PoliticsJune 19, 2024

Patsy questions and patronising answers: Nicola Willis faces scrutiny week


The showdown with the finance minister was the main event of ‘scrutiny week’ – an in-depth prosecution of the budget, interrupted by a series of fluff questions from government MPs.

Nicola Willis strode into the select committee room with intent. She sat facing the 10 MPs of the finance and expenditure committee, seated in a U shape. They clicked their pens and flipped through stacks of highlighted pages. Willis leaned forward on her elbows. Bring it on. Scrutinise me.

Scrutiny week is a new initiative in parliament, where every minister and top public service officials have to front up to questions. It was hoped it would give MPs the opportunity to dive a little deeper into the issues with less of the point scoring that happens in parliamentary question time. What actually played out was a bit of both.

The finance minister was the main event of the week. She’s the biggest name, with the biggest portfolio, who passed her first budget just a few weeks ago. She certainly showed her mettle. Throughout the two-hour session, Willis was quick on her feet, found plenty of opportunities to counterpunch, and managed to segue smoothly from tough questions to stump speeches. She has a finesse in the way she pivots away from questions she doesn’t want to answer that her party leader Chris Luxon lacks.

Labour’s finance spokesperson Barbara Edmonds was up first, approaching it more like an auditor than a prosecutor. Sitting up in her chair, glasses resting on her nose, a pen pointing at particular lines on the paper on her desk. She started by questioning Willis about National’s promise to fund 13 new cancer drugs, which were left out of the budget.

Edmonds is a subject matter expert, but still not confident as a live political performer. Willis adopted an intentionally condescending tone. Answering slowly, leaving pauses between each word, she addresses her answer to the room rather than back to Edmonds. It’s a strategy Willis has adopted often when questioned by Edmonds in the house, trying to paint the opposition spokesperson as out of her depth. “Let me answer with some actual economics, which she doesn’t understand,” Willis said at one point. Edmonds gritted her teeth.

Up next, Chlöe Swarbrick rattled off questions at a rapid rate, talking so fast it was hard to keep up. It was like that police strategy where cops just yell things at you until you confess. She was in her element. If Willis is going to make this an implicit contest of intellect, Swarbrick wants to step in the ring.

She appeared to catch Willis out a little while asking about the price of carbon credits. Treasury forecasts put the cost of units $58, below the legal floor of $60. “The carbon price is illegal,” Swarbrick said. “I’m not sure what you mean,” Willis responded. “Outside of the law,” Labour’s Deborah Russell chimed in helpfully.

Nicola Willis stars in Scrutiny Week (2024)

Labour’s Megan Woods started by asking: “Why did you choose not to fund the cancer treatments?” Willis took umbrage with that. “No, we chose to fund them,” she insisted (just not in the budget). There will be an announcement coming soon, she promised. Woods picked up on the ETS where Swarbrick left off. As she delved into the detail of the papers, she added some condescension of her own. “I’m not sure if you understand-” Willis cut her off sharply. “I understand perfectly,” she said, then passed the question to Treasury chief executive Caralee McLiesh to answer for her.

Deborah Russell queried about some specific extreme tax cases where people could end up working more hours but earning less money, due to complexities around beneficiary payments and subsidies. Willis replied: “I reject that.” “Well, reject it,” Russell said, shrugging. Debbie Ngarewa-Packer had some long-winded questions about investment in Māori services, which Willis answered with equally long and contentless speeches.

This was the most high-profile meeting of the year for New Zealand’s finance select committee, the group of MPs who know the most about the government purse strings. Apart from a brief introduction by committee chair Stuart Smith, it was 50 minutes before a man spoke. The finance minister, the Treasury chief executive, and all five opposition MPs are women.

Act MP Todd Stephenson finally brought a more masculine energy to proceedings with hard-hitting questions like: Why is it so important to save money? and cutting follow-ups like How do you decide where to save money? and Will you keep trying to save money?

National’s Ryan Hamilton read directly off a piece of paper in front of him, another patsy. Willis rattled off some more campaign rhetoric. “Excuse me, this is a speech,” interjected Russell. Willis conceded. “Apologies, that was a bit of a speech… I sense the members are becoming impatient.” Hamilton blushed, “No, not at all, Minister”.

When it was National MP Nancy Lu’s turn, Deborah Russell tried to interrupt. “Thank you,” Smith said, cutting her off. “Thank you,” Lu said dismissively, getting back to her question. Within a second, Megan Woods’ phone rang, playing the Golden Girls theme song. “Thank you for being a friend.”

Lu asked about the government’s investment in Asian communities. Willis waxed lyrical about growing the economy for everyone. Lu nodded intently, fascinated, as if she was being enlightened by Adam Smith himself. National’s Catherine Wedd gave Willis another layup. “What is the government doing about productivity?” For her follow-up, Wedd said she had “a bit of a deep dive” and then asked a question that basically amounted to Please tell us more about infrastructure.

As the meeting drew to a close, Smith noted there was one question left. “Make it a good patsy,” jeered Russell. “Can we have a real question? Can we have some dignity as a committee?” asked Swarbrick.

Smith handed the last question to Hamilton. All eyes turned to him. He squirmed a little in his chair and wound up for the final shot. The question he chose: “What are you proudest of about the budget?”. The room filled with groans. The MPs shuffled out, still annoyed about the lines of questioning. A Green staffer muttered, “Scrutiny week isn’t exactly living up to expectations, is it?”

Speaking to the media afterwards, Willis said the jury was still out on whether scrutiny week was effective. But if anyone was to blame, she said it was the opposition for playing “political games”. Then, with an implied wink, she added, “But I would say that, wouldn’t I?”

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