4 Jun 2020

A week in Question Time: the repetition tango

From The House , 6:55 pm on 4 June 2020

Each day during Question Time at Parliament there are twelve sets of questions to ministers, with roughly two thirds coming from opposition MPs. 

Most of the attention however gets hogged by the questions asked of the Prime Minister. 

It’s typically also the longest set of questions, often twice as long on average.

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Todd Muller awaits the nod from the Speaker for question one. Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

This week was the second week with a brand new National Party leader learning to walk the high wire in the centre ring. 

It’s not as easy as it looks. Simon Bridges was back in the House this week sitting towards the back of the National Party MPs and watching his new boss with a look that might be interpreted as saying exactly that.

Simon Bridges watches from ringside during Question Time

Todd Muller listens to an answer to his question while Simon Bridges watches from ringside. Photo: ©VNP / Phil Smith

Last week we looked at Todd Muller’s first forays and noted that he was asking very specific primary questions to be able to demand more detail in the Prime Minister’s answers.

He used the same approach this week but expanded on an approach he trialled last week - repetition.

There were versions of ‘I ask again’, ‘I repeat’, ‘can I confirm?’ and ‘are you saying?’ to couch pretty much the same question multiple times.

This led to an equal amount of repetition in the answers.

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  Opposition Leader Todd Muller interjects during an answer to a question about Covid-19 alert levels. Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

Exactly what the idea behind the tactic is is not plain as yet. It could be aimed at trying to coax the perfect soundbyte answer, or prompt an angry reproach, or just generously give the Prime Minister practice at honing a response to a topic. Who can say?

There are no rules that prohibit repeating identical questions every single time if you want to go whole hog.

"I repeat the question: will she accept my offer to work with the Government to implement National's JobStart policy as soon as possible?" - Todd Muller

"And I repeat my answer: I will leave it to the Minister of Finance to respond to his request, but I will refer the member to the programme called Mana in Mahi, which is also a subsidy to employers that totals $9,580 in subsidy. A major difference between this scheme and what the member is proposing is that there is a requirement to keep an employee in training, to try and stop the potential churn that some commentators have raised might be an issue with the scheme the member has proposed." - Jacinda Ardern

Tuesday’s theme was whether the Government would adopt National’s job start policy - a policy that would grant $10,000 to small businesses if they employed people. 

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  Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern answering a question this week Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

On Wednesday the theme and variations were whether New Zealand should already be at Alert Level One. There was of course a lot of to and fro, with both repeated questions and reiterated answers. Arguably the crux of the to and fro was this exchange.

"Why is she so reticent to move to alert level 1, when Dr Ashley Bloomfield has said there is—and I quote—'no evidence of community transmission in New Zealand'?" - Todd Muller

"I'm acting on the advice of director-general Dr Ashley Bloomfield. He is the one giving us the guidance to remain where we are. He has expressed comfort with us making that consideration on 8 June, but that is not an accurate reflection of his views." - Jacinda Ardern

On Thursday the Deputy National Party Leader Nikki Kaye’s got a shot against the Deputy Prime Minister, Winston Peters. She asked as herself, but he was playing the role of Prime Minister and so was replying as more-or-less Jacinda Ardern.

The theme was a repeat of Wednesday’s, though it was a reprise with less recurrence.