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Auckland District Health Board—Te Whetu Tawera Acute Mental Health Unit

Tuesday 4 October 2011 (advance copy) Hansard source (external site)

Robertson9. GRANT ROBERTSON (Labour—Wellington Central) Link to this
to the Associate Minister of Health

Does he stand by all the answers he gave on behalf of the Minister of Health to Oral Question No 8 last Tuesday?

ColemanHon Dr JONATHAN COLEMAN (Associate Minister of Health) Link to this

Yes.

RobertsonGrant Robertson Link to this

Did he or his office receive an email last Monday from Auckland woman Jo Heighton that said that she and her husband had “nearly been killed” after an attack by a patient who had been released from the Auckland District Health Board acute mental health unit; an attack that left her husband with two skull fractures and 65 stitches, and had traumatised her family?

ColemanHon Dr JONATHAN COLEMAN Link to this

I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. I refer you to Standing Order 111. This is a matter that is currently before the courts. I know you have discretion as to whether that question can be asked, but I cannot answer relating to that matter for the very reason that it is not in the public interest and it may prejudice the case.

SmithMr SPEAKER Link to this

It is perfectly within the Minister’s rights to make that decision. He does not need my approval if the matter is, in the Minister’s view, not in the public interest to be answered because it is before the courts. That is perfectly reasonable.

MallardHon Trevor Mallard Link to this

I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. I know that there is an absolute discretion here, but it is certainly not under Standing Order 111. The question was nothing to do with any matter before the court; it was: did he receive an email? Whether a Minister received an email cannot possibly affect a judicial decision.

SmithMr SPEAKER Link to this

It is up to the Minister to decide whether answering that question may compromise it. Whether it is believed that bringing the Minister into the issue could compromise the case, it is not for me to determine. Obviously, other members and the public will judge the Minister’s judgment in terms of whether it is not in the public interest to reply, but the Minister has indicated that in his view it is not in the public interest to reply to that question, and I must respect that.

MallardHon Trevor Mallard Link to this

I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. I am now at somewhat of a loss, because I think there has been an understanding reached between National and Labour with regard to changes to the Standing Orders, some of which go very close to this particular question and certainly go to a question of trust. I do not think anyone believes that a judicial decision could be changed by that. For a Minister to claim that it could be is something that could well upset the acceptance by this party—

MallardHon Trevor Mallard Link to this

—of a unanimous report—

MallardHon Trevor Mallard Link to this

—of the Standing Orders—

SmithMr SPEAKER Link to this

The member will resume his seat. Members do not get into threats like that when a Minister—it is not becoming. The Minister, in his view, believes that the circumstances are such that it is not in the public interest to answer the question. Others will judge that. Further supplementary questions can be tested. We will just have to see whether the Minister considers any of them to be in the public interest to answer. But, at the end of the day, the people heard the question and they heard the point of order the member made. They will judge the Minister’s judgment on whether he should be answering the question in the public interest.

RobertsonGrant Robertson Link to this

Can he confirm the report in the Herald on Sunday this past Sunday that Jo Heighton sent an email to his office last Monday saying that she and her husband had “nearly been killed” after an attack by a patient who had been released from the Auckland District Health Board acute mental health unit; an attack that left her husband with two skull fractures, 65 stitches, and had traumatised her family?

ColemanHon Dr JONATHAN COLEMAN Link to this

As I said in my answer to the first supplementary question, I am not going to comment on this case because it is before the courts.

MallardHon Trevor Mallard Link to this

Did his office receive an email as described in the last supplementary question?

ColemanHon Dr JONATHAN COLEMAN Link to this

See answers to supplementary questions Nos 1 and 2.

RobertsonGrant Robertson Link to this

In light of the email that Jo Heighton told the Herald on Sunday she sent the Minister last Monday, why did he say in the House last Tuesday that there had been “a marked improvement in the … way that patients are managed.” at the Auckland District Health Board acute mental health unit, an answer that Jo Heighton said sounded like the Minister was wiping his hands clean of dealing with problems at the unit?

BrownleeHon Gerry Brownlee Link to this

I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. I think that question falls well short of Standing Order 371(1)(b). [ Interruption]

SmithMr SPEAKER Link to this

Some senior members may be leaving this Chamber unless they start behaving. A point of order was raised by the Hon Gerry Brownlee, who is one of their senior colleagues. I am taking it seriously, and other members of the House would be wise to do so as well. The member has referred to Standing Order 371(1)(b). The issue in Standing Order 371(1)(b) is that questions should not contain “arguments, inferences, imputations, epithets, ironical expressions or expressions of opinion,”. The questioner cited a newspaper story in respect of a supposed email being sent to the Minister’s office, and asked the Minister why the Minister told the House that he believed things were improved—or whatever—in this mental health unit. I do not see how that question is ruled out by Standing Order 371(1)(b), because the questioner has not inserted any of his own opinion; he has just cited a newspaper story. That is how I heard the question. If I am wrong, I am happy to be corrected. I think the questioner, Grant Robertson, is entitled to ask that question.

BrownleeHon Gerry Brownlee Link to this

I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. My point is that the question was couched in the words “In light of”. That immediately leads to the statement in the newspaper being a fact that the member is now expressing as part of his opinion in asking that question. I think when you consider the whole context of the nature of the questioning and the response from the Minister to three previous supplementary questions, then it can be construed only as just another way of trying to get at exactly the same stuff. I think that you would have to say that it does contain an expression of opinion, because the member is asserting that what was in the newspaper article was, in fact, the case, when there has been no confirmation of that in the House today.

ParkerHon David Parker Link to this

It is quite in order for Mr Robertson to put that question. It is also quite in order for the Minister, if he denies it, to say it is wrong. I put it that the question is quite proper, as you have already ruled.

SmithMr SPEAKER Link to this

The point raised by the Hon Gerry Brownlee is a relevant issue. With supplementary questions we do need to be careful. I tend to allow them because Ministers are free to refute expressions of opinion or statements of supposed fact that are inserted into questions. I do not rule them out, even though some of them may be out of order. In this particular case, though, the member is allegedly quoting a newspaper, and newspaper stories can be used to validate even primary questions. I obviously cannot ascertain whether the newspaper does contain this claim, but I basically have to take the member at his word that there is a newspaper story that makes this claim. It is up to the Minister. If the Minister considers it not in the public interest to answer the question, the Minister is perfectly at liberty to say that. The public interest can be judged only by the Minister, not by the Speaker. Reference to the particulars of a case is certainly not in order. General principles involved have traditionally been able to be discussed in this House without being a breach of our normal consideration of matters before the court. So I invite Grant Robertson to repeat his question, and the Minister knows it is his judgment as to whether it is in the public interest to answer it.

RobertsonGrant Robertson Link to this

In light of Auckland woman Jo Heighton saying in the Herald on Sunday last Sunday that she sent an email to Mr Coleman’s office, why did he say in the House last Tuesday that there had been a marked improvement in the way patients are being managed at the unit, an answer that Jo Heighton said sounded like the Minister was wiping his hands clean of dealing with problems at the unit?

ColemanHon Dr JONATHAN COLEMAN Link to this

I said that in the House last week because it is backed up by an independent report, and I am quite happy to table that report in the House today for that gentleman’s edification. I seek leave to table that report.

SmithMr SPEAKER Link to this

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

RobertsonGrant Robertson Link to this

I know that you do not approve of the seeking of leave to table newspaper articles, but I think that in the circumstances—

SmithMr SPEAKER Link to this

No, no—the member is quite correct. We do not table articles from recent newspapers. The member will note that I accepted his question as being in order on the basis of what was in the newspaper. I think he has had the Speaker reasonably supportive of the question he was asking.