Questionable questions

Published on (Auckland), 9 December 2017

It is the right of the opposition to hold the government to account. That much is out of question.

But opposition MPs flooding the Government with requests for bits and pieces of meaningless information is more questionable. It is the parliamentary equivalent of a brute force attack on a still under-resourced new government.

Every time a Minister is asked about her diary on a specific date, it sets in motion a bureaucratic chain that costs time. That time is no longer available for other things, governing for example.

Looking through the thousands of questions and answers on Parliament’s website, I could not help but wonder if there was a better way of dealing with this issue.

In the age of blockchain and artificial intelligence, it ought to be possible to outsource at least the meaningless questions to a chatbot.

I tried it out myself using actual questions from Hon Paul Goldsmith to the Minister of Education and put them through ELIZA. For the non-geeks among us, ELIZA is the classic 1960s artificial intelligence software developed at MIT. This is the protocol.

Q: What events did the Minister decline on 28 October 2017?
A: Why did you ask?

Q: What events did the Minister decline on 29 October 2017?
A: Have you asked anyone else?

As you can tell, ELIZA got a bit annoyed with Paul Goldsmith. But effectively it gave him the same answer as Education Minister Chris Hipkins did: “In accordance with Speakers’ Ruling 185-6 I consider that the time and hence the expense of answering this question cannot be justified given the nature of the question.”

Which is a polite way of saying “Get lost!”

In an ideal parliamentary world, the Goldsmith-bot and the Hipkins-bot could automatically trade questions, counter-questions and mild annoyances. And Paul and Chris could go about their actual work.

While we are waiting for robo-MPs, we may enjoy Minister Shane Jones’ laconic answer to a detailed question by opposition MP Jami-Lee Ross about his meetings between 21 and 26 November:

“I meet regularly, formally and informally, with officials and various stakeholders. A range of issues are discussed. If the Member would like to be more specific I will endeavour to answer the question.”

And if not, Jones could ask ELIZA to do the job for him.