28 Jul 2019

Simon Bridges asks questions on endless repeat. Why?

From The House , 7:30 am on 28 July 2019

“Does she stand by all her Government’s statements, policies, and actions?”

The same very general question is asked at Parliament every Question Time. It’s the standard opener from both the Leader of the Opposition, Simon Bridges and his Deputy Paula Bennett. Often Simon Bridges uses the same primary question twice a day. 

But why?

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Leader of the Opposition, Simon Bridges, sparring in the House Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

For context - Question Time is constructed of twelve pre-published primary questions to Ministers, each followed up by numerous supplementary questions (which aren’t known in advance). 

The purpose of pre-publishing the primary questions is to allow the minister to come prepared to answer it in detail. And they are expected to do so. But a broad primary question (like Simon Bridges’ standard one) doesn’t allow preparation, so detailed answers are not expected.

Forcing detailed answers to detailed questions is a key way Parliament exercises   oversight over the government. General primary questions let the government skate over the detail. 

So why do it, and why do it day after day, after day?

There are four possible reasons for these tactics:

The Scattergun

The follow-up questions are meant to follow on from the primary question. A general primary question allows the supplementary questions to cover a wide range of topics rather than be restricted to the topic of the primary question. 

That’s useful if you plan to ask questions about three or four different policy areas. But that scattergun approach doesn’t give you much opportunity to drill down - and you can’t expect specifics. And also, both Simon Bridges and Paula Bennett’s supplementaries sometimes stick with one topic. So The Scattergun is possibly sometimes the reason, but not always. 

The Stall

Primary questions have to be delivered to the Clerk of the House by 10:30 on the morning of each sitting day.  

Asking an identical primary question every day allows you wait until Question Time begins at 2pm to confirm your focus of attack - which might be useful if major events are unfolding (uncommon). The questions are seldom based on breaking news, so this tactic is not the reason. 

That leaves just two options, and it is likely one or both of these.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern answers a question from Leader of the Opposition Simon Bridges.

Jacinda Ardern with copious notes in preparation for questions  Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

The Jab and Duck

Jacinda Ardern is good at answering questions. Her responses can turn defence into offence. A key reason for this is strong preparation. 

One way to blunt her effectiveness is by limiting her ability to prepare.  This works because a prime minister’s responsibilities are vast, including the actions and purviews of all of the other ministers. It’s not possible to prepare for all eventualities. 

Recent Question Times showed the impact of preparation. On a Tuesday, Simon Bridges asked a number of supplementary questions about transport projects and received solid answers but there was no clear winner.

But on Wednesday he tried the same broad attack in his first follow-up. The Prime Minister had come prepared. She triumphantly read through a list of projects so long the referee (the speaker) had to intervene.  

In tacit defeat, the Leader of the Opposition asked no further supplementaries.  

Telegraphing attacks only leads to strong counter-punches, so it’s best to hide your punches. 

Winning the Post Match

This final tactic focuses on how the exchanges can be portrayed in social media. It has political rather than parliamentary aims.  

If you ask very general primary questions you prevent your opponent from preparing properly. That means you get lots of answers to the more specific supplementary questions along the lines of ‘if you warn me of the topic I can come prepared to dance’ or more specifically ‘if the member wants to put a question on notice I’d be happy to answer it’.

So you get sparse answers but you also get a lot of video of the Prime Minister declining to or being unable to answer. And then you have ammunition to suggest they are uninformed, incompetent or bumbling.