Politics

Politics: How to Fix Question Time in Parliament? MPs, Media and Other Experts Weigh In

The thrice-weekly Question Time session is routinely the most viewed and talked about event in the New Zealand House of Representatives. But it rarely achieves much beyond the Punch and Judy theatrics.

A couple of weeks ago, the opposition parties attempted a choir-like gambit, with each of their questions beginning “Does the Prime Minister stand by all his statements?” In the UK, the Labour Party under controversial new leader Jeremy Corbyn attempted to shake up their equivalent, Prime Minister’s Questions, by crowd-sourcing the material.

How else might the occasion be repaired?

The Spinoff got in touch with a bunch of people familiar with Question Time as participants and observers and asked: as Parliament resumes today, what change might make Question Time better?

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 Gerry Brownlee: The structure is right, but enough “gotcha” tactics

I don’t believe any structural change to our Question Time is necessary.

The two other Question Times I’ve observed, in Australia and the United Kingdom, tend to be much more political in nature, both in the content of the questions, and the extended responses permitted under their Standing Orders.

New Zealand’s system is designed to be more interrogative, with a written question lodged three hours before the House sits, and supplementary questions to follow.

If there was to be any change to our system I think it might focus on what could be considered an acceptable question to a Minister.

For example the question “Does the Minister stand by all his statements?” given to a Minister three hours before Question Time will lead the Minister to reflect on recent statements relevant to the portfolio, and prepare a response that says “yes, in so much as they are accurately conveyed,” or something similar.

This approach by questioners basically prefaces to the Minister that the supplementary questions will be of a highly political nature, rather than a forensic examination of a particular issue or Government policy, which in turn leads the Speaker to allow more flexibility to Ministers, allowing them much more political answers, often rendering the question a complete and utter waste of time.

On the other hand, if questions were confined to topical issues of the day, containing parameters around Government policy or matters which fell into the Minister’s direct portfolio responsibilities, it may well be a better use of Parliamentary time.

My main point is, in Australia and the United Kingdom a question is asked and the Prime Minister or Ministers stand up and respond with a speech.

I think in New Zealand we have the structure for a better Question Time, but it’s not being well used because the New Zealand Parliamentary Opposition is currently fixated with “Gotcha” politics, which doesn’t lead to a very constructive use of Parliamentary time.

Gerry Brownlee is a National minister, MP for Ilam and Leader of the House

Andrew Little: An Open House for all New Zealanders

Many people feel Parliament has become irrelevant to their lives, which is why we need to bring the people back to Parliament. One way to do that is to have an Open House once a month with Question Time turned over to the public and ordinary New Zealanders to ask questions via video link. There’s no way ministers – especially the Prime Minister – would want to dismiss a voter’s question as brazenly as they do those of Opposition MPs. An Open House would be the embodiment of democracy in action.

We should also get rid of patsy questions. They are nothing more than tax-payer funded ads. Not even Maurice Williamson wants to hear the Government talking to itself. Fewer patsies would give the Opposition more opportunity to hold the Government to account.

Of course addressing the issue of questions is one thing – changing standing orders to require Ministers to provide an actual answer to those questions would also be a major improvement.

Andrew Little is the leader of the Labour Party

Geoffrey Palmer: Abolish Question Time and overhaul Parliament

As an instrument of accountability of the executive to the House, Question Time is well nigh useless. Written questions work better than oral for that purpose.

Oral Question Time in the New Zealand Parliament is pure political theatre. It would be better to abolish it and find some new methods by which to hold the executive to account.

We never seem to have figured out in New Zealand what the Parliament is for. It is time we did. The first person to seriously study the New Zealand Parliament, Professor Leslie Lipson, the first Professor of Political Science in New Zealand, concluded in 1948, “A representative democracy which does not produce a better legislature than this one is running a serious risk.” Since then we have abolished the upper house. Sadly we still run the risk. It is again time for a serious programme of parliamentary reform.

Sir Geoffrey Palmer is a Distinguished Fellow of the New Zealand Centre for Public Law at Victoria University of Wellington and a former Labour Party leader and Prime Minister.

Mary Harris: Up to the members, not the Speaker

The structure of the New Zealand Question Time is well regarded around the world. Lodging questions on the day keeps them topical and the 60 odd supplementary questions over the 12 primary questions allow members good scope to probe Ministers’ replies.

Ministers can be expected to give informative replies, because they have had at least three hours’ notice of the primary question. While there is no strict time frame for Question Time, for some years now it has become well accepted that an hour is about the right amount of time. This keeps it moving, but without time limits, there is some flexibility about the length of answers and how supplementary questions are used. Many parliaments have strict time limits on questions and replies, which result in Ministers taking all the time allowed on replies and as a result reducing the overall accountability. This is after all the primary purpose of Question Time, but it is also a political test of Ministers.

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.

However, Question Time is most effective when the focus is on members asking probing questions and Ministers replying – accountability. It ought not to be about the Speaker. Recognising this, Speakers tend to let Question Time run rather than taking a very strict rules based approach. They leave it to Ministers to reply, intervening only if a Minister disclaims responsibility or an answer is patently inadequate. But what does need to be recognised is that the Speaker is not a judge of the correctness of a reply. Question Time is a political exchange. It is not a quiz.

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. This is not an easy thing. There are risks around direct democracy – it can never be representative! Question Time is a political exchange – a test of Ministers’ ability. To be effective it must be very topical and fast paced: there are often multiple issues to cover. There are other ways in which the public might interact with Parliament on the issues that are important to them. From my experience people are interested in Parliament when the issues, rather than the politics, interest them. Ways could be found for instance, using the electronic media, of petitioning for debates on topics, or recording levels of support for members’ bills that would allow them to be introduced without having to be drawn in the ballot.

Mary Harris retired as Clerk of the House of Representatives on completion of her seven-year term in July

James Shaw: Question Time should also be Answer Time

I wasn’t in Parliament when Lockwood Smith was Speaker, but I hear things were pretty different. One main change, that plays out every single Question Time, is the Speaker’s expectations of Ministers’ answers.

Lockwood Smith had a clear rule – if you ask a direct question, you’ll get an answer. Seems pretty fair to me. But David Carter deliberately chose to move away from that approach when he took over in 2013, instead reverting back to the requirement that a question only needs to be “addressed”.

There’s a pretty big difference between answering a question and addressing it. How this plays out in Question Time is that a Minister will often get away with making a vague reference to the topic of the question, and that’s deemed sufficient.

I truly believe that we’re worse off for it. The nature of Question Time means there is the inevitable point-scoring, the raised voices, one-liners, and interjections. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t also hold Ministers to account, and require them to actually answer the questions put to them.

There are a lot of things we could do to improve Question Time, but the place to start has to be expecting Ministers to actually answer questions.

James Shaw is co-leader of the Green Party

David Seymour: Ministers should get to question the questioner

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.

David Seymour is ACT leader and MP for Epsom

Peter Dunne: Remake the formula

I would probably advocate two main changes.

First, the current system is based around pre-allocated supplementary questions between the parties. Some are patsies, and some are woefully off the mark. None are actually intended to elicit information, but all are designed solely to score political points. While I accept that you cannot take politics out of parliament, I would nevertheless allow the Speaker more discretion to allow a line of questioning to continue, regardless of allocations, if it was clear that either a questioner was being fobbed off by a minister because the questions were uncomfortable, or where it was clear that the questioner was making progress in eliciting important facts.

Second, we have a developing de facto system of Questions Without Notice, through such primary question devices as “Does the Minister stand by all his statements?” and the like, even though our system is supposed to be Questions With Notice. I would designate three to four questions each day that could be asked without notice provided they related to an urgent matter within the Minister’s portfolio that had arisen since the previous Question Time. That would certainly put Ministers more on their mettle! The quid pro quo might be for the Speaker to allow them more latitude in the type of response they provided.

Solutions of this type would move Question Time away from its current formulaic approach.

Peter Dunne is leader of United Future and MP for Ohariu

Judith Collins: Ban the inane questions

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.

Judith Collins is National MP for Papakura

Chris Hipkins: A straight question deserves a straight answer

New Zealand has a very good Question Time by international standards, but it could be even better. The Speaker should use his discretion to grant additional supplementary questions to a Member where a Minister answering is being deliberately obstructive or repeatedly avoiding questions. As it stands, opposition parties have a strictly limited number of questions they can ask each day so Ministers know if they just obfuscate long enough they can get off the hook. By allowing questions to “run on” bad behaviour would be discouraged, while good behaviour rewarded.

The other change is like to see is the Speaker revert to the approach taken by Lockwood Smith that a straight question deserved a straight answer and a political question left ministers scope to give a more political answer. As it stands now, question time can be very biased towards the government.

Chris Hipkins is Labour MP for Rimutaka and Shadow Leader of the House

Annette King: Down with blah blah blah

I like something really novel. Ministers to answer the question instead of “I can’t answer that but what I can say blab blah blah irrelevant!”

Annette King is deputy leader of the Labour Party

Graeme Edgeler: For every non-answer, an extra question

It’s simple, and to be honest, I’m not sure it would work, but I’d like the idea of a rule where, if the answer to a question was insufficient, the person asking the question got to ask another question, without it coming out of their allotted number of questions.

If a minister is being particularly reticent in actually answering a question, the person asking it could ask variations of it over and over again. In my dream world, for a couple of weeks, NZQT would be even more of a farce than it is now, but ministers would hopefully soon get the message that they were wasting their own time legislative time, and would stop being so reticent.

Graeme Edgeler is legal blogger at Public Address

Bernard Hickey: Cash for questions, anyone?

I’d get rid of the “do you stand by your statements” questions, which seem to be an attempt to blindside the Government with a “gotcha” question that usually results in more theatre than substance. To even up the score, I’d also get rid of the “Dorothy Dixer” free-kick questions from Government back-benchers.

I also like the idea of a crowd-sourced question from the public, although there’d have to be some safeguards to avoid gaming and various silly buggers playing silly buggers. The economist in me sees an opportunity as well for a “cash for questions” style question where the proceeds are donated to charity. Could be entertaining.

Bernard Hickey is the Publisher of Hive News and a Press Gallery member

Linda Clark: An hour of questions just for the PM

Question Time is meant to be one of the key “sunlight” moments in a functioning democracy where Governments can be tested. That Question Time is currently a very watery kind of sunlight is a genuine concern.

So how to improve? The first (and easiest) thing to do would be to simply require Ministers to actually and substantively answer the questions asked – which would simply require direction from the Speaker. Another improvement would be to prevent the transfer of questions between Ministers, and create an expectation that Ministers will be present in the House when questions are asked of them (so Questions should carry over when Ministers are unavoidably absent – answers provided “on behalf of” are usually pretty limp).

A more fundamental change would be to introduce a separate Prime Minister’s Question Time, similar to the House of Commons, where the PM fronts for questions on any topic for an hour each week whilst the House is sitting. There is a lot to be said for this.

Linda Clark is Special Counsel (Public Law) at Kensington Swan and a former TVNZ political editor

Jane Patterson: Rules you can drive a bus through

The standing orders require ministers to “address the question” a definition you can drive a bus through if so inclined. It leaves it up to the minister’s willingness or otherwise to answer the question directly and provide some useful information, or glide right past it, and still be within the rules. It also depends on the approach of the Speaker of the day, balancing their desire to protect their colleague from awkward questions against public interest.

Also, because of proportionality, government MPs get several chances to ask ministers patsy questions; unless an opposition MP uses a supplementary to derail the question line, we are submitted to ministers able to endlessly extol their own virtues. They already have massive PR machine working tirelessly to do that for them, so an extended self congratulatory rave, peppered with digs at the opposition is a bonus!

Jane Patterson is Radio New Zealand political editor

Danyl McLauchlan: Scrap this idiotic ritual that makes morons of MPs

The main problem with Question Time is that it destroys the souls of our politicians. Most of them go into politics with a sense of decency, I think, but hours upon weeks upon months upon years of the Byzantine, archaic, idiotic ritual of Question Time deforms them into barking tribes of abhorrent braying addle-brained idiots.

Question Time is – in theory – an opportunity for the opposition to hold the government to account. The reality is that it’s an opportunity for the government to tell the opposition that they’re a bunch of losers, and that everything going wrong with the country is their fault. These exchanges are punctuated by the patsy questions in which a backbench government MP asks a Minister why other things are going so amazingly well, and the Minister – it is usually the Finance Minister – elaborates at length at the brilliance of his policies, which have caused, say, the value of the New Zealand dollar to rise, benefiting consumers (perhaps the next day it will fall, benefiting exporters, also due to the Minister’s genius, or perhaps it will not move, providing stability to consumers and exporters, as was also the Minister’s plan).

When the House is in session there is three to five hours of this inanity a week, and an amazing amount of money and effort goes into it, and it is easily the least productive, most pointless work carried out in the entire country.

The rationale behind the format is historical; it predates broadcast media, and it has been obsolete for over a century. The best way to improve it would be to scrap it and do something else, closer to the Select Committee process but where Ministers were questioned in a formal setting, in front of the media and without a hundred of their fellow MPs screaming nonsense over the top of them.

Danyl McLauchlan is a novelist, blogging at The Dim-Post

David Farrar: Questions for the PM on a Tuesday

I would turn Tuesday Question Time into PM’s Question Time, like Britain’s House of Commons. No need for silly set-up questions such as do you stand by your statements. A half-hour session where any MP can question the PM on any issue would be a good testing session for the PM, and aspiring PMs.

The other two days of the week would remain as normal ministerial Question Times, but hopefully have more substantive questions and answer, having had the separate PM Question Time earlier in the week.

David Farrar is Mr Kiwiblog and a pollster for clients including the National Party

Rob Salmond: Eliminate the points-of-order squabbles

My reform to Question Time would eliminate points of order about (1) seeking leave to table things: and (2) the adequacy of Minister’s answers. In return, I’d allow question askers more latitude – within a strictly enforced time limit of say 30 seconds – in how they ask their question, allowing them to start with a statement before moving to their actual question.

Through this change, we’d be finally rid of the long point-of-order battles that break up the flow of Question Time to no real ends, and get a smoother, more balanced flow from question to answer and back to question. The incentive for Ministers to address questions remains at least as strong as now, because question askers have a new, free-form opportunity to highlight any flaws in answers just given. Many Question Times in northern Europe (eg Sweden, Germany) follow a model somewhat similar to this.

Rob Salmond runs analytics and communications firm Polity, whose clients include the Labour Party

Brent Edwards: Tighten up the rules

I would restrict Question Time to just eight questions and rule out Government MPs being able to ask primary questions, although they could ask supplementary questions. Questions would need to be specific.

I would rule out questions like “do you stand by all your statements” or “do you have confidence in all your ministers?” MPs should have to be specific about the statement and the minister. Finally the rules should be tightened around the obligations on ministers to answer questions and points of order, which are often a waste of time, should be restricted.

Brent Edwards is news director at Radio New Zealand and a former political editor

Philip Lyth: Learn from history and abroad

Two things should happen. First, the new Speaker should apply precedents developed over many years and recorded in Speakers’ Rulings. Sometime next year, David Carter is widely expected become High Commissioner in London. As Speaker, he chose (within his authority) to provide extensive commentary on, and interpretation of, Ministers’ answers. In hindsight that was unhelpful.

The next, 30th, Speaker, should learn from history. (I expect s/he will be one of five or six possibles.) Previously Speaker Gray ruled that Ministers must approach questions “consistent with their constitutional responsibilities”. Other rulings make it clear that Speakers easily recognise when Ministers are trifling with the House or giving patently inadequate answers. The remedy is to allow additional supplementary questions beyond the usual quota. That would be an effective check, one Carter has occasionally employed.

Second, MPs visiting other Parliaments – as happens from time to time – should be looking for “better ways for Question Time to work”. The rules only change when MPs want them to do so. By convention, changes are agreed pre-election, taking effect post-election. Now is the time for MPs to be alert for useful and effective methods used by other Parliaments, and to bring the ideas home. Then they can be considered in the next Review.

Finally, a curmudgeonly observation. It is not a good idea for a Speaker to resign the office during a Parliament. It happened only once in the 20th century, when Roy Jack became Jack Marshall’s Attorney-General. And the curtain should be drawn over the precedent of someone moving directly from Cabinet to the Speaker’s office during a Parliament.

Philip Lyth is a political commentator

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