As correctly predicted by several people who commented on my last post, the decision I believe which led to a degradation of Question Time and a decline in respect for the institution of Parliament 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.