Peter Gibbons reflects on Question Time

August 14th, 2009 at 9:49 am by Peter Gibbons

When outraged observers talk about the behaviour of our politicians being worse than children, they have almost always just watched .  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 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.

Tags: , ,

19 Responses to “Peter Gibbons reflects on Question Time”

  1. Minnie (96 comments) says:

    I think you are right. It’s also interesting to compare the style of question with the Federal Parliament in Australia, in which questions tend to become speeches. Speaker Hunt got to the stage of insisting every question started with a question word. And I’ll bet you next discuss Speaker Wilson’s ruling that Ministers only need to”address” the question, not actually give a coherent answer.

    Vote: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0 You need to be logged in to vote
  2. TripeWryter (715 comments) says:

    I enjoy Question Time. I love the gamesmanship, the ‘patsy questions’, the skewering and squirming, and the verbal delicacy and felicity (in other words, how to tell a lie but not appear to).

    How else would we see how effective and what a jewel we have in Lockwood Smith as Speaker. What a contrast to the awful nanny Margaret Wilson!

    Lockwood looks as if he is enjoying himself. He is absolutely fair, and the Labour Party (ie, Mallard and Hughes, and occasionally Clayton Cosgrove) really should get it into their thick, once-clothcapped skulls. And there must be some in the Cabinet ranks who wish that he’d never been appointed Speaker because he makes them answer questions properly.

    Vote: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0 You need to be logged in to vote
  3. CraigM (694 comments) says:

    Yep, I think part two will be interesting ….

    You are correct in that QT is the only exposure most people get to Parliament and certainly where the MSM get their soundbites from.

    I actually believe that seeing Labour Ministers et al refusing to answer questions and behaving with such extreme arrogance had a major impact on the electorate. In almost daily 10 second doses we saw the PM, Cullen and others acting like arrogant wankers. Even die hard labour supporters must have been put off.

    Vote: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0 You need to be logged in to vote
  4. F E Smith (3,302 comments) says:

    Good post and a great warning about the law of of unintended consequences. In criminal law we have our own version: asking one question too many. It is a warning about asking questions (or making decisions) without properly thinking through the potential effects, something that Speaker Hunt could perhaps have regarded as sage advice after the fact.

    And why do I suspect that the bad ruling will come from Margaret Wilson…

    Vote: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0 You need to be logged in to vote
  5. labrator (1,797 comments) says:

    Great post, very interesting, thanks.

    Vote: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0 You need to be logged in to vote
  6. trout (912 comments) says:

    Question time is good theatre. Obfuscation, posing, and points scoring – all good stuff. Ministers are exposed and vulnerable – with cabinet meetings not being open it is the only occasion where Ministers are not able to engineer a safe environment in which to hide their incompetence. Note that Field was exposed under questions from Lockwood Smith – he was otherwise being protected by the then Government. To those who are impatient with the hurly burly of Parliament just see it as a relief valve for political dissent – a hell of a lot better than shooting in the streets.

    Vote: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0 You need to be logged in to vote
  7. Jadis (147 comments) says:

    Great post, Peter. It’s good to see someone writing with a real understanding of question time and the rulings (and the consequences)

    Vote: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0 You need to be logged in to vote
  8. Redbaiter (13,197 comments) says:

    “It’s also interesting to compare the style of question with the Federal Parliament in Australia, in which questions tend to become speeches.”

    I prefer it actually. Much more information is exchanged. Wider philosophical and ideological points are discussed.

    Vote: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0 You need to be logged in to vote
  9. peterwn (3,189 comments) says:

    There has been a bit of the fuss because DHB’s have been asked to inform the Health Ministry of Official Information requests. I suspect the reason for this is to minimise the chance of the Health Minister being caught flat footed in a situation such as -”Does the Minister have confidence in how the Upper Matukituki District Health Board is handling its elective surgery” and then a supplementary “Why then is it that they remove twice as meny apprendices per 1000 population as other Boards”

    IMO the Ministries should not be expected to waste their time researching out possible supplementaries. The Minister shouls ever so politely tell the questioner where to stick it and invite the questioner to re-submit with a more specific query.

    Vote: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0 You need to be logged in to vote
  10. freethinker (683 comments) says:

    F E Smith (312) Vote: 4 0 Says:
    August 14th, 2009 at 11:10 am

    Good post and a great warning about the law of of unintended consequences. In criminal law we have our own version: asking one question too many. It is a warning about asking questions (or making decisions) without properly thinking through the potential effects, something that Speaker Hunt could perhaps have regarded as sage advice after the fact.

    And why do I suspect that the bad ruling will come from Margaret Wilson…

    Answer – because that was the only type of ruling she gave – why do you you think Helen kicked her upstairs – because every ministerial position she held turned to custard – I am being polite becuase its friday!!

    Vote: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0 You need to be logged in to vote
  11. Jman (84 comments) says:

    Interesting post Peter. I’m looking forward to reading the next bit.

    Vote: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0 You need to be logged in to vote
  12. getstaffed (9,189 comments) says:

    Good post Peter – Thanks.

    Now I have a question…. and will be looking to see if you answer it, or simply address it in your next post :)

    Vote: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0 You need to be logged in to vote
  13. Neil (568 comments) says:

    I am in Australia at present and have been catching up with their question time.
    The Australian House of Reps has a single question and answer. Not good- Kevin Rudd spends at least six minutes giving a huge dollop of information. NZ Question time encourages brevity, with Speaker Smith reminding ministers of answers that are too long. Often the House of Reps in Australia questions should lead to supplementaries but these are not allowed. The Senate uses the NZ system of a question a reply and then additional questions.
    Yesterday I saw Sen Penny Wong,Climate change minister, fend off probing questions from Coalition and Green senators. Far more transparent and seeking out information.
    I think our system is excellent where weak ministers can be sunk and policy explored.
    A comment made in The Australian recently said “The government if it is control of the house and doing well ” will be ahead in the country.
    It is perfectly obvious that Labor is way out ahead in Australia, however there are odours of corruption coming out in NSW and Queensland. Kevin Rudd is riding for a fall, his arrogance is obvious . He is like Helen Clark seizing responsibilities of ministers. Wayne Swan,Treasurer, has been sidelined by Rudd’s efforts.

    Vote: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0 You need to be logged in to vote
  14. gravedodger (1,526 comments) says:

    one of the many sad actions of the last government was the complete politicisation of the office of speaker. For centuries the westminster system used the office of speaker to uphold the democratic system of government whereas the feral socialists under clark sought to use it to manage the aims and embarrasments of their government and it is quite pathetic and comical to watch mallard and co failing to understand a speaker who is being extremely evenhanded. How many times will Lockwood have to educate the dopey socialists as to how to ask their questions.
    I am not certain if it is still the case but I think the UK speaker holds onto office when a government changes.
    Some years ago and I don’t remember what triggered it but the idea was floated in NZ to select the speaker from the judiciary and wouldn’t that have caused angst in the clark govt untill the situation could be remedied by a contrived resignation or untimely demise.

    Vote: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0 You need to be logged in to vote
  15. Offshore_Kiwi (557 comments) says:

    Neil, it appears at the moment that KRudd is made of teflon. He and Swan have mortgaged the next 5 generations of Australians to give hand-outs (or “stimulus” if you prefer). He markets himself as a fiscal conservative, but really he’s robbed future Australians to pay for the comfort of current ones. The corruption in NSW and QLD is not touching him, and the fact that the Coalition (a) is still smarting from the spanking they got last year, (b) can’t unite over pretty much anything, (c) is still being damaged by the fallout from the Godwin Gretch invented email and (d) is being undermined at every turn by Captain Smirk the former Treasurer, is all helping to hide KRudd’s incompetence. Which in turn is making it easier for him to hide Swan’s incompetence and Gillard’s latent (or not so latent) communist tendencies. The sooner the Libs get rid of Costello and unite behind a leader the sooner they will realise their enemy does not reside in their own party room. Personally, I think Joe Hockey will be the man to unite the party, but not until after the next election (which, if KRudd uses the failure of the Emissions Trading legislation as a dissolution trigger, may be sooner rather than later). IMHO.

    Vote: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0 You need to be logged in to vote
  16. oxymoron (34 comments) says:

    I recall that Lockwood Smith did take a stand against orchestrated barracking. I think it was Paula Bennett being asked a supplementary by Ruth Dyson. The supplementary was asked, and then the Labour members engaged in constant barracking of the reply. Ruth Dyson then raised the point of order saying the question wasn’t addressed. Lockwood Smith said something like, I couldn’t hear the answer so too bad. If you really wanted to have the question addressed your colleagues would have listened to the answer instead of shouting over her. I wish that ruling was made more often.

    Vote: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0 You need to be logged in to vote
  17. PaulL (5,960 comments) says:

    Offshore_Kiwi – I think it is a bit sad that Turnbull isn’t working out. I thought he had potential, but nobody seems to like him much. So be it. Hockey I have very little time for – I doubt he’ll unite the party, and I don’t see him as particularly electable as PM. Then again, I didn’t think KRudd was electable either…. I’m not sure who else though, to some extent the Libs have the same problem Labour have back here. I guess a natural result of a long-serving government followed by a pretty good cleanout.

    Vote: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0 You need to be logged in to vote
  18. Offshore_Kiwi (557 comments) says:

    PaulL, you’re probably quite right about Hockey, but the talent pool is pretty shallow. There aren’t too many other options if they choose to roll Turnbull. And you’re right, the Libs do have Labour’s problem – too long under a megalomaniacal dictator (and a nasty smirking offsider). It will be a shame if they roll Turnbull because he is definitely the best option. He’s just shot himself in the foot a couple of times through naivety and KRudd & co are blowing it up as large as possible.

    Vote: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0 You need to be logged in to vote
  19. G_Unit (2 comments) says:

    I don’t know what yall all on about, but let me say this….
    The currents speaker keeps that house locked down!
    You can tell he’s not the kind of playar you can “step to”, but at the same time he’s got much love for his peeps.
    peow-peow

    Vote: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0 You need to be logged in to vote

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.