29 Jun 2018

How many sleeps? Twyford reprimanded over written question

From The House , 5:40 am on 29 June 2018

Question time is heralded as the main event of a Parliamentary sitting day but its lesser known cousin, written-questions, were hauled into the spotlight recently over some inappropriate replies.

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Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

Before we get into that here’s a brief rundown on question time:

  • What is question time?

Twelve oral questions to Ministers

  • When is question time?

Normally just after the karakia (prayer) and introduction of petitions, papers or bills at 2pm. About an hour is set aside but it can last longer if needed.

  • Who is question time?

Any Minister can be asked a question by any MP. Government party MPs usually ask a “patsy” question which is a setup for a Minister to share some info. Opposition MPs normally go for the jugular. Occasionally questions are allowed to be asked to non-ministers.

The Speaker is in charge and has the final say but MPs can argue something by raising a point of order.

  • Where is question time?

In the debating chamber. Its common to hear MPs saying "the House" as well because it’s where the House of Representatives sit and it’s at the heart of Parliament House (the building to the right of the Beehive)

  • Why is question time?

It’s a chance for MPs to hold the Government to account by quizzing ministers on their role. Questions have to be about ministerial responsibility (so no questions about what someone did as a Party leader) - it often causes confusion.

  • How is question time?

Fine, I guess?

Written questions

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Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

Since 1903 MPs have been allowed to write questions to Ministers and unlike the spoken version, there’s no limit on how many they can submit; this caused a bit of a workload for the new government last year.

The rules for written questions are basically the same as oral questions. But Ministers have more time to reply to a written question (within six working days) and MPs often use those replies as ammo during a debate or question time.

Speakers keep a firm hand over question time but they’re pretty hands off when it comes to written questions - unless someone complains.

“Replies to some written questions to the Minister of Housing and Urban Development have been drawn to my attention,” said the Speaker Trevor Mallard.

“In particular, I have considered the answers to written questions numbers 12234, 12225, 11652, 11710, and 11715.”

That jumble of numbers is how written questions are categorised and they’re all published online with a Minister’s replies.

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Minister for Housing Phil Twyford's answers to written questions caused the Speaker to intervene.  Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

In this case the Speaker wasn’t impressed with the Minister for Housing Phil Twyford’s answers to written questions from National MP Judith Collins.

“Ministers are required to endeavour to give informative replies to questions—Speaker's ruling* 177/5,” he said.

‘While the Speaker is not responsible for the quality of answers, I do expect Ministers to make a serious attempt to provide an informative answer. These questions do not come close to meeting that standard.”

*Speaker’s Rulings is a collection of rulings (duh) from previous Speakers (duh again). They help the Speaker make consistent rulings. Standing Orders are often used as well.

The Speaker, Trevor Mallard enters the House

The Speaker of the House Trevor Mallard. Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

As a punishment the Speaker ruled that:

  • The Minister will provide substantive amended answers to the questions concerned by midday on Tuesday, 3 July.

  • Since the Opposition has been denied an opportunity to use written questions to scrutinise the Government in a timely manner, they will receive an additional 20 supplementary oral questions, to be used by the end of next week.

And he also said:

“I have also written to the Minister indicating a form of reply he is using to avoid giving substantive answers is unacceptable, and that he has until next Thursday to provide corrected answers.”

To balance out the reprimand the Leader of the House Chris Hipkins stood up at the end of question time to raise a point of order.

Leader of the House Chris Hipkins

The Leader of the House Chris Hipkins. Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

“I agree with you that some of the flippant comments that he has made in those do not reflect well on the House,” he said.

“However, the question that I would like to raise with you is around some of the ironic expressions that are made in some of the questions themselves and whether, in fact, one or two of those answers were in fact appropriate given the context of the question."

Chris Hipkins was referring to question No. 11652. In it, Judith Collins had asked how many sleeps were required before more information on Kiwibuild was released to which Phil Twyford replied 'it depends how frequently the member sleeps'.

One of the responses from Minister Twyford that was ruled out of order by the Speaker.

One of the responses from Minister Twyford that was ruled out of order by the Speaker. Photo: Screenshot / Parliament website

"The point that I would make there is that the question itself did set itself up for that kind of answer,” said Mr Hipkins.

Proving that he is ultimately top dog, the Speaker said Phil Twyford used those words in the first place when answering an oral question.

“If the Minister had not used the expression, he wouldn't have been subject to what looks like an ironic question but, actually, is just a straight response to what was almost certainly an inappropriate comment that he made in the Chamber,” he said.

And to that Chris Hipkins asked if the Speaker was ruling that the phrase "so many sleeps" is out of order.

“No” the Speaker said.

Question time is streamed live on the Parliament website and videos are available on demand.

Written questions can be found here. A Minister’s reply is published with the question after it has been received by the MP who lodged the question.