2 Jul 2018

The cat and a hat

From The House , 5:00 pm on 2 July 2018

I don't want to put you off a career in politics, but MPs spend a lot of time on performance reviews, those annual meetings when your boss reminds you of the heroic deeds you've since forgotten you promised to achieve.


The House of Representatives is a permanent performance review. It's a key reason it exists.


Ministers get thousands of written questions each year about their performance. And they have to answer them. They get quizzed publicly, and have to defend their performance annually before select committees as well.


When MPs aren't answering questions, they're asking them.


Jacinda Ardern, Winston Peters, and Dame Patsy Reddy seated for the swearing-in.

The Governor General, Dame Patsy Reddy swearing in the Prime Minister and Cabinet. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King


The endless inquisition is the Legislature keeping a close watch on the Executive - the better to avoid incompetence, corruption, or tyranny.


Ministers do have a defense or two. One is their 'responsibility'.


To become a minister you receive a warrant from the Governor General to carry out a specific role. You're then answerable to the Parliament for that role, or 'responsibility'. But only for that responsibility.


Which is why in Question Time you often hear the Speaker knock back a question by saying it's "not the Minister's Responsibility".


That doesn't mean it's not their fault, it means it's not part of the specific job they were given.

The Speaker, Trevor Mallard enters the House

The Speaker, Trevor Mallard enters the House Photo: VNP / Phil Smith


When a minister is asked a question, it isn't the person being asked, it is the role, the responsibility. Which is why questions are always addressed to "the Prime Minister" or "the Minister of Health" etc, not to Jacinda Ardern or David Clark.

The right question, asked the right way to the right person may get you the answer you want. It sounds pedantic, but it makes sense, and once they get the hang of it, a good questioner can use it to their advantage.

For example, last year, Andrew Little attacked Bill English by asking the Prime Minister (only recently Bill English) what he thought of the ethical behaviour earlier that year of his Finance Minister (who had been Bill English).

The PM is responsible for the actions of their ministers, including those from before they were PM (but within the same government). And questions are to roles and about roles, so using the rules, Andrew Little was able to ask Bill English to critique himself.

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Bill English in the Debating Chamber. Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

But the really tricky question is 'when is a minister a minister'?

National's Gerry Brownlee argued recently that once sworn in by the Governor General a minister is always a minister. He agreed with Winston Peters that a prime minister is not always a minister - because sometimes they are a party leader.

Winston Peters referred to John Key's argument that he wasn't always the Prime Minister. John Key had argued that when he talked to the blogger Cameron Slater he was wearing the hat of 'Leader of the National Party', and not Prime Minister. Therefore he wasn't 'responsible' to the House for what he said.

He argued that he had many roles other than Prime Minister; for example when he put the cat out, at which point he was not prime minister but husband.  

It's not Spinoza, but it sufficed to win the argument in 2014. But the wider argument continues.

If the cat argument was true for a prime minister, Winston Peters recently argued, then it must be true for any minister. The Speaker agreed that ministers also have roles as MPs, especially constituent MPs (the ones which represent an electorate). 

Hopefully they have a life outside Parliament as well. Though they may be too busy for all that.

The tricky thing is that there are no clear rules for how you tell which role they are playing when.

Winston Peters as acting Prime Minister

Winston Peters as acting Prime Minister Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

This all came up again in Parliament recently when Winston Peters put out a press release on Deputy Prime Ministerial letterhead, and the opposition argued that, because of the letterhead, he must be 'responsible' for the content.

The Speaker read the letter and decided it was about things that aren't in the Deputy PM's job description, so the letterhead was the wrong one to use, and the Deputy PM wasn't 'responsible' for it.

Winston Peters might have been responsible but not in his role as Deputy PM. And you can't ask official questions of Winston Peters, only his role.

Ministers can only be held responsible for things that are in their job descriptions. The speaker decided that it takes more than mis-titling a letter to bring something within the ambit of a minister.

So, what does it take? 

The Speaker has indicated he will attempt to "get his head around it", and maybe propose a litmus test for how you can tell which hat an MP is wearing, and when.

The Speaker probably wishes that he could just issue coloured hats to all ministers, which they would then don and remove as they took on different roles. But real life isn't that easy.


That's where we are now.


The Speaker is wrangling with whether and how you can codify when a politician is a minister, an MP, or a private citizen. Because a minister is only responsible to the House for what they do or say in one of those three roles - and it's not the one involving a cat.