In theory, question time is one of the cornerstones of a parliamentary democracy, The Dominion Post writes. It gives the Opposition an opportunity to hold Government ministers publicly accountable for their stewardship of their portfolios.
In practice it is a farce. Names are called, tempers fray and points of order are endlessly relitigated.
As we saw today, with stupidity over electing the Deputy Speaker.
The root cause of many of the shenanigans is the standing order that requires ministers to “address” questions, but does not require them to answer them.
Instances happen every day.
Take just one example. In September, ACT leader Rodney Hide attempted to quiz then broadcasting minister Trevor Mallard about a 2004 TVNZ interview in which serious allegations were made about fishing company Simunovich Fisheries. The broadcast could be viewed on a blogger’s website, he informed Parliament. Had Mr Mallard seen the site or received any reports about it?
Mr Mallard responded by referring him to a different site that had nothing to do with the matters raised by Mr Hide, but ridiculed National leader John Key.
Mr Hide complained. Speaker Margaret Wilson ruled in Mr Mallard’s favour. “The member may not be satisfied with the answer and others will judge the quality of it, but it was addressing the question of blogs.”
The blog in question was Whale Oil, incidentally. But it is a good example. Serious criminal allegations involving perjury to a select committee were the topic of the question, and the Minister treated it as a joke and wouldn’t even give a straight answer to whether he had seen the leaked tape.
It would be naive to think that National ministers, who have spent the past nine years suffering at Labour’s hands, were now going to turn the other cheek and answer questions in a straightforward manner. But new Speaker Lockwood Smith will do himself and his National Party a favour if he insists on a greater degree of relevancy in ministerial answers.
A Speaker’s reputation is inextricably linked with that of the Parliament over which he or she presides. A government’s reputation is influenced by the way its members conduct themselves in the debating chamber – the theatre in which their actions receive the greatest scrutiny. That is something Labour forgot at its cost during its last term in office.
Labour’s sense of entitlement was very vivid in their last term.