19 Feb 2020

Not my problem: the rules on responsibility

From The House , 6:55 pm on 19 February 2020

In Question Time at Parliament ministers get quizzed by the opposition or their own allies. But there are rules about what they can be asked and what they can answer.

One of the main rules is that ministers can only be asked or answer about things that they are officially responsible for.   

The rules on responsibility were a recurring theme this week in questions from Simon Bridges (Leader of the Opposition) to Jacinda Ardern (Prime Minister) about Winston Peters (Deputy Prime Minister).  

National Party Leader Simon Bridges during the debate on the Prime Minister's Statement

National Party Leader Simon Bridges during the debate on the Prime Minister's Statement Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

SIMON BRIDGES: “Does she stand by her statement when asked yesterday if there are standards of behaviour she believes minor parties in her Government should adhere to, "of course"?

JACINDA ARDERN: “The only amendment I would make is that I believe all political parties should adhere to a high standard of behaviour.”

Whilst Ministers are responsible for the things in their own portfolios, say health or education; the Prime Minister is responsible for everyone’s portfolios; and also for all of the actual ministers themselves.

That is why on Tuesday this question was in the basket of supplementaries: 

SIMON BRIDGES: “Does she accept the Cabinet Manual states that "Ultimately, Ministers are accountable to the Prime Minister for their behaviour?"


Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in the House.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in the House. Photo: VNP / Irra Lee

There are lots of rules for MPs. But Ministers have more rules besides. Ministerial rules are outlined in the Cabinet Manual. Among them is one that says that both personally and professionally “at all times ministers are expected to act lawfully and to behave in a way that upholds, and is seen to uphold, the highest ethical standards.”

Simon Bridges’ questions allude to the investigation by the Serious Fraud Office into the New Zealand First Foundation.

Mr Bridges avoided being specific. Possibly to stay safely within Parliament’s sub judice rules but also possibly because being general was tactically helpful as Mr Peters is not actually a trustee of the Foundation (so at a remove from the investigation). 

Follow up questions, called supplementaries, can be asked by any MP and so Winston Peters used one to turn attention back on the National Party’s own troubles (their donations have been investigated and charges laid). 

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters in the House

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters in the House Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

WINSTON PETERS: “If the Prime Minister knew that a certain political leader was going to be swept into a court case involving $200,000 of illegal donations to a party, would she act on that matter?”

Hypothetical questions are frowned upon, especially if used as a cudgel - and the question was ruled out. But the Deputy Prime Minister wasn’t really expecting an answer. The question sometimes does the job on its own. 

Ministerial responsibility is a tricky but important part of question time and it turned up again on Wednesday when the very same issues were raised again. Again Winston Peters used a supplementary question to employ attack as defence - and turn the spotlight back on the opposition.

WINSTON PETERS: “Could I ask the Prime Minister: why would a member of Parliament or, dare I say it, a Minister be responsible for answering questions to the media when the party that's setting the questions up hasn't got the courage to ask that member one question in the House?”

Again the question was disallowed. While the Prime Minister has many responsibilities the opposition is not one of them.

For the record here’s the answer to his rhetorical question: MPs are not allowed to ask the Deputy PM about his political party - because it is not part of his ministerial responsibility. But the Prime Minister can be asked (in a round-about way) because she is responsible for the conduct of her ministers, and all of their behaviours can fall within that responsibility for conduct.

It’s all about responsibility.