Parliament’s back for another year and with it, the only public forum outside an election debate where opposition leaders get to face off against prime ministers. Former Labour adviser Clint Smith explains the ins and outs of question time.
“Does she stand by all of her government’s statements and actions?”
If history is any guide, that’s the first question National leader Christopher Luxon will ask prime minister Jacinda Ardern in the first question time of the year tomorrow.
It’s the exact same question he’s asked her every question time. It’s the question Collins, Muller and Bridges asked.
Usually, Ardern responds with a two-minute spiel on things she thinks her government has done well (it’ll be the Covid response tomorrow). If she’s in a hurry, she just says “yes”.
Then, Luxon will ask a set of supplementary questions on his attack line du jour, Ardern will respond with government messaging, each side talks past each other, and it’s over.
Starting with a general question doesn’t blindside Ardern. A PM worth their salt knows what the opposition will ask on a given day. She can always refer tricky details the questioner drops in supplementaries to the relevant portfolio minister.
Does it matter if Luxon keeps offering up easy hits to Ardern? Yes.
This is the only time outside election debates when opposition leaders get to face off in public against PMs. Done well, it gets big media coverage. Opposition leaders who win elections first beat the PM in question time before they do it in the campaign.
So, why the easy question?
The rules of parliament make asking the PM tough questions difficult, but not impossible. Primary questions have to be lodged in writing a few hours before question time. The government can transfer a primary question about a specific topic from the PM to the portfolio minister (when this happens, it’s very frustrating for the opposition leader and, so, fun for the government). The only questions a PM will definitely answer are if they are asked to stand by something they personally said, if they have confidence in a minister, or questions about the government generally.
Hence, “Does she stand by all of her government’s statements and actions?” will never get transferred.
But, while it’s safe, it can’t lead anywhere. The rules of parliament mean you can’t expect detailed answers to supplementary questions if you ask a vague primary question. So, Luxon’s supplementary questions are either high level or fended off. The PM isn’t put on the spot. It’s all a damp squib.
That means Luxon is missing the chance to use question time to show his leadership style and his ability to foot it with Ardern, whose job he’s after.
Question time isn’t about getting answers – the rules preclude that. It’s about showing who is on top and driving political narrative. An opposition leader can use question time to create a political moment that gets widespread coverage and becomes part of their political framing – the classic example being when Andrew Little told John Key to “cut the crap”.
To make a moment, you need to start off with a substantive question – eg “Does she stand by [quote from the PM saying everything is great] given [a fact that shows the government failing]”? With a detailed primary question, you can lead the PM down a set of detailed questions and answers you’ve gamed out. If you’re very good at predicting what the prime minister will say, you can lead them where you want them.
Little’s “cut the crap” came at the end of a set of detailed questions about the Jason Ede smear machine operated out of John Key’s office. Little knew Key would prevaricate and dodge his straight questions, so he was ready to flip that on him by suddenly changing from asking questions about the smear machine itself to making the issue Key and his refusal to be straight with New Zealanders. It garnered huge media coverage, including an editorial cartoon of Little as a giant threatening to crush tiny Key underfoot. It built Little’s brand and gave him a sense of momentum (that wasn’t to last).
Little had that planned out – not the exact words, but how he would entrap Key. He was aided by his staff, who knew Key, had his quotes noted, and could anticipate how he would answer questions.
Luxon and his predecessors lack this. They’ve lost experienced leader’s office staff from the Key years. Luxon is very new. That lack of institutional knowledge and experience is evident throughout National’s strategy, but most clearly at question time.
If Luxon wants to look like Ardern’s equal, he and his staff need to know her better. They need to be able to know how she will answer questions before they’re asked, and work out how to turn that against her. They need to put the effort into researching what she’s said, writing substantive primary questions, and planning cunning supplementaries. Most of the time, question time will still be a bore, but sometimes, it’ll be a win.
If Luxon can do this and show he is Ardern’s match in the question time bear pit, he’ll gain momentum and be a step closer to taking her job. If he spends two years failing to dent her armour, it’ll be that much harder to take her on in the election campaign.
Clint Smith worked for numerous Labour leaders of the opposition and Greens co-leaders, and was a ministerial adviser. He has worked on more question time preps that he cares to remember. He currently runs Victor Strategy and Communications.