Jacqui Van Der Kaay: Why Parliament’s rules matter

Jacqui Van Der Kaay: Why Parliament’s rules matter

It could be easy to shrug away Education Minister Jan Tinetti’s referral to the Privileges Committee as just another example of a Minister not following the rules of Parliament. But its significance should be recognised in the fact it is only the second time since 2008 that a Member of Parliament has been referred to the committee.

The cause of the referral is the Minister’s actions but at the heart of it is upholding the integrity of New Zealand’s Parliament.

Tinetti’s referral to the committee by Speaker Adrian Rurawhe arose from not correctly answering a parliamentary question in February when she was asked about her role in the release of school attendance data. She incorrectly answered that it was the Ministry of Education’s role to release the information. Her office notified her of the mistake, but as required by Parliament’s rules, she failed to correct the record as quickly as possible.

She only corrected the record after the Speaker wrote to her explaining that she needed to do so. Rurawhe said in a statement: “It is an important principle that the House can trust the accuracy of ministerial replies to Parliamentary questions”. This really is the nub of the issue.

New Zealand Parliament’s website states that “Parliamentary privileges, powers, and immunities exist to ensure the Parliament is independent of the Crown and the courts, to help it to carry out of its functions effectively and to protect all participants in parliamentary proceedings”.

This Thursday, Tinetti will be questioned by the committee for an hour so it can determine if her delay in correcting the statement is a breach of privilege or is contempt of parliament. If the committee finds she did mislead the House, Parliament will determine the punishment. In 2008 NZ First Leader Winston Peters, following a referral to the privileges committee, was censured by Parliament for not disclosing a large donation to the party.

Minister Tinetti arguably holds one of the most powerful positions in New Zealand. She is part of Cabinet a group of 20 Ministers who run the Government. She is also the third Minister in Chris Hipkins’ Cabinet who seems to lack understanding of the rules. The first was former Minister Stuart Nash who was sacked for emailing details of confidential Cabinet discussions to his donors, the second was Justice Minister Kiri Allan who criticised the government-funded Radio New Zealand for not supporting Māori staff at her partner Mani Dunlop’s farewell from the broadcaster. All three Ministers are experienced and the excuse of not knowing the rules lacks credibility. The mistakes are making the Government look sloppy.

The Government also shouldn’t underestimate the potential impact issues such as these have on citizens’ views of it, Members of Parliament as a group and the institution in which they work. Research in the United Kingdom shows that such behaviour does little to enhance politicians’ reputations in the eyes of the public. Importantly, how politicians conduct themselves matters. It impacts on citizens’ attitudes towards and engagement with public institutions and politics.

The public expects politicians to act with integrity and when they don’t, it undermines people’s trust in government and confidence in the wider political system.  The research found that politicians themselves are more tolerant of mistakes and poor behaviour than citizens are. The public thinks that politicians have less integrity than the politicians think they have themselves.

This doesn’t bode well for Minister Tinetti who, it was revealed this week, was given a formal warning by police for apparently breaching the electoral advertising rules during last year’s Tauranga byelection.

On the last day of voting, she posted on Facebook reminding people to vote. Campaigning on polling day is not allowed under electoral law. The post was only online for a short time.

The privileges committee hearing is being held this Thursday at 12.30pm and is open to the public.


Jacqui Van Der Kaay is a PhD student at Victoria University of Wellington. She is a former journalist, holds a Masters degree in Political Science from Victoria University of Wellington and has a specialist interest in political leadership, voter behaviour, immigration and how social media affects democracy.