When outraged observers talk about the behaviour of our politicians being worse than children, they have almost always just watched Question Time. This is a vociferous and often fractious one-hour ritual played out on most House sitting days mainly for the benefit of the near-catatonic Press Gallery hovering above.
Having closely observed more Question Times than may be healthy, I’m still a little old-fashioned in the sense that I believe it is a critical part of a robust Parliamentary democracy. Ministers are held to account and forced to justify their decisions under pressure. For Opposition members, it can be a chance to raise issues and increase their profile.
Certainly, Question Time can be pedantic and petty, it can be nasty and noisy. Listeners may struggle to hear what a Minister is saying over an orchestrated barrage of interjections but that is the rough and tumble nature of politics sometimes.
During the nine-year term of the last Government there were two decisions by the Speaker which resulted in significant changes to how Question Time operated. One was a significant improvement, the other, in my opinion, contributed to a drop in respect for Parliament as a whole.
The positive change which I will cover in this post was a seemingly minor ruling by Speaker Hunt that the National Opposition (as it was at the time) had a set number of supplementary questions.
Both primary and supplementary questions are allocated proportionally and minor parties, depending on their size, may get only one or two questions (or even none) on any given day. Largely by tradition at the time, National had two supplementaries for each of their primary questions and one supplementary on every other question on the order paper. This meant that National was expected to ask a supplementary even on the most mundane Government patsy question – and they duly did.
This system operated unchallenged for a number of years. One day, in the middle of a heated series of questions late in Question Time, Speaker Hunt refused to allow Nick Smith (from memory) to ask his second supplementary question which, up until that point, would have been standard procedure. When pressed on his ruling, Speaker Hunt said effectively that National had used up their allocation of questions for the day based on their (low) number of seats in Parliament at that time. It was pointed out to him quite strongly that the tradition was well established but the Speaker said he was bound only by Standing Orders.
At the time, very little was made of this ruling which appeared to be largely motivated by a desire to shut down a long-forgotten line of questioning on an issue which does not stick in my political memory. It did however dramatically (if unintentionally) change the dynamic of Question Time.
National was no longer obligated to ask supplementary questions on patsy questions or questions from other parties they had no interest in. They were also no longer limited to two supplementaries on their own questions. Instead, they could choose to almost “dog-pile” three, four, five, six questions onto what they thought was the biggest issue of the day.
It is fair to say that Labour ministers initially on the wrong end of the dog-pile were not overly enamoured with the new system. The Opposition could keep asking questions on the issues of their choosing rather than having to think up and ask a worthwhile supplementary on the latest developments in Patagonian Toothfish quota management.
While perhaps an unintended consequence of the original ruling, this change meant Question Time became more dynamic, more tactical and more focussed on the issues of the day.
In a future post, I will examine a later Speaker’s ruling which had quite the opposite effect.