11 Apr 2019

How can a minister have "no responsibility"?

From The House , 6:55 pm on 11 April 2019

For the casual observer the melee in Parliament is like a collapsed maul at the try line. You know the ref' blew his whistle, you’re just not sure why.

So here's a quick explainer on one of the most common speakers’ rulings at the political breakdown. The rule is around ministerial responsibility.  

Minister of Finance Grant Robertson in the House

Minister of Finance, Grant Robertson answering questions in the House.  Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

You can ask a minister about anything within their official responsibilities, but only what they’re officially responsible for as a minister.

In making a ruling on this standing order, the Speaker often uses the shorthand “no responsibility” - which is short for something like: “the Minister has no responsibility for that matter, so you can't ask them that question and they can't answer it."

You can ask the Minster of Finance about New Zealand's economy but not Australia's. You can't ask the Minister of Health about the economy. That's not his responsibility.

You can ask the Prime Minister about either. They're the Prime Minister's responsibility because she is ultimately responsible for her ministers' roles as well, and for her ministers.   

"No responsibility" is one of the most frequent rulings. Underlying it is the fact that ministers are answerable to Parliament. Parliament is the real boss, not government. So all ministers are entirely responsible to the House for the ambit of the ministerial warrants - but nothing beyond them.

The Environment Select Committee during a briefing on reducing food waste in New Zealand.

Select Committees are a part of the House, not the Executive; they exist to reign-in government, not answer to it. So Minister's are not responsible for them.  Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

One version of this rule being broken this week was when the Prime Minister was asked about the actions of the members of a Select Committee. Select Committees are a part of the House, not the Executive; they exist to reign-in government, not answer to it. So Minister's are not responsible for them.

Not even the Labour members on the committee are her responsibility as Prime Minister, because they are not ministers.   The Prime Minister has no responsibility for back benchers. 

The Prime Minister also doesn't have responsibility for actions or tactics of the Labour Party. That’s the responsibility of the Party Leader, which may be Jacinda Ardern, but it's not the Prime Minister.

Confused yet?

Also ministers are asked and answer as their roles, not as themselves. Because they speak as minister of something, and not as themselves, the questions are addressed to a specific ministerial role - not to a person. You'll notice the questioner begins "my question is to the Prime Minister and asks..."; and not "my question is to Jacinda Ardern". 

And the person answering them, however many ministerial warrants they may hold is only answering for one of them at a time.

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Some ministers, including David Parker, hold a number of ministerial warrants, but they only answer to Parliament for one of them at a time. Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

MPs must ask the correct Minister for a given topic, who must also answer as the correct minister. And if someone else answers on your behalf - they answer as if they were you. 

And yes, that means that when the Deputy Prime Minister, Winston Peters, is answering on behalf of the Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, he answers to "she" and "her". 

It’s a bit like a notice in a theatrical playbill - tonight the role of Prime Minister will be played by Winston Peters. Same role, different person.

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As deputy to Jacinda Ardern at Question Time, Winston Peters has to play the role of impersonator.  Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

It's not always that easy. During Question Time on Thursday, when the Deputy Prime Minister was answering in a pretty boisterous manner the Speaker called order, saying,

"I just want to remind the Deputy Prime Minister, speaking for the Prime Minister, that he is speaking for the Prime Minister and to ask him to use the voice and language of the Prime Minister, and I think he's getting a bit far away from it."

To which Winston Peters replied,

"If I could do that, I'd be the Prime Minister!"