19 Dec 2018

When Parliamentary questions become Christmas gifts

From The House , 6:55 pm on 19 December 2018

Today was Parliament’s final sitting day of the year. There was a festive note in the air and even before the MPs got to the adjournment debate (which wraps up the action) there was merriment.

It was also the final chance for the Opposition to get a crack at the Government. Traditionally, Oral Questions began with an exchange of heavy artillery. The Leader of the Opposition’s first question was, as usual, wide open - leaving him lots of opportunities for wide ranging follow-up shots.

However, on a day focused on recapping the year, it was a wide open chance for the Prime Minister to list her Government's favourite actions.

National MP Amy Adams

National MP Amy Adams Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

The opposition got a second crack when Amy Adams took aim at the Minister of Finance, Grant Robertson. And again a wide open question was answered with a long list of achievements. For the second time the Speaker had to interrupt and declare it answered.

And then a few minutes later Nikki Kaye lined her guns at the Minister of Education, Chris Hipkins. Again a wide open question, and it went pretty much the same way. A long list of his highlights from the year. Again the Speaker had to step in lest Oral Questions continue through into 2019.

There are sometimes advantages to asking wide-open primary questions. But there are also very obviously downsides.

For example, a very general pre-published primary question means the supplementary questions that flow from it can range widely. But the corollary is that the Minister answering it can also go wide.

And, while starting wide means the Minister gets no warning of which specific topics the supplementaries might address; without that warning the House doesn’t expect answers to be very specific. 

Sometimes choosing a general question for that all-important primary gives the asker an advantage, sometimes it turns out to be a disadvantage. Sometimes it might just be an unintended Christmas gift.