Improving question time

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 Mary 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! 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.

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