Improving question time

October 13th, 2015 at 2:00 pm by David Farrar

The Spin Off has asked 19 people their thoughts on improving question time.

Most are a bit predictable, while some are laughable such as Andrew Little trying to compete with Jeremy Corbyn and have NZers ask questions via a video link! Little also demands that Government MPs can not ask primary questions, so it will be interesting to see if he promotes that change if he is ever in Government.

Many complained about the stupid “Do you stand by all your statements” questions.

I thought the most interesting came from former Clerk Mark Harris:

What could be improved? Speakers are always concerned about the quality of answers. But the question is important to getting an answer. Too often questions ask for opinion: Does the Minister agree …? Does the Minister stand by his statement …? More often that not an opinion by way of an answer will not satisfy the questioner, but there is little the Speaker can do to assist. An opinion was asked for and one was given! Question Time is most effective when the questions are short and seek information and the questioner listens to the reply and asks probing supplementary questions based on the reply.

Frequently supplementary questions miss opportunities because they are now almost always scripted in advance by researchers. They are often too long. They ask numerous questions and introduce political statements, which allow Ministers to comment on them and in so doing get off the hook. As Speakers have said many times, straight questions should get an answer and the Speaker will assist. While the Speaker cannot force a particular answer, the Speaker does have the ability to express disquiet about a reply, allow the question to be repeated and to allow a member additional supplementary questions where a Minister is being particularly evasive. While an informative answer may not always result, it certainly puts the acid on Ministers and demonstrates their relative ability.

Opposition MPs should reflect on this advice from the former Clerk.

We have a system of representative democracy, which provides for our elected representatives to hold the government to account on behalf of their constituencies. This is their role on behalf of the people. To do it well they need to learn to be effective in Question Time.

There are very few opposition MPs who are effective at question time.

An interesting suggestion from David Seymour:

For every two supplementary questions asked by a questioner, the Minister should be given one supplementary back to the questioner. It would raise the standard of questions because questioners would only ask questions they thought they could answer themselves. Ministers with their own formalised opportunity to counter attack might be more willing to answer questions rather than use their answers as an opportunity to attack the questioner.

Worth considering.

Judith Collins notes how unsuccessful the recent attempt to gang up on the PM was:

So, it depends what we mean by better. If you support the Government and you like watching the Prime Minister entertainingly bat the Opposition for six every Tuesday and Wednesday, then I’d suggest that all Opposition questions should be addressed to the PM and should all have a Primary question of “Does the Prime Minister stand by all his statements?” This will then elicit a slap around that leaves the poor questioner asking themselves, “Whose stupid tactic was this?”

But by the time the rest of Parliament has stopped rolling on the floor laughing, it’s time for a supplementary question on any topic that relates to the humiliating first question. Sadly, for the questioner, the PM has all the leverage in the world to shrug off this more detailed question, because the inept questioner lacked the fortitude to ask a straight up, forthright question in the first place.

If, however, you actually think that Question Time is about the Opposition holding the Government to account by asking serious questions about things that matter, then the inane question of the moment of “Does the Prime Minister / Minister stand by all their statements” should be banned. As soon as a Minister sees that question, it signals that the questioner isn’t that confident of their position.

The marvellous thing about me giving this opinion is that the Opposition will read my suggestion, and do the opposite.

Probably yes.

Key v Cunliffe Day 1

September 18th, 2013 at 3:00 pm by David Farrar

Tracy Watkins writes:

If the deputy leadership was a lost opportunity for symbolism, Cunliffe’s first head-to-head battle with Prime Minister John Key was another. In a sign of how heavily caucus headaches had been weighing on his mind, Cunliffe’s usual polish deserted him and he muffed his questions to Key not just once but twice.

That won’t upset his supporters too much; even on a bad day Cunliffe’s sure-footedness in the job is a marked contrast to his predecessor David Shearer.

And Jane Clifton:

Brain experts are always telling us that the subconscious is never off- duty, and it was pretty clear yesterday that David Cunliffe’s deeper mind hijacked his mouth during his first clash with the Prime Minister as Labour leader in Parliament yesterday.

He’s had an intense few weeks of campaigning for the new job most caucus colleagues didn’t want him to have, and 48 hours of demoting some of them, and sacking their staff. So when the time came to demand answers from John Key about the Government’s protection of tech company Chorus, out came the word “caucus” instead. Quite the Freudian slip.

He kept his composure during the resulting laughter, but when he repeated his question, about a phone call from the chairman of Chorus, out came “caucus” again – followed by another volley of hilarity.

It was repeating the mistake that really led to the hilarity.

“Why don’t we try that one more time?” he said wryly to Speaker David Carter, before finally managing to say “Chorus” – which drew him a chorus of mock approval from the Government benches. And possibly a caucus of mock approval from his own benches.


John Armstrong writes:

The bout everyone had been waiting for began just before 2pm with a lengthy handshake, the Prime Minister making a rare crossing of Parliament’s chamber to the Opposition benches to congratulate David Cunliffe on his new job before returning to the Government trenches with every intention of demolishing yet another Labour leader.

It ended at 2.16pm with the new Leader of the Opposition resuming his seat, perhaps a little bruised, but otherwise intact, having failed to do likewise to Key. …

As a former Communications minister, Cunliffe well understands the issues. He certainly floated like a butterfly, at times diverging from his set list of questions if warranted.

But the fuss over the Government’s stance on a Commerce Commission ruling is complicated. Cunliffe’s eight questions to Key failed to build a convincing case of “crony capitalism” on the part of National and Chorus.

Key had come well-briefed, the mass of blue stickies splicing his papers being the clue. Cunliffe thus stung like a butterfly.

The only harm was self-inflicted. At one point, Cunliffe referred to the chairman of Chorus as the “chairman of caucus”. When the laughter died down, he inexplicably did exactly the same thing again. When he finally got it right a third time, National MPs burst into ironic cheers and applause.

And Fran O’Sullivan:

David Cunliffe leveraged the “axe the copper tax” campaign in Parliament yesterday to signal he intends to keep waging war against John Key’s Government over claims it is indulging in “crony capitalism”. Cunliffe’s question was direct: “Does he still think that Chorus will go broke if his Government does not intervene to change the pricing for access to the old copper-based broadband network as proposed by the Commerce Commission; if so, why?”

It was a marked change from the fatuous and deeply repetitive questions that Cunliffe’s predecessor David Shearer used to lob in each week asking Key if he “stood by all his statements”.

It was a welcome change from that silly question.

Cunliffe has strong support from the unions who played a huge role in catapulting him into the top job.

It’s inevitable that business lobbies will be seeking an assurance that a future Labour Government will not be purely a creature of the union lobby, that it will be pragmatic and not doctrinaire.

He didn’t get 70% of their vote for nothing!

And finally Audrey Young:

Prime Minister John Key walked across Parliament’s debating chamber and shook David Cunliffe’s hand to congratulate him on his election as Labour leader before the battle commenced. …

Mr Cunliffe twice questioned Mr Key about getting a phone call from the chair of Chorus, but opened himself up to a right hook from Mr Key.

Perhaps with the memory of his first caucus meeting today fresh in his mind, he twice referred to Mr Key getting a call from the “chair of caucus”.

On the third attempt, he got it right to mocking applause from the Government benches.

“One thing is true,” said Mr Key, “I do get a phone call from my caucus, but they all voted for me….

I can only imagine what the phone call from Trevor is like in San Francisco at the moment.

I suspect Trevor will get a round of applause when he returns to the House.

Is Political Idol over?

August 28th, 2013 at 10:54 am by David Farrar

It seems question time may have been too much for the Labour leadership contenders yesterday. In a very rare move, no Labour MP is asking a question to the Prime Minister today, even though it will be his last question time for three weeks (as overseas next week).

Maybe a National MP could seek leave of the House for all the three contenders to get a free question to the PM on any topic they choose?

A PM’s question time

September 13th, 2012 at 9:00 am by David Farrar

Stuff reports:

Speaker Lockwood Smith has suggested politicians get together and discuss the idea of having a “prime minister’s question time”. Labour MPs were up in arms yesterday after one of their questions to Prime Minister John Key was transferred to Education Minister Hekia Parata during question time.

Dr Smith said MPs could consider the British example, which is a half-hour question time for the prime minister once a week, at noon.

I think this is a good idea. The UK version is a great exercise in accountability. They key difference with normal question time, is the primary questions are not submitted in advance and the supplementary questions can be basically on anything.

While obviously it has benefits for the Opposition, I think it also benefits the PM. It is a great test of their ability to be over all the major issues and think on their feet. I actually think the current PM would handle such a question time very well.

If there is a change of Government after the next election, it would also be a formidable test for David Shearer!

Armstrong on Key

May 11th, 2011 at 3:00 pm by David Farrar

John Armstrong writes in the NZ Herald:

Labour was truly firing in Parliament yesterday – with the accuracy of an antique blunderbuss.

The major Opposition party is aiming all its barrels in John Key’s direction in the hope something hits. But the target has suffered only the occasional flesh wound and otherwise seems to be functioning normally.

Labour’s current parliamentary tactic is to turn ministers’ question-time into New Zealand’s equivalent of Prime Minister’s question-time in the British House of Commons.

The party devoted its allocation of five questions solely to going after Key.

But be it the cost of repainting Premier House or money for promoting the Maori tourist industry, Key was sufficiently well briefed yesterday to make mincemeat of his interrogators from Labour’s more junior ranks.

The only thing better than watching the House, is also viewing Twitter at the same time. A gaggle of Labour MPs complain in chorus about how dare the PM say this or that.

Even stupid questions should be answered

September 17th, 2009 at 6:08 am by David Farrar

John Armstrong reports:

Opposition MPs were aghast and Government members agog in Parliament yesterday after Energy Minister Gerry Brownlee broke with convention and refused to respond to a question from Greens co-leader Metiria Turei.

Brownlee had simply had enough. He had already answered five questions from Turei on National’s intended “stocktake” of mineral resources on Conservation land. He had repeatedly told her the Government had no intention of plundering or pillaging national parks or other valued parts of the Department of Conservation estate.

But Turei’s questions – which might more accurately be described as political statements masquerading as questions – just kept on coming.

So what was the actual question Gerry refused to answer:

Metiria Turei: When the Minister said in his speech that “… New Zealanders need to know that this country is also well endowed with natural resources.”, is it not the case that Kiwis already know how blessed we are, already know that our magnificent conservation places are like gold to the New Zealand economy, and are aghast at his attempts to plunder those areas for fool’s gold and dirty coal?

As Armstrong said, it is a political statement more than a question. But so are many questions. Brownlee explained later:

Hon GERRY BROWNLEE: In answering questions this afternoon I have made it clear that the Government has no intention of mining high-value conservation land. From the member’s question, she does not seem to want to accept the answers given. It is no wonder that she gets no answers to her questions.

However I think it is a bad look not to answer, even the most stupid loaded questions. If the Greens want to waste all their supplementaries getting more and more hysterical over a stocktake of minerals, then let them and swat their questions back at them, rather than refuse to answer them.

There is a precedent it seems though:

However, Parker was trumped by United Future’s Peter Dunne, who had found another ruling which stated a minister was not even obliged to seek the call when asked a question.

In Dunne’s view, such a practice was unusual, and even undesirable. But there was a clear precedent for Brownlee’s refusal.

And words of wisdom from the Speaker:

Saying he was not about to turn these past rulings on their heads, the Speaker still had something to say about Turei and Brownlee.

The former would be “well advised” to reflect on the wording of her questions. She promptly ignored him and asked another highly loaded question which went down the same track as its predecessors

As for Brownlee, the public would make its judgment. “Ministers would be very unwise to refuse to answer them, because in the court of public opinion a minister would be condemned for refusing to do so,” Smith said.

In other words, Brownlee should not make a habit of it.


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 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.

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 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.

Praise for Lockwood

February 11th, 2009 at 6:56 am by David Farrar

John Armstrong praises Lockwood Smith for what he calls his “democratic bombshell”:

Take a bow, Lockwood Smith. At long last, the House has a Speaker who seems serious about removing the blight on New Zealand’s democracy – the increasing tendency of Cabinet ministers to thumb their noses at the constitutional convention that they are accountable to Parliament.

Smith dropped a bit of a bombshell on the first sitting day of the year when he expressed displeasure with Labour Minister Kate Wilkinson’s reply to an Opposition question about the minimum wage, and then instructed her to answer the question again.

Such a practice is almost unheard of. You could see the jaws of National Party colleagues collectively dropping in shock.

I am 100% with Lockwood on this. His ruling does not apply too all questions, but only to the pre-notified primary questions and only when they are asking something factual, rather than an opinion. In those circumstances, one should get a proper response. Now of course the Minister should be able to robustly swipe back at the Opposition also, but this should be on top of giving the actual answer, not instead of.

Such interventions will not win Smith plaudits from his colleagues. They sat in Opposition for nine frustrating years complaining about Labour ministers diving for cover when the political heat was on.

Now in Government, they would expect the boot to be on the other foot. That it isn’t may be unfair on National. But stopping the parliamentary rot meant someone had to start somewhere at some time. Smith has done the right thing by serving notice that he expects ministers to lift their game. The onus is now on him to continue in the manner in which he has begun.

I seem to recall the Herald’s Political Editor saying she thought Lockwood would bomb as Speaker. I look forward to her next blog 🙂

In a more minor change Lockwood has also changed the route the Speaker’s procession will take every sitting day at 2 pm. Rather than go straight from the Speaker’s Office to the back entrance to the House through a private corridor, it will now go through the main lobby, allowing the public to see it.

This met with support from all sides, but funniest comment was Dr Cullen who suggested Lockie make it clear that the press gallery can not ask questions of the Speaker during the official procession. I doubt even Duncan Garner would be quite that cheeky!

Trevett on Question Time

December 17th, 2008 at 11:00 am by David Farrar

Claire Trevett has a good article on question time yesterday:

Both sides went into the House primed for action – an Opposition ready to put the new National Government through the wringer and a Government eager to show what it was really made of.

Instead, those who had become so adept at answering questions over the previous nine years suddenly found they had little idea how to ask them. Those now responsible for answering them seemed to be under the misapprehension that the people in Opposition were still running the show.

It was very funny.

Three times Mr Carter stood up to ask the initial question and muffed it by adding extraneous words. He did no better on his follow-up questions, which fell foul of the rules because they did not begin with words such as how, why or when. Eventually Dr Cullen stood and used a point of order to give him a lesson on how to begin a question.

“Wassup?” yelled Mr Key – and by the time Mr Carter was done, the howls of laughter drowned Ms Tolley’s answers.

Poor Chris really had  shocker of a day.

Labour whip Darren Hughes showed the game of Gerry-baiting had lost none of its novelty – when Mr Key mentioned “stationary energy” Mr Hughes chipped in “we call that Gerry Brownlee”.

But Claire passed over Simon Power’s slam to Hughes earlier on

9. JOHN BOSCAWEN (ACT) to the Minister of Justice: On what date is the Government planning to repeal the Electoral Finance Act and introduce new electoral law?

Hon SIMON POWER (Minister of Justice) : As part of its first 100 days’ commitment the Government intends to repeal—

Hon Darren Hughes: Fight them on the beaches.

Hon SIMON POWER: Well, that member should go back to his seat. Oh, that is right, he does not have one.


Dom Post on Speaker

December 9th, 2008 at 1:38 pm by David Farrar

The Dom Post Editorial also calls for an improvement in question time:

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.

Answering Questions

December 9th, 2008 at 8:24 am by David Farrar

Yesterday’s Herald Editorial is a must read for new Ministers, and the new Speaker:

Governments before 1984 did not encourage their ministers to engage in political jousts at question time. Ministers generally treated even mischievous questions with seriousness and respect. They replied in considered terms that did not often give much away but were usually more informative than the mutual abuse of recent years.

Yes, Muldoon might snap at you, but he would also answer the question.

Since then things appear to have deteriorated to the point that question time in the Clark years became merely sneering and nasty. The Prime Minister adopted a practice of pointedly turning and looking away from the Opposition leader while delivering dismissive responses to his questions. The advent of MMP may also be to blame. The House seemed to have a higher tone when members were addressed by their electorates rather than by name.

Sneering and nasty – apt descriptions indeed. And I do agree that it was less combative when the Opposition MPs had to be referred to as “the Honourable Member for Hunua” or equivalent.

The new Prime Minister appears to have more in common with them than its parents. He was born too late to acquire the cynicism of youth in the 1960s. And as a comparative latecomer to politics he seems better equipped to ignore its petty contests than are those who made it their career.

He would do well to encourage his new ministers to conduct themselves with dignity and decorum in the House. The Government’s role is crucial to its conduct. Oppositions have to be aggressive and provocative, ministers need not reply in kind. Ministers have the advantage of status at question time, they should use it. A polite, restrained, factual answer to a politically-pointed question would be far more impressive on television than the tedious partisan exchanges of recent times.

While there would be lapses, I do hope Ministers do consider the wisdom of the Herald’s advice. Polite, restrained, factual answers will enhance them, not be a sign of weakness. Sure the odd question will be irresistable to bat away, but it would be nice to have Ministers from time to time exceed the minimum requirement of “addressing the question” and actually answering it.