: Well, there are many uncomfortable situations that members of Parliament find themselves in every day, and I have to say that whether I am able to carry out my duties as a Minister in a vehicle purchased by the last Government is not material to how I do my job.

Hon Annette King: Is she prepared to set targets and a timetable for the elimination of child poverty in New Zealand; if not, why not?

Hon SIMON POWER: I am sure the Minister is doing everything she can to ensure that any deadline or any target is met, to ensure we lift as many children out of poverty as possible.

Australia, Economic Relationship—Investment Protocol

3. JOHN HAYES (National—Wairarapa) to the Minister of Finance: What progress has the Government made on strengthening New Zealand’s economic relationship with Australia?

Hon BILL ENGLISH (Minister of Finance) : Today Prime Minister John Key and Australia’s Prime Minister signed the Protocol on Investment to the New Zealand - Australia Closer Economic Relations Trade Agreement. It builds on existing goods and services agreements, and will cut red tape and compliance costs for investors on both sides of the Tasman. It provides additional safeguards for the $36 billion that New Zealanders have invested in Australia, which is the largest overseas destination of New Zealand investment. I would like to take the opportunity to acknowledge the work done by the previous Labour Government in beginning the investment protocol negotiations.

John Hayes: What changes will occur under the investment protocol?

Hon BILL ENGLISH: In the case of New Zealanders investing in Australian business assets, the screening threshold increases from A$231 million to just over A$1 billion. In the case of Australians investing in significant New Zealand business assets, the threshold rises from NZ$100 million to NZ$477 million. The protocol ensures that in most instances New Zealanders will be treated equally with Australians investing in their own country, and gives them more certainty that their investments will be protected and will not be treated unfairly.

Hon David Cunliffe: In respect of the potential for energy assets to be sold to Australia, given the new threshold, does he agree with John Key, who said that options for narrowing the wage gap with Australia are limited, and that “we can sit around all we like if we want and worry about a potential partial float … [but] that is not going to make the New Zealand economy go faster and … we’ll continue to lose New Zealanders and that’s just not sustainable.”; if so, why is he continuing to consider a partial float, if it will not grow our economy or keep New Zealanders here?

Hon BILL ENGLISH: The Government is working on a wide range of fronts to undo the damage done by the previous Government, and to build stronger economic opportunity in New Zealand. We are making significant progress, and the investment protocol signed today is just another small step, along with hundreds of others this country needs to take in order to close the wage gap between New Zealand and Australia.

John Hayes: What changes will occur under the investment protocol?

Hon BILL ENGLISH: The provisions of the protocol preserve our ability to take measures that could affect investors differentially. Those include fulfilment of obligations under the Treaty of Waitangi; protection of human, animal, or plant life or health; and management of a balance of payments crisis. Furthermore, if the Government decides to move to a mixed-ownership model for certain State-owned enterprises, the protocol includes a specific provision that preserves the right of the New Zealand Government to give preference to New Zealanders in respect of State-owned enterprises.

John Hayes: What categories of investment are covered under the investment protocol?

Hon BILL ENGLISH: One important category that is not covered by the protocol is investment in land. Investments in sensitive land will be treated under the Overseas Investment Act in the same way as any other investment, so the thresholds and categories have not changed in respect of land investment. The protocol applies specifically to business investment.

John Hayes: Under the investment protocol, what policy flexibility do we retain?

Hon BILL ENGLISH: New Zealand retains policy flexibility on those matters that we regard as important to our sovereign interests: in particular, the Treaty of Waitangi, dealing with a balance of payments crisis, and also the ability to provide a preference for New Zealanders investing in State-owned enterprises.

Vulnerable Citizens—Number

4. Hon ANNETTE KING (Deputy Leader—Labour) to the Prime Minister: Has the “underclass”, as he called it, increased or decreased since he became Prime Minister?

Rt Hon JOHN KEY (Prime Minister) : The member will be aware that, just as the Government does not collect statistics on hard-working Kiwis or those on “the other side of town”, to whom her party leader refers, neither do we keep a measure of the number of people who could be described as belonging to an “underclass” in New Zealand. However, I can report that this Government has, through a number of policies, tackled the problems that, under Labour, simply removed hope and opportunities from the lives of those people.

Hon Annette King: If this Government has, as the Prime Minister claims, tackled issues the previous Government did not, why are we seeing headlines like “3607 ask for help to live”, with a city missioner saying that a new level of poverty is emerging as incomes stay the same and prices rise? Has she got it wrong, as he has been saying that everybody is better off?

Rt Hon JOHN KEY: It is worth remembering that wages on average have gone up about 16 percent, and prices have gone up 6 percent, which is a net increase of 10 percent. It is worth contrasting that figure with Labour’s really pathetic performance, where over 9 years wages went up in real terms by only 3 percent. It is true, of course, that there is a recession and we have had a Labour Government that cared so little about education standards that it did not mind whether people who left school could read or write properly. Some of those people have not had the skills, and the recession has tossed them out of a job.

Hon Annette King: If he is accurate in his claims, why did the Salvation Army in its state of the nation report—which he uses when it suits him—say that demand for food parcels continues to break records, and that food poverty now being witnessed by the Salvation Army is nearly twice what it was 4 years ago?

Rt Hon JOHN KEY: It is true that the global recession has seen more New Zealanders on a benefit, and that obviously has an impact. But it is also true that anyone on a benefit actually has a lifestyle choice. If one budgets properly, one can pay one’s bills. That is true, because the bulk of New Zealanders on a benefit actually pay for food, rent, and other things. Some make poor choices, and they do not have money left.

Hon Annette King: Can he explain to the House how spending tens of thousands of dollars on a Community Max programme to catch 38 horses for Tame Iti’s dowry, and then letting them go, has helped to reduce the “underclass” in New Zealand?

Rt Hon JOHN KEY: I do not know the details of that Community Max scheme, but I can say that overall the programme has worked: 70 percent of all New Zealanders who went on Community Max are no longer on a benefit. I claim that to be success. When I look at the Labour performance, what has it done when it comes to those people? Nothing, other than carp on about it.

Hon Annette King: Who is the Minister responsible for the implementation of Community Max, and is Simon Power the Acting Minister at present; if so, has he been adequately briefed on the programme before making comments on it?

Rt Hon JOHN KEY: The Minister for Social Development and Employment.

Moana Mackey: What impact does he believe New Zealand’s ever-worsening housing shortage will have on the ability of struggling families to access affordable and appropriate housing, given a national shortage of 70,000 dwellings, predicted further shortages of 25,000 dwellings over the next decade, a growing Housing New Zealand Corporation waiting list of nearly 11,000, an estimated 20,000 Kiwis now classified as homeless, and more than 80 Auckland families moving into overcrowded housing situations every week?

Rt Hon JOHN KEY: Firstly, house prices, if anything, have been either falling or remaining flat, so there is actually no indication of a housing shortage. Secondly, if someone actually wants to buy a house, two things make a fundamental difference to that. The first is after-tax income. This Government has cut taxes, so after-tax income has risen. The second thing is getting inflation under control. This Government has got control of inflation, and therefore interest rates have stayed low. They are all the reasons why New Zealanders can get into a home. The third thing is that this Government has not focused on building new State homes; it has focused on getting more people into those homes. That is why we have implemented a number of policies that have made a difference in that area.

Moana Mackey: Can he confirm that he does not believe New Zealand is facing a housing shortage?

Rt Hon JOHN KEY: I can confirm that house prices have either been falling or going sideways. Generally, in a market where there is increased demand, prices rise.

Hon Trevor Mallard: I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. We have been trying to work with our team on asking straight questions. That question was very straight. It asked for an opinion on whether there had been a housing shortage.

Hon Gerry Brownlee: That’s an opinion. You can’t seek an opinion.

Hon Trevor Mallard: Of course we can seek an opinion—we have been able to for the last 5 years.

Mr SPEAKER: There should not have been an interjection from the Leader of the House on a point of order. I heard what the member said. The point of order raised was not unreasonable. Although the question did not really seek an opinion, it asked the Prime Minister whether he could confirm that there is no housing shortage in New Zealand, to which the Prime Minister said he could confirm something else. That is not really addressing the question. I do not expect the Prime Minister to give any particular answer, but he really should address the question in respect of how the question related or did not relate to a housing shortage. The Prime Minister in answering should give some indication of what he understands in respect of whether or not there is a housing shortage.

Rt Hon JOHN KEY: In some parts of New Zealand there will be housing shortages as the population increases; in others, there will not be. Overall, prices have either been falling or staying the same, which does not indicate a shortage.

Hon Phil Goff: Can the Prime Minister confirm that new housing starts are currently at the lowest rate in 45 years and that consequently the Registered Master Builders Federation is predicting a major housing crisis within the next 18 months?

Rt Hon JOHN KEY: The first point is correct. The low rate indicates that there is not an overwhelming demand for housing at the moment. If there was, there would be a long list of people piling in. It reflects what is actually happening, which is that the Government’s policies are working. We are rebalancing the economy away from being one that is solely driven by housing to being one that has a more diversified investment portfolio.

Auckland, Local Government Reform—Māori Statutory Board

5. RAHUI KATENE (Māori Party—Te Tai Tonga) to the Minister of Local Government: What did he mean when he described the Māori Statutory Board as “inherently divisive” and said it should never have been included in the legislation setting up the Auckland Council?

Hon RODNEY HIDE (Minister of Local Government) : I meant that the Auckland Council reform was designed to ensure that Auckland had a good governance structure and met good governance principles of being democratic, effective, and efficient. When the issue was discussed by Cabinet in 2009 I recommended against having a Māori Statutory Board, as it did not meet those principles. It was my view that the Auckland Council would be in the best place to make decisions on how it engages with Māori and mana whenua and how to involve them in the council’s decision making, as provided for in the Local Government Act and Resource Management Act. Cabinet decided instead to go with the Minister of Māori Affairs’ option of having a statutory board. As I predicted, that option has been divisive, as we have seen with Aucklanders’ reactions over the last week.

Rahui Katene: How is it inherently divisive to have an appointed Māori Statutory Board to deal with the management and stewardship of natural and physical resources?

Hon RODNEY HIDE: It is inherently divisive because we have seen the debate over the budget and the functions that has occurred between the council and the statutory board and the fact that they are seeking a declaration.

Rahui Katene: Does he agree with the purpose of the Māori Statutory Board outlined in the Local Government (Auckland Council) Act that the board must “assist the Auckland Council … by promoting cultural, economic, environmental, and social issues of significance for mana whenua groups; and mataawaka of Tamaki makaurau; and ensuring that the Council acts in accordance with statutory provisions referring to the Treaty of Waitangi.” and, if not, would he not consider it to be inherently divisive to oppose legislation that Parliament has already debated and passed?

Hon RODNEY HIDE: Yes.

Hon Shane Jones: When will the Minister accept accountability for having voted for the legislation, which contains an unworkable model and an obnoxious level of rate rises for Aucklanders for a very narrow group of privileged iwi leaders?

Hon RODNEY HIDE: In fact, the rate rises as provided for by the accounts audited by the Auditor-General show that they were greatly reduced—[Interruption]. Well, no; I am explaining. The rates were going to be over 6 percent and the audited accounts showed that it would be under 4 percent, so they were reduced. Also, there are significant reductions in water charges, averaging over 20 percent across Auckland, and I am happy to take responsibility for those savings.

Phil Twyford: Does he take responsibility for the Local Government (Auckland Council) Amendment Act, which comes under his portfolio, which he introduced to the House, and which he voted for; if not, why not?

Hon Gerry Brownlee: I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. I think it is worth your while considering whether the last two questions have relevance to the question that was asked, which was very specific in asking about the inherently divisive nature of the Māori Statutory Board.

Phil Twyford: Point of order—

Mr SPEAKER: I think I am in a position to deal with the matter. I accept that the previous supplementary question asked was a fair way from the mark, but I believed that it gave the Minister such licence in responding to it that I did not want to deprive the Minister of the opportunity to have some fun in his answer. With regard to this particular supplementary question, what I do not know as Speaker is whether the legislation to which the questioner refers may or may not be the legislation that deals with the issues in this question. Therefore, it seemed to me as Speaker to be appropriate to leave it up to the Minister to deal with the question as asked. If it does not relate to the primary question, the Minister is perfectly capable of responding that way, and it seemed to me to be better to leave it directly for the Minister to deal with when I as Speaker cannot know the facts of the matter.

Hon RODNEY HIDE: Yes, of course. I am happy to point out, because I think that member may have missed it, that I took a paper to Cabinet saying that the statutory board was not something I supported. That was made public in December 2009. I am surprised that Mr Twyford has only just caught up with it.

Student Loans—Prime Minister’s Statement

Hon DARREN HUGHES (Labour) : My question has been transferred to the Minister for Tertiary Education and asks: how will he—

Mr SPEAKER: The Hon Darren Hughes is a former shadow Leader of the House and, as senior Opposition whip, he knows that he cannot do that when asking a question. I am sure he would now desire to ask the question correctly.

6. Hon DARREN HUGHES (Labour) to the Minister for Tertiary Education: How will he “build better value out of the interest-free student loan system” as he stated was his Government’s intention in his statement to Parliament last week?

Hon STEVEN JOYCE (Minister for Tertiary Education) : Could I take the opportunity to welcome the member to his new role, which I understand was an accidental appointment. The Government remains committed to interest-free student loans, but also believes that such a generous loan scheme should carry strong mutual obligations on those who benefit from it. This year—

Hon Darren Hughes: I’ll do you a deal: I’ll do the jokes.

Hon STEVEN JOYCE: He does not want to hear, Mr Speaker.

Mr SPEAKER: I just cannot hear the answer.

Hon STEVEN JOYCE: I do not think that member wants to hear it either, because he is the accidental—

Mr SPEAKER: I invite the Minister to please start his answer again, without the prelude to the answer, because I did not hear the detail of it.

Hon STEVEN JOYCE: Mr Speaker—

Hon Shane Jones: That’s what he was like when he was on talkback radio.

Hon STEVEN JOYCE: I ask Shane whether he is ready.

Mr SPEAKER: Order!

Hon STEVEN JOYCE: The Government remains committed to interest-free student loans, but it also believes that such a generous loan scheme should carry strong mutual obligations on those who benefit from it. This year the Government has introduced rules on requiring reasonable academic progress, a commitment from new residents to the country before they can access the scheme, a maximum number of years one can access the loans, and actions to chase down debts owed by borrowers who are overseas. We will be evaluating further options along these lines as part of a value-for-money drive, which has so far seen the savings contribute to an additional 8,200 university places this year since 2008.

Hon Darren Hughes: Was John Key right to describe interest-free student loans as “fiscal insanity” and to say that “National would oppose such a policy with every bone in our bodies”?

Hon STEVEN JOYCE: It is well known that the student loan scheme is very generous, and I think that was what the Prime Minister was referring to. In fact, the student support scheme in this country is possibly the most generous in the world. Therefore, it is appropriate that it carries reasonable obligations. Under the previous Government, we were writing off something like 49c in every dollar of student loans. We have so far managed to get that under 45c in the dollar, and we are working to get it down further, as well.

Hon Darren Hughes: What is the Government’s view of the recommendation of the Savings Working Group that the Government reintroduce interest on student loans; and can he rule out his Government introducing interest on student loans in the unfortunate event that National is given a second term?

Hon STEVEN JOYCE: The member’s listening skills need improvement, because in answer to the primary question, I said that we remain committed to interest-free student loans. I have also said so in response to media questions, and the Prime Minister has also been reported as saying that, as well. Perhaps we could have a little more research from the new spokesman on tertiary education.

Hon Darren Hughes: How can New Zealanders trust a promise from National not to reintroduce interest on student loans, given that it is the same party that said it would not increase the rate of GST?

Hon STEVEN JOYCE: I think we can see from opinion polls in this country that this Government is actually trusted by New Zealanders. They understand that we are doing a good job of managing the economy and managing areas such as tertiary education. They continue to give the Government their support and we continue to see that support.

Youth Guarantee—Student Results

7. LOUISE UPSTON (National—Taupō) to the Minister of Education: What reports has she received about the initial success of the Youth Guarantee for 16 and 17-year-olds?

Hon ANNE TOLLEY (Minister of Education) : I have received a number of reports about the success of the Government’s Youth Guarantee. I recently received information from the Eastern Institute of Technology, which stated: “Student success last year was strong, which was very encouraging. Preliminary work on academic outcomes indicates that Youth Guarantee students did as well as, or even slightly better than, the wider student body. This is a great result, given that many of them could be classified as at risk of not achieving academically.” This Government is committed to addressing the chronic gap between those succeeding and those being failed in our education system, and this is proof that it is working.

Louise Upston: Has she received any reports about how popular the Youth Guarantee courses at the Eastern Institute of Technology are proving to be?

Hon ANNE TOLLEY: Yes. I have been told that in 2011 demand is even greater, with huge support coming from local schools, families, and students. The Youth Guarantee courses at the Eastern Institute of Technology have proved so popular that they have now reached maximum capacity, despite this Government funding even more places for them. The institute is now having to wait-list many of its Youth Guarantee applicants.

Louise Upston: Has she had any feedback from any other Youth Guarantee providers?

Hon ANNE TOLLEY: Yes. I visited NorthTec at the end of last year—it has successfully embraced the Youth Guarantee programme—and in talking to the students I found that they were very motivated. Many of them had been at risk of dropping out, or had already dropped out, of the education system, and they are now considering taking up apprenticeships or further study in courses like tourism, hospitality, fabrication, and welding. This Government is absolutely committed to supporting those young people who are at risk of dropping out of the system, and that is why we are funding nearly 4,000 places this year under the wider Youth Guarantee.

Early Childhood Education Fees—Minister’s Statement

8. SUE MORONEY (Labour) to the Minister of Education: Why did he tell 3 News on 31 January 2011 that prices to attend early childhood education centres would not go up?

Hon ANNE TOLLEY (Minister of Education) : I understand this is referring to the Prime Minister, and the Prime Minister was referring to the fact that early childhood centres have received a 2.4 percent cost adjustment, have high staff turnover, and have had 8 months to adjust their businesses for the funding changes. So there is no reason for early childhood centres to put their prices up. The Prime Minister also went on to say that “a lot of the sector is totally unaffected”. This Government is spending more on early childhood education than any other Government, and we have reprioritised funding to target those children who need it most, rather than just doing what the unions want.

Mr SPEAKER: Before I call Sue Moroney for a supplementary question, I warn her colleague the Hon Trevor Mallard that a further interjection like the one he made, which I heard so clearly, will have him leave the Chamber. He will not make that kind of interjection.

Sue Moroney: Has he been informed by the Minister about Victoria Childcare—

Mr SPEAKER: The member knows that the question has been transferred to the Minister of Education, and that is perfectly proper where there is no particular reason for the question to be answered by any particular Minister. So it has been transferred to the Minister of Education, and the member should word her question—her supplementary question, at least—recognising that fact so that it does make some sense; otherwise the question risks making no sense. If the Minister simply says that the question makes no sense, I have no choice but to rule it out of order. I invite the member to word it in a way that makes sense.

Sue Moroney: Has the Minister informed the Prime Minister about the Victoria Childcare and Education Centre in her own electorate of Gisborne, where fees went up by $14 per child per week in October 2010; the Central Otago Kindergarten Association, which had to increase fees by $18 a week for 3-year-olds; the Newlands Childcare centre in Wellington, where fees have increased by $25 per week; or any of the many other centres where fees have had to increase because of her funding cuts?

Hon ANNE TOLLEY: I have repeatedly said in this House and outside that this Government is spending more money on early childhood education than ever before—$1.4 billion. We are spending that this year on early childhood. I have also stated that these are individual businesses, and like many of the businesses throughout New Zealand they make their own decisions. But the Prime Minister and I are disappointed if centres have taken the option to raise fees for parents.

Sue Moroney: Why did the Prime Minister say that fees were not going up?

Hon ANNE TOLLEY: The Prime Minister did not say that.

Hon Members: He did.

Hon ANNE TOLLEY: He did not say that. He said they did not have to go up, because we had given centres 8 months’ notice and a 2.4 percent cost adjustment, and there was already high staff turnover. So there was no reason for those centres to put their prices up.

Sue Moroney: Why did her Government choose to spend $5.9 billion on tax cuts for the 10 percent of wealthiest people in New Zealand in Budget 2010 instead of keeping $400 million of funding in place for early childhood education to stop these fee increases from happening?

Hon ANNE TOLLEY: It is very easy for that member to forget what her Government did with early childhood education, which was to increase spending three times without any commensurate increase in the number of children starting school who had received early childhood education. That is not acceptable to this Government when in some areas one child in five is unable to attend early childhood education services. So we have reprioritised funds to make sure we address those issues whereby children are unable to attend early childhood education.

Allan Peachey: What reports has the Minister seen with commentary on early childhood education funding changes?

Hon ANNE TOLLEY: I will read out an email, and I want to make sure the House understands that this is not my language; this is the language in an email. I have seen an email to the member who asked the questions previously, Sue Moroney, from an early childhood education manager. It says “Dear Sue, I am afraid you write a lot of c-r-a-p. It does you and your party no credit. Labour brought in the so-called 20 free hours, but ignored industry advice as to how much money was needed, and gave too little to cover costs. In the meantime misleading public scaremongering, such as you are doing, is driving families away from childcare.” That member who asked the previous questions needs to think about those children who are missing out on early childhood education, rather than about how much money is going into the pockets of their New Zealand Educational Institute mates.

Allan Peachey: Has the Minister seen any reports from early childhood education centres to parents regarding funding?

Hon ANNE TOLLEY: Yes; I have seen a recent note to parents from Crackerjacks Preschool in the Waikato. It says: “There has been a lot of negative reporting about the funding changes for ECE centres. As stated last year our fees will not be increasing in the foreseeable future, and we will not be cutting our services or reducing the quality of our care. Our two centres have actually benefited from the funding changes. Over the whole of New Zealand this has been a good move, and one that will lead to increased quality and funding for a larger number of centres. The loudest complaints are coming from centres that have accessed huge amounts of money for several years, and have become accustomed to spending that amount.”

Hon Darren Hughes: I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. I ask for your guidance about whether correspondence to a Minister forms part of the official papers that the Minister is now quoting in the House; if so, we would request that she table those two documents, because on the first one she did not identify the source it had come from. She just asserted that these things had been said. Presumably, as they have been received, they are part of her official documents, and we would like those to be tabled.

Mr SPEAKER: That is an interesting point of order. The issue raised is whether correspondence received by a Minister is an official document.

Hon Clayton Cosgrove: I would like you to deal with Standing Order 367: “Documents quoted by Minister”, which states: “Whenever a Minister quotes from a document relating to public affairs a member may, on a point of order, require the Minister to table the document.” I would argue that this is an email relating to public affairs in respect of her portfolio. She directly quoted from it; therefore she should table it.

Hon Simon Power: In my short time in this House, my experience of the use of this Standing Order relates to official advice that has been provided by officials, or, indeed, to a document that could be sourced to an official source, but not to correspondence to a Minister.

Mr SPEAKER: I will hear the Hon Trevor Mallard. I must confess that I am uncertain, because the Standing Order being quoted, of course, does not make the particular point that the Hon Simon Power referred to, yet I am familiar with the accepted practice.

Hon Trevor Mallard: I must say I am uncertain as well, because I think this is the first time I can remember that the Standing Order has been tested in this way. I would like to draw your attention to the Official Information Act in trying to decide what is official. There is no doubt in my mind that that document is one that could be sought and obtained under the Official Information Act. The Minister has released on many occasions—and no doubt you did too, when you were a Minister—correspondence under that Act. If we are trying to work out what is official, that detail could be a factor. I will say—and I do not know whether my colleagues will thank me very much—I am not absolutely certain that the Standing Order was meant to be used to capture this sort of document. Then again, I think if the Minister has done the proper thing and checked with the sender of the email that it could be used in the House—which, of course, we all would do—at that point, in my view, it then becomes official, if she has checked that information properly; therefore it should be tabled.

Hon Simon Power: The point the Hon Trevor Mallard makes is an interesting one. The difficulty with taking that point to its logical extreme is that any note that a Minister has that they may be reading from in question time—which, as the former Minister knows, can be requested under the Official Information Act—would fall into that category. That would mean that question time could easily descend into a farce, if all notes that were available to Ministers fell into that category.

Mr SPEAKER: I think I have enough information now to rule on the matter. It was an interesting point of order raised, and I appreciate the members’ contribution to it. Perhaps I should have been a little more familiar with some of the previous Speakers’ rulings on the matter. What was said about the traditional practice is, I think, supported by other Speakers’ rulings. If members look at Speakers’ rulings 136/2 and 136/3, they cover what has been considered in this House to be an official document, which does not include letters to Ministers. Specifically, Speaker’s ruling 137/1 begins: “A letter written to a member by someone outside the House …” and states that that letter is not an official document. But I also come back to ruling 136/2, which states that: “An official document is a document connected with the government of the country or a document which has passed between officers of the Government and Ministers or between one officer and another.” Clearly, such an email as the one in question does not meet that standard. I think it is an interesting issue that has been raised, but I would not depart from those Speakers’ rulings without some consultation with members with regard to the wisdom of widening the current practice. I think I therefore should rule that the Minister is not obliged to table those emails under the current Speakers’ rulings. But I fully accept that it was an interesting point of order raised.

Hon Trevor Mallard: I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. I want to say thank you. I think your ruling is right; it would be a bit dangerous.

Crime, Organised—Police Operations Targeting Drugs

9. SHANE ARDERN (National—Taranaki - King Country) to the Minister of Police: What actions have been taken by the police as a result of the Government’s focus on tackling organised crime and the drugs trade?

Hon JUDITH COLLINS (Minister of Police) : This Government has introduced a raft of new policies aimed at tackling organised crime. As a result, the police are cracking down on criminal activity, particularly by gangs. In their latest operation the police dismantled a large-scale methamphetamine supply chain. So far, 31 people have been arrested, and 32 vehicles, over $140,000 in cash, firearms, computers, drugs, and drug precursors have been seized. I would like to congratulate each and every one of the hundreds of officers who took part in this highly successful operation. Those are exactly the results this Government is looking for.

Shane Ardern: What other reports has she received on the efforts of law enforcement authorities to target organised crime?

Hon JUDITH COLLINS: I am very pleased to report that in 2010 the police and the Customs Service seized 30.4 kilograms of methamphetamine. This is an impressive increase of 46 percent from 2009. The methamphetamine was estimated to have a street value of about $30 million, and would have caused an immeasurable amount of misery in our communities. In addition, the latest figures from the police show that $36.9 million worth of criminal assets have been restrained under the new forfeiture law passed in this Parliament. This Government has given our law enforcement agencies the tools to do their job, and they are delivering.

Ministers—Confidence

10. PHIL TWYFORD (Labour) to the Prime Minister: Does he have confidence in all his Ministers?

Rt Hon JOHN KEY (Prime Minister) : Yes.

Hon Shane Jones: When the Hon Pita Sharples called on the Minister of Local Government to resign if he could not accept the decision to set up the Auckland Council’s Māori Statutory Board, was he correctly reflecting the requirement of paragraph 5.26 of the Cabinet Manual, which reads: “Any public disassociation from Cabinet decisions by individual Ministers outside the agreed processes is unacceptable.”?

Rt Hon JOHN KEY: No. We have made it clear to Mr Sharples’ office that when he makes comments of those regards, he should not be doing them as the Minister of Māori Affairs. That is exactly the point he was making, but he incorrectly put it on his ministerial letterhead.

Phil Twyford: Did the Hon Rodney Hide satisfactorily apply paragraph 5.30 of the Cabinet Manual, which states: “Once a decision is reached by Cabinet, … [Ministers’] statements should reflect the fact that a collective government decision has been made,” when he said that the Auckland Council’s Māori Statutory Board should never have been included in the legislation and that he always assumed National would stick to its principle of one law for all, and in the event it decided to go against his advice?

Rt Hon JOHN KEY: Yes, because he made those comments in this position as leader of the ACT Party.

Hon Shane Jones: Does the Prime Minister share the view of the Minister of Local Government of no confidence and great doubt, and does he, along with his Minister, seek to dismiss the Māori Statutory Board?

Rt Hon JOHN KEY: Could you repeat the first bit of the question?

Mr SPEAKER: I ask the Hon Shanes Jones to please repeat the question.

Hon Shane Jones: Does he share the view of his Minister of Local Government of no confidence and concern about costs, and does he seek to have the Māori Statutory Board dismissed?

Rt Hon JOHN KEY: No, but I do have some concerns about the proposed $3.4 million, given that the Auckland Transition Agency made it clear that it expected the costs to be in the order of $400,000. To me, $3.4 million seems excessive, and I think that is why the Auckland Council has moved to reduce that number to $1.9 million. I share its view that that number, in terms of funding costs for the statutory board, should be lower.

Phil Twyford: Does he hold the Hon Rodney Hide responsible for Part 7 of the Local Government (Auckland Council) Amendment Act?

Hon Simon Power: Parliament passed it.

Rt Hon JOHN KEY: Yes, Parliament is responsible. Mr Hide is responsible as the Minister of Local Government, and when he is acting in the capacity as Minister of Local Government I believe he has upheld his obligations.

Phil Twyford: I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. This question tries to go to the heart of what question time is for. It asked whether the Minister is held responsible for the content and the effect of legislation that is passed in his name. That is the intent of this question. The Prime Minister has not addressed it.

Mr SPEAKER: The member should know that this House really is responsible for legislation it passes. I think the Prime Minister gave a pretty serious answer. I do not think he tried to play around with the member’s question at all; he certainly did not try to attack the member. I think the Prime Minister actually could have played a lot looser and faster with such a question had he chosen to, but he chose to try to treat it with respect. I think that was a reasonable answer.

Phil Twyford: I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. The issue at hand is that the Minister of Local Government has refused to take responsibility for the content of this legislation—

Mr SPEAKER: That is not a point of order; the member is now seeking to debate an issue. He asked a question, and I believe the Prime Minister treated the question fairly seriously. The Prime Minister could have treated the question fairly flippantly had he chosen, given the nature of the question. He chose to treat it fairly seriously, and I think that is not unreasonable. But now for the member to try to debate the matter by way of a point of order as to what the Hon Rodney Hide may or may not be responsible for is not the purpose of a point of order. If the member has further supplementary questions, he is welcome to ask them.

Hon David Parker: I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. Why would the Prime Minister be entitled to answer flippantly a question about the responsibility of one of his Ministers? That is what the Speaker just said.

Mr SPEAKER: The simple fact is that legislation is passed by this House, so the nature of the legislation is a matter for this House. Of course the administration of the Act is something that the Minister is responsible for, but not the Act itself. This Parliament is responsible for legislation, and the Prime Minister could have given a newish member of the House a bit of a lecture on responsibility for legislation. He chose not to. He chose to try to give a reasonable answer to the question. The questioner asked something to do with a matter that this Parliament is responsible for, not the Minister, and that is the end of it. I cannot help with that. The member could have worded his question differently had he wished to pursue the matter, but this House is ultimately responsible for bills that it passes to become Acts. Ministers are responsible for their administration.

Hon Trevor Mallard: I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. I agree with both of the last points you made. The House is ultimately responsible for bills as they are passed, and Ministers are responsible for their administration. But Ministers also, as part of that process, have a responsibility for recommending to Parliament amendments and Supplementary Order Papers. The Minister sat in the chair for a very long time, and I think you, Mr Speaker, are drawing a relatively long bow to say that Ministers do not have responsibility for their actions as leading legislators on particular bills. I am of the view that a Minister is responsible for the Supplementary Order Papers that he moved for the bill, as Rodney Hide did. The fact that Parliament—in the end by a majority, a relatively small majority—agreed to that does not absolve him from the responsibility that he took in moving those Supplementary Order Papers, which now have proven to be slightly disastrous.

Hon Simon Power: It is an interesting point, except for the fact that if, for example, an amendment was tabled during the Committee stage in another member’s name and passed, the Minister would still have responsibility for the bill—but the House determined what was to be in that bill before it proceeded to the next stage. So, in the end, it is the House that ultimately retains responsibility for the content of the bill. Once it leaves the House, or is signed by the Governor-General—whatever the correct terminology is—the Minister is dead right, as I respectfully suggest so are you, Mr Speaker, in the sense that the operation of that legislation is then directly a matter for the Minister concerned.

Methamphetamine—Border Seizures

11. MELISSA LEE (National) to the Minister of Customs: What recent reports has he received regarding interceptions of methamphetamine or P at the border?

Hon MAURICE WILLIAMSON (Minister of Customs) : Great intelligence work by customs officers has resulted in the interception of a woman internally concealing 40 pellets of crystal meth, or P, inside her body. The P weighed 570 grams in total. Skilled customs officers targeted the woman, a South African national, as a potential drug smuggler when she arrived at Auckland Airport just over a week ago. The woman had travelled from Durban via Dubai. The P she was hiding internally was worth somewhere between $300,000 and $600,000.

Melissa Lee: What other success has the New Zealand Customs Service had in the fight against drug smuggling at our borders?

Hon MAURICE WILLIAMSON: Since September last year the Customs Service has caught seven drug mules, or swallowers, carrying internally drugs including cocaine, methamphetamine, or opium. Our customs officers are skilled and vigilant, and I send a very strong message—[Interruption] The Labour Party does not seem to think this is important, but it is. Our officers are skilled and vigilant, and they will persist in stopping these peddlers of evil from bringing drugs into our society. Just last year alone, the Customs Service intercepted 18,553 grams of methamphetamine at our border—an outstanding result.

Working for Families—Equal Treatment of Vulnerable Children

12. CATHERINE DELAHUNTY (Green) to the Minister for Social Development and Employment: Does Working for Families treat vulnerable children equally, regardless of the source of their parents’ income?

Hon SIMON POWER (Acting Minister for Social Development and Employment): I understand that this is the very matter that is before the courts presently. This is the nub of the issue that is before the courts. Therefore, as I said earlier in response to Metiria Turei’s supplementary question to question No. 2, under Standing Orders 111 and 371(4) I believe that it would be inappropriate for me to comment at this stage.

Metiria Turei: I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. The question did not concern the in-work tax credit—which is the matter, I understand, that the Minister considers to be before the courts and therefore cannot be commented on—but was specifically about Working for Families. It was not about the in-work tax credit.

Mr SPEAKER: Whether it is in the public interest to answer a question is a matter for the Minister to decide, not the Speaker. The Minister’s judgment is that this question links sufficiently closely to a matter that is before the court that he has decided it is not in the public interest for him to answer it in the way it was asked. Only the Minister can make that judgment, not the Speaker.

Catherine Delahunty: Does she agree that every child deserves the best possible start in life; if so, why does she persist with a policy that makes it harder for the children of beneficiaries to have this start than other children?

Hon SIMON POWER: The answer to the first part of that question is yes.

Catherine Delahunty: Will she consider adopting the Australian approach and make family tax credits available to families whether or not the parents are in paid work, so that children are not penalised if their parents lose their work?

Hon SIMON POWER: I am sorry but I am in a bit of a bind, because that question does go very close to the issue that is currently before the courts, and I would be reluctant to fuel that discussion for counsel on either side by making a comment in that regard.

Questions to Members

Financial Markets (Regulators and KiwiSaver) Bill—Submissions Received

1. CLARE CURRAN (Labour—Dunedin South) to the Chairperson of the Commerce Committee: How many submissions were received on the Financial Markets (Regulators and KiwiSaver) Bill?

Hon LIANNE DALZIEL (Chairperson of the Commerce Committee) : I am advised that 35 submissions were received.

Clare Curran: How many submissions were heard and when were the hearings held?

Hon LIANNE DALZIEL: Eighteen submissions were heard, and the hearings of evidence were heard first on 25 November, second on 1 December, and third on 9 December 2010. We still expect the reporting date to be 28 February.

Environmental Protection Authority Bill—Submissions Received

2. BRENDON BURNS (Labour—Christchurch Central) to the Chairperson of the Local Government and Environment Committee: How many submissions were received on the Environmental Protection Authority Bill?

CHRIS AUCHINVOLE (Chairperson of the Local Government and Environment Committee) : We received 38.

Smoke-free Environments (Controls and Enforcement) Amendment Bill—Submissions Received

3. IAIN LEES-GALLOWAY (Labour—Palmerston North) to the Chairperson of the Health Committee: How many submissions were received on the Smoke-free Environments (Controls and Enforcement) Amendment Bill?

Dr PAUL HUTCHISON (Chairperson of the Health Committee) : The Health Committee has received 149 submissions on the Smoke-free Environments (Controls and Enforcement) Amendment Bill.

Iain Lees-Galloway: Can the chairperson advise the House whether he is satisfied that the committee has sufficient time to hear and consider—

Mr SPEAKER: It is a matter for the committee as to whether it is satisfied it has time. That is not a matter for the chairperson to be questioned on in the House.

Biosecurity Law Reform Bill—Submissions Received

4. Hon DAMIEN O’CONNOR (Labour) to the Chairperson of the Primary Production Committee: How many submissions were received on the Biosecurity Law Reform Bill?

SHANE ARDERN (Chairperson of the Primary Production Committee) : Thirty-nine submissions from organisations and individuals have been received by the committee on the bill.

Hon Damien O’Connor: Is he satisfied that the committee has sufficient time—

Mr SPEAKER: No, we are not going to have chairs being asked that. It is a matter for the committee itself.

Employment Relations (Secret Ballot for Strikes) Amendment Bill—Status

5. DARIEN FENTON (Labour) to the Member in charge of the Employment Relations (Secret Ballot for Strikes) Amendment Bill: What is the current status of the Employment Relations (Secret Ballot for Strikes) Amendment Bill?

Hon TAU HENARE (Member in charge of the Employment Relations (Secret Ballot for Strikes) Amendment Bill) : The bill is awaiting the Committee of the whole House stage.

Darien Fenton: Will he support an amendment to his bill at the Committee stage that requires shareholders to hold a secret ballot before a lockout—an equivalent requirement to the one his bill places on unions?

Hon TAU HENARE: No.

Employment Relations (Secret Ballot for Strikes) Amendment Bill—Purpose

6. DARIEN FENTON (Labour) to the Member in charge of the Employment Relations (Secret Ballot for Strikes) Amendment Bill: What is the purpose of the Employment Relations (Secret Ballot for Strikes) Amendment Bill?

Hon TAU HENARE (Member in charge of the Employment Relations (Secret Ballot for Strikes) Amendment Bill) : Democracy.

Darien Fenton: Why does this bill place restrictions on the practices of unions but no equivalent restrictions on the activity of employers?

Hon TAU HENARE: That member can bring forward a member’s bill about that issue any time she wants to.

Hon Trevor Mallard: I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. I think I indicated to you that answering “democracy” to the primary question in a fairly random manner was a proper answer, but that one—

Mr SPEAKER: I hear the member. I thought the member’s first answer was fine. He was asked what the purpose of the bill was and he claimed, as the member in charge of the bill, that democracy was the purpose. However, I invite Darien Fenton to repeat her supplementary question because I think the answer should attempt to address it rather more than his previous answer did.

Darien Fenton: Why does his bill place restrictions on the practices of trade unions but place no equivalent restrictions on the activity of employers?

Hon TAU HENARE: Because the bill is about only unions and secret ballots for union members.

Employment Relations (Secret Ballot for Strikes) Amendment Bill—Proposed Changes

7. DARIEN FENTON (Labour) to the Member in charge of the Employment Relations (Secret Ballot for Strikes) Amendment Bill: Does he intend proposing any changes to the Employment Relations (Secret Ballot for Strikes) Amendment Bill during the Committee of the whole House stage?

Hon TAU HENARE (Member in charge of the Employment Relations (Secret Ballot for Strikes) Amendment Bill) : Yes.

Darien Fenton: Will he support an amendment to his bill at the Committee stage that would insert the requirement for a secret ballot for strikes to be included within a union’s own rules rather than being prescribed by legislation—an amendment that would grant unions the freedom to run their organisations according to the rules democratically agreed to by their members?

Hon TAU HENARE: No. I will introduce Supplementary Order Paper 195 in my name, which will be available to members and the public via the parliamentary website. The Supplementary Order Paper makes amendments to ensure that the rules of a society seeking registration as a union contain a provision about the process for holding secret ballots. It also contains some transitional provisions in relation to this.

Question Nos 8, 9, and 10 to Member

  • Questions postponed.