Question Time at Parliament is probably an opposition’s most regular, public opportunity to diminish a government. To ferret out flaws and failings and fly them like flags for all to see.
During the previous (52nd) parliament the opposition was in a prime position to do this, because with so many MPs it had a preponderance of the available questions. Basically it got to fire more shots. This is no longer the case.
Of course having more shots to fire isn’t everything (more on this later). But more shots certainly help.
The maths of Question Time
It might help to explain how Question Time gets divvied up. (For a spreadsheet scroll to the bottom of this article).
Each day Question Time includes up to 72 questions: Twelve primary questions and 60 supplementaries that delve deeper into the answers to those initial 12.
Each party gets a portion of those questions based on their size. But (and here’s the trick), not their proportion of the whole Parliament - instead their back-benchers as a proportion of all back-benchers.
So, for these equations the Ministers and Parliamentary Under-Secretaries (the Executive) are ignored. This has a major impact on Labour’s dominance and a smaller impact on the Greens.
Obviously this math works in favour of the opposition parties. This is only reasonable as it’s the Executive that is being held to account and the Opposition who are most focused on achieving that.
Those equations played out in the House
There are now 28 MPs in the Executive (26 from Labour, 2 from the Greens). So the total number of back-benchers is 92 (of the 120 MPs).
Last Parliament Labour had many fewer MPs from which to pick a cabinet and nearly half of the governing parties’ members were part of the Executive.
As a result Labour, Green and New Zealand First combined were allowed just over one third of the questions. The rest were enjoyed by the Opposition.
This Parliament the governing and support parties enjoy a much larger portion of the non-executive MPs. Labour has 42.4 percent of the non-executive MPs (against 27 percent last parliament), the Greens have 8.7 percent (against 4.5 percent). Together they now enjoy more than half the available questions.
The National Party now has just 36 percent of the non-executive MPs, which is a fraction of the huge 62 percent it had at the beginning of the previous Parliament. National used to get either seven or eight primary and 38 supplementary questions each day. They now subsist on four or five primary and about 21 supplementaries. That’s a drop of nearly half.
Of course ACT, the other opposition party have 11 percent of the non-executive MPs and now get at least a primary question every day and 20 supplementaries a week. That’s 10 times as many as they had previously.
The Maori Party aren’t (one could argue), in opposition but independent. (They voted for the Government’s tax bill this week, which was a supply measure). They get about four supplementary questions a week and one primary question every four or so sitting days.
What is the impact of the changes?
So how does all this change anything in the House? Here are a few possibilities:
- Question Times may be shorter on average (as governing parties seldom use all of their supplementaries and now have more to not use).
- Or they may be longer (because patsy questions tend to get longer answers - and there are more opportunities for those).
- Either way the Speaker is likely to be demanding on how these are used as they will be a much bigger part of Question Time.
- The National Party, having many fewer primary questions will get to attack fewer ministers each day and therefore address a narrower breadth of subject areas.
- More junior ministers will get fewer questions. The two or three most senior ministers get questions most days, leaving fewer opposition questions to aim lower.
- More junior National Party spokespeople will also get fewer questions and less practice at asking them.
- The National Party will need to get good at using fewer questions to good effect - harder than it looks.
- The ACT party have had so few primary questions before that they are used to piggybacking on other MPs' questions. They will need to learn a whole new approach.
It’s more than numbers that matter
There is a lot more to ‘winning’ Question Time than just asking lots of questions. To pick up on the earlier metaphor getting to fire more shots isn’t the only requirement for hitting more targets.
You also need good ammunition - in the form of available flaws and mis-steps from the government of the day. An easy target helps (in the form of a minister who is poor at ducking incoming fire).
And you also need good sharpshooters because the skill of developing a crippling line of questions is actually quite a rare one.
Given good ammunition and good aim a talented questioner might be able to do significant damage with just a few well-aimed shots.
And that’s just as well because those few shots are all that’s available to either opposition party this Parliament.
Note: In an earlier version of this story we reported that the Greens may have gifted some of their supplementary questions to the ACT party. We have since been assured that this is not the case.
The spreadsheet below outlines how the maths of questions works. It compares the numbers from the 52nd Parliament (from 2017) with the 53rd (the current one).
The important line is how many non-executive members each party has as a percentage of all the non-executive MPs. According to that proportion the 12 primary and 60 supplementary questions available daily are divided up. Supps = supplementary (or follow-up) questions.