2 Sep 2020

Last day rules at Parliament

From The House , 6:55 pm on 2 September 2020

Wednesday was the final day of Parliament before the election, The 52nd Parliament dissolves on Sunday and we await the 53rd parliament being summoned into life post-election.

But even on the last day Parliament still has rules. And sometimes MPs' faulting them helps us explain their inner workings.  

The ultimate day held just questions, a debate, and a ruling from the Speaker, which was promptly broken.

The Leader of the Opposition Judith Collins criticises the Government during the last general debate for the 52nd Parliament

The Leader of the Opposition Judith Collins criticises the Government during the last general debate for the 52nd Parliament Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

The Speaker's ruling was a reminder really. He’d previously emailed it to MPs but wanted it read into the record so it could be included in the next edition of Speakers’ Rulings. 

Speakers’ Rulings are a collection of various Speakers’ interpretations of Parliament’s rules. It is Parliament's version of the case law that guides the decisions of judges, based on the legal interpretations of previous judges.

The ruling was a reminder that MPs are only meant to ask a single question at a time during Question Time. But they can get away with a second ‘leg’ to a question if it follows naturally and can’t easily be asked separately. 

So, for example you might ask “Will the Government give every child free gobstoppers? And if not, why not?” But you can’t ask “Will the Government give every child free gobstoppers, provide half-price lollipops and subsidise discount bicycles? And if not, why not?” That’s four questions. 

You might reword it to have just one or two 'legs', but it fails like it is.

There are a number of such rules around questions, so constructing the perfect question is not as easy as it looks; something that Judith Collins illustrated just minutes later during her questions to the Prime Minister.

The primary (opening) question had been this: “Does she stand by her statement, "We will continue to be your single source of truth"?

The Prime Minister had pointed out more than once that the quote was just an element of a much larger quote and didn’t refer only to herself, but she stood by it. 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in the house on Tuesday 18 August

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

A number of follow-up questions (supplementaries) later the Leader of the Opposition asked: “Was her Deputy Prime Minister speaking the truth when he said today of the COVID-19 response, 'We haven't done as well as we could have done. We let our guard down...' "

The Speaker stopped her. The question had managed to break two different rules and it wasn’t even finished yet. 

Firstly, it had implied another MP (Winston Peters) was lying. You can’t do that. It’s called “making a reflection”.

Secondly, it referred to a statement Mr Peters had made in his role as Leader of New Zealand First.

The Speaker questioned “whether the Deputy Prime Minister made any comments at all. I think the leader of a party did, and that is not the responsibility of the Prime Minister.”

He’s right. The Prime Minister has responsibility for what is said by the Deputy Prime Minister but she is not responsible for the Leader of New Zealand First - even if those two entities inhabit the same skin. The trick is telling them apart.

Judith Collins took all that on board, made a couple of adjustments and had another crack.

“Is the Rt Hon Winston Peters correct, then, when he says of the COVID-19 response, 'We haven't done as well as we could have done. We let our guard down. Too many things fell through the gaps, or the hole, rather, that was left by the bureaucracy. The fact of the matter is that the Labour Ministers…' "

The Speaker interrupted again.

Speaker Trevor Mallard listens to Question Time in the House

Speaker Trevor Mallard listens to Question Time in the House Photo: ©VNP / Phil Smith

“Order! The member now has four supplementary questions. If the member had listened carefully to my ruling, she would've limited herself to two.”

So that was three strikes for one question, which is quite impressive. But Labour MP Chris Hipkins rose to offer assistance to the Speaker (seldom a good idea) and suggested a fourth problem.

“I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. I don't think that's the only issue with that question. It doesn't relate to the primary question.”

All supplementary questions have to flow on from the primary questions or the previous answers. Non-sequitur queries get ruled out. 

The Speaker decided that “seeing as I'm in a generous mood, I'll allow the Prime Minister to answer.”

So she did.

“Look, I actually stand proudly on the record of New Zealanders and their response to COVID-19, and this is a response that would not have seen New Zealand having one of the lowest death rates relative to other countries, some of the highest testing rates, some of the highest compliance, and just today some of the highest compliance with technology solutions as well—we should all be proud of the efforts of New Zealanders in this global pandemic, because, whilst it surges globally, we have continued to take a process of elimination that puts us in the best position to protect New Zealanders' health and the best position for our economy to recover. I for one am very proud of that.”

Even on the last day of Parliament there are rules. Many rules. Rules that MPs struggle with and/or ignore as is useful to making a political point.

But, as with school, in the last hurrah, when everyone's perhaps feeling a bit 'auld-lang syne', or perhaps just keen to get it over with, you can sometimes get away with a little largesse.

You can read the full exchange here.