22 Aug 2019

Preempting attacks in question time

From The House , 6:55 pm on 22 August 2019

Sometimes question time feels like the same soup reheated but on occasion Ministers show how they can work around the rules to change it up a bit.

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Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

One of the regular features of question time is this question from the Opposition to the Prime Minister:

Does she stand by all her Government's statements, policies, and actions?

And the Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern often responds with “yes”.

But on occasion the Prime Minister takes advantage of the general nature of the question to preempt the Opposition’s attack. 

Deputy leader of the National Party Paula Bennett.

Deputy leader of the National Party Paula Bennett. Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

For example, this week National MP Paula Bennett asked a yes or no question: “Does she stand by all her Government's statements, policies, and actions?”

To which the Prime Minister answered:

“Yes, particularly my statement that "Our instinct was that New Zealanders were being fleeced at the pump, now the Commerce Commission has confirmed that [it] is true.", with the Commerce Commission finding that New Zealand has the third-highest petrol prices in the OECD before tax, and that "The core problem, in our view, is that an active wholesale market does not exist in New Zealand." I note that the last Government could have acted but decided it wasn't easy and decided to do nothing. It seems to me that was their general philosophy in Government.”

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

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern answers a question from Leader of the Opposition Simon Bridges. Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

The question didn’t mention fuel prices but the Prime Minister talked about it anyway. 

Question time exists so Parliament can check up on the Government. There are a lot of rules about how it works which means a lot of tactics have been developed by MPs to work around those rules so they can support their own arguments. 

The first question has to be lodged in the morning which gives Ministers time to prepare. The follow-up questions stay secret.

A Minister has the choice of just answering yes but if they’re pretty sure they know what the follow up question is, they can use their answer to get the first word in.

Which is why the Prime Minister started talking about fuel before Paula Bennett had even asked about it.

There is a chance that the follow-up (sometimes called supplementary) isn’t on that topic but in this case the Prime Minister had guessed correctly and Bennett’s follow-up question was on fuel prices. 

Sometimes the topic of the question is made clear with questions like: 

“Does he stand by all of the Government's statements, policies, and actions in relation to the economy?” (National MP Paul Goldsmith to the Minister of Finance Grant Robertson)

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National MP Brett Hudson asked for specifics during question time this week Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

And sometimes the questions are specific right off the bat.

“How much relief in cents per litre will New Zealand motorists see, if any, as a result of the draft market study into the retail fuel sector, and how does that compare to the increase in petrol taxes since the Government entered office?” - (National MP Brett Hudson to the Minister of Commerce and Consumer Affairs Kris Faafoi).

Often the questions are asked by MPs who are not ministers which includes MPs from the Governing parties.

But these backbench MPs are often assigned a particular question to ask about announcements or reports. For example:

“What reports has he seen about the New Zealand fuel market?"


“What recent announcements has the Government made on homelessness, about providing extra support for individuals and families?”

Or: “What announcements has he made regarding capability for the New Zealand Army?

Labour MP Deborah Russel in the House 21 Feb 2018

Labour MP Deborah Russell a patsy question in the House on fuel prices to the Minister of Commerce and Consumer Affairs Kris Faafoi. Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

These questions are often referred to as patsy-questions meaning they’re softer questions which give a minister the chance to promote a policy or shed some good light on the work they’ve done, especially if they've just had a question from the opposition which tried to expose their failings. 

After about an hour of back and forth, question time is done with, until the next time. 

Watch question time live and on demand on Parliament’s website.