Peter Gibbons begins to wonder if he thinks too much about Question Time

August 16th, 2009 at 10:51 am by Peter Gibbons

As correctly predicted by several people who commented on my last post, the decision I believe which led to a degradation of and a decline in respect for the institution of was Speaker Wilson’s ruling that Ministers only had to ‘address’ a question rather than ‘answer’ it.

Let me start by making one thing perfectly clear.  There never was a golden age of Question Times where the opposition asked respectful, factual and logical questions and Ministers gave full, honest and truthful replies.  Muldoon basically resented any questioning while for Lange it was more a chance to show off his wit than answer the question. 

Crucially, it has never been a requirement that a Minister totally answer the question as it is put to them.  Questioners could not even insist on a yes or no answer even if, logically, it had to be one or the other.  Nuance, omission and obfuscation have long been common elements of the Question Time game. 

That said, Speaker Wilson’s ruling that Minister’s only had to address a question and, more importantly, that virtually any mention of the topic – no matter how tangential – counted as addressing it was a significant shift.  Ministers could repeatedly avoid any questions they wished. 

This was politically useful at a tactical level but it reduced accountability and produced unease in traditionalists on all sides of the House.  There was a marked increase in disorder at Question Time which in turn did nothing to improve the public’s already largely negative view of politicians.

The new Speaker, Lockwood Smith, has taken a radically different course.  He requires National Ministers to answer the question.  In doing so, he clearly risks alienating himself from National Cabinet members who had endured years of having Labour Ministers dodge their questions only to have the same tactic denied to them. For once, the political rule of “what goes around comes around” is not in effect.  This new approach is, however, the correct course of action and one which is needed to lift the reputation of Parliament as a whole.

There is no real doubt that Lockwood Smith would have undoubtedly preferred a Ministerial role.  He was an experienced Minister and enjoyed the cut and thrust of the Chamber.  He was an effective, if under-utilised, Parliamentary debater.  Having been given the role of Speaker he has thrown himself into it and transformed Question Time. 

It is now free-flowing, robust and, certainly compared to previous sessions, informative.  The new Speaker clearly knows Standing Orders and Speaker’s Rulings but most of his rulings appear guided mainly by common sense, some humour and a sense of fair play.  He will admit to mistakes and even openly makes calls to ‘even up the balance’ in the Chamber.  Adhering strictly to Standing Orders would result in constant stoppages as Members frequently break the rules through ignorance or, more often, by design.  Smith’s pragmatic approach looks to strike a balance and, in general, he is succeeding. 

The real test will be whether his approach alters when the Government is placed under genuine, concerted political pressure.  As a traditionalist, I certainly hope not.

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13 Responses to “Peter Gibbons begins to wonder if he thinks too much about Question Time”

  1. Grant Michael McKenna (1,158 comments) says:

    I would expect us to be talking of Sir Lockwood pretty soon.

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  2. Michael E (274 comments) says:

    Believe it or not, Lockwood spent most of the weekend at the National Party conference getting thanked by Nats who applauded his ruling that an answer to the question as asked has to be given!

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  3. philu (13,393 comments) says:

    the answer is ‘yes’..

    phil(whoar.co.nz)

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  4. Glutaemus Maximus (2,207 comments) says:

    The answer Philu is that your brain is fried!

    Going to the Park again this year?

    Or will you have a virtual visit on Google Maps?

    What does Crack do to your head anyway?

    And cannabis? Makes you a tad paranoid? Everyone here hates you!

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  5. Minnie (98 comments) says:

    You are correct again, but the thing that has struck me is that Question Time is now completed in no more than an hour. Previously, the NZ First leader got away with murder. Speaker Wilson indulged him with unlimited trifling points of order that often turned out to be non-points of order. The Labour members loved it, as these were usually directed against the then Opposition. There was obvious frustration at this as well as the “address the question” rulings, so Question time dragged on and on. Cullen was usually very accurate with his points, but neither Mallard nor Hughes – they seem to be in competition – are in the same league.

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  6. lofty (1,305 comments) says:

    @GM…speak for yourself GM, I for one do not “hate” philu…I do however tend to ignore him.
    Hate is a powerful word old son.

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  7. Graeme Edgeler (3,279 comments) says:

    Speaker Wilson’s ruling that Minister’s only had to address a question and, more importantly, that virtually any mention of the topic – no matter how tangential – counted as addressing it was a significant shift.

    You’re right on the second part, but wrong on the first. What constituted “addressing the question” may have expanded, but that all that a minister needed to do was “address” the question has been the standard for some time – certainly throughout Hunt’s tenure (when I started paying attention), but I believe before then as well.

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  8. gravedodger (1,541 comments) says:

    As a sometime watcher of question time in the nz house of reps the speaker is often the most entertaining item. In rugby a ref can totally spoil the entertainment but in the house wondering what the next stage in the elevation of pressure Harridan wilson could bring to the game was at times so funny. Her sometimes pathetic efforts to politically control events according to the riding instructions or employing her natural bias to protect the home team bordered on preposterous. Lockwood is the complete opposite, he can be almost infuriating in his efforts at fairness which some of the socialists see as weakness when in fact he shows them to have feet of clay and they are so slow to adapt to the new ref.

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  9. trout (932 comments) says:

    My concern is That Lockwood Smith is beginning to enjoy the sound of his own voice, and is allowing himself to be manipulated by Ginga and Mallard into tortuous discussions on the intricacies of parliamentary order. The recent interminable discourse on whether or not a member could table a letter she had written to the Speaker was a good example. Lockwood Smith fluffed up the request for leave to be given and then got easily sidtracked into whether the actual tabling was a good idea. Leave was not given, and would never be given, so the debate over the merit of the case was superfluous but wasted a hell of a lot of time. He is also treading in a dangerous area of opining on the content of questions. I hope he is not going to emulate top rugby referees by being far too noticeable.

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  10. paradigm (507 comments) says:

    Another little thing smith has done is required a document to be tabled if someone asks to table it. Quite good as it avoids some of the grand standing and requests to table ficticious documents (which smith later slapped labour down for trying :))

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  11. chrishipkins (10 comments) says:

    Graeme is quite right, the principle that Ministers need only address a question has been around a long time. In particular, Speaker’s Ruling 162/6 states “The Speaker cannot force a Minister to give an answer to a question and has no responsibility for the quality of the answer that is given nor its content”. That ruling dates back to 1979, when National was in government. Another ruling dating back to the 1960s suggests Ministers don’t even have to rise to their feet to answer a question if they don’t want to.

    Jonathan Hunt ruled in 2002 “The House and public opinion arbitrate on the quality of an answer to a question. It is not the Speaker’s role”. Another ruling by Hunt in 2001 states “The Standing Orders require a Minister’s reply to address the question. But an adequate answer might not result. The Speaker could not judge that”. He goes on to make some very derogatory comments about quiz masters, kind of ironic in the current context.

    Speaker Gray ruled in 1992 “The Speaker has no jurisdiction to determine whether the answer to a question is correct”. And this is a really important point, while I generally think Lockwood Smith is doing a good job, and he has certainly raised the bar at question time, he will get himself into great difficulty if he tries to be arbiter of whether or not an answer is correct. No speaker can be expected to be a fountain of all knowledge.

    On the whole, I agree that Lockwood Smith is doing pretty well so far. While some of his commentary on both questions and answers can irk members on both sides, I think he dishes it out pretty evenly. For those interested in the House, I would recommend a read of the Speaker’s Rulings, which are available on the parliament website. I find them good reading when I’m down in the House during some of the less interesting debates…

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  12. philu (13,393 comments) says:

    “..I would recommend a read of the Speaker’s Rulings, which are available on the parliament website. I find them good reading when I’m down in the House during some of the less interesting debates…..”

    good grief..!

    phil(whoar.co.nz)

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  13. Jeff83 (771 comments) says:

    Agreed he is doing a good job. Wilson was the worst thing to happen to the role of speaker, she was incompetant in its role.

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