Jacqui Van Der Kaay: The privilege of power

Jacqui Van Der Kaay: The privilege of power

Yesterday’s hour-long inquiry by Parliament’s Privileges Committee into whether Education Minister Jan Tinetti misled the House or not must have felt a lot longer than that for her.

Tinetti was called before the committee by Parliament’s speaker for telling the House that she didn’t have a role in releasing the Ministry of Education’s school truancy data, when she actually did.

It has been around 15 years since Parliament’s Privileges Committee was last convened. The committee, sometimes described as Parliament’s court, is chaired by Labour Minister David Parker, and is made up of some of Parliament’s most senior MPs.

At times, the inquiry focused on who said what to whom and when, as MPs questioned Tinetti over what she said, if she meant what she said, what she knew when, what her staff knew, who the data belonged to, whose decision it was to release it and how its release fitted in with pre Budget announcements.

National MP Gerry Brownlee was incredulous that Tinetti didn’t know that her staff were in touch with the Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) over the timing of the release of the data which had been delayed due, in part to its quality, but also to Cyclone Gabrielle.

“How can you be functioning as a Minister if you didn’t know about the budget announcement,” he asked.

During the inquiry, Tinetti stated that her focus was on the data itself not the release date or the mechanics of the House. Her claim that her focus was on the data and how it was something that “we need people to get engaged with” appeared incongruous with her insistence that she wasn’t aware of how it was going to be released.

She said that, despite her clear expectations, her staff had over-stepped and she was “really disappointed” it had happened. She acknowledged, however, that the responsibility clearly rested with her.

Before the hearing began, Tinetti asked the committee if she could make a statement. She said that her failure to correct the record was an error of judgment that she deeply regretted, and she did not intend to mislead the House. She said that “upholding the integrity of Parliament was of utmost importance to her”.

The main reason she gave for not correcting the error was that the time frame between returning from the question time in the House and her next meeting was “very, very short”. And that she did not give enough consideration to the answers she had given. She said she made a snap decision.

She also told the committee that her staff were not “definitive” in their advice about whether she needed to correct the error or not, so she chose to stand by her answer.  “I made the decision and I take full responsibility,” she said.

Despite signing out some Official Information Act requests on the topic, which she admitted caused her to pause, Tinetti maintained her position. She had planned to talk to her staff about the issue on the same day she received a letter from the Speaker asking her to correct the record. She told the committee she deeply regretted not taking the time sooner to look at Hansard, watch the video of question time, or go through the emails.

Tinetti told the committee that since the incident she, and her staff, now took more time ensuring questions were correct and if not, corrected them as soon as practically possible.

The committee will now decide if the delay in correcting the statement amounts to contempt. If it decides it does, Parliament will determine the Minister’s punishment.

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins must be hoping that their decision doesn’t come out at the same time as the results of the inquiry by the Cabinet secretary into communications between former Cabinet minister Stuart Nash and his donors, or the result of the inquiry by the registrar of pecuniary interests Sir Maarten Wevers into suspended Transport Minister Michael Wood’s failure to declare his ownership of shares in Auckland Airport. He’ll surely also be hoping that there are no other integrity issues to come out of the woodwork between now and the election.


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.