17 Mar 2021

Everyone deserves a defence - even Patsy

From The House , 12:00 pm on 17 March 2021

The questions ministers get asked in Parliament range from the fiendish bouncer to the gentle long-hop. The easy queries from colleagues that help a minister put their case are often called ‘patsy’ questions.

Patsies are derided as time-wasting, manipulative, propagandist or just boring. So what is the point of the patsy? How might someone plead their case?

If it please your honour this article will present a defence of the patsy. When the defence rests, two MPs possibly most qualified to comment will add their own opinions.

The sheet of Questions for Oral Answer that MPs get, printed on yellow paper. Note question 1: questions from support party MPs aren't always patsies. On today's list Green MP Julie Ann Genter asks the Minister of Finance about house prices.

The sheet of Questions for Oral Answer that MPs get, printed on yellow paper. Note question 1: Support party MPs don't always ask patsies. Photo: ©VNP / Phil Smith

The basics 

Parliament’s Question Time exists to help Parliament keep a check on the actions of the Executive (often called the Government). Question Time is framed around 12 primary questions aimed at ministers, along with as many as 60 follow-up questions (supplementaries) at the Speaker's discretion.

Those 72 questions are shared out between the parties according to their proportion of the 92 non-executive MPs (the backbenchers).   

Labour has only 39 backbenchers (because of the 65 Labour MPs, 26 are in the Executive), National has 33, ACT 10, the Greens have 8 (plus 2 in the Executive) and Te Paati Māori has 2. So Labour gets the most questions (42 percent), then National (36 percent) and so on.

In reality while Labour gets the most supplementary questions it seldom uses them all, so National asks more.  

That name

Why patsy? The etymology of the term is mysterious. It doesn’t even appear with this definition in the OED or the Oxford Dictionary of NZ English. 

In general usage a patsy is either a scapegoat or a sucker. The closest meaning is someone who inadvertently advances someone else’s cause, but MPs don’t usually ask easy questions by accident.

In Australia they call friendly parliamentary questions Dorothy Dixers after an Aussie advice columnist who was reputed to write her own questions.

In the US they call easy questions softballs, but they don’t have our kind of ‘patsies’ because they don’t have our degree of responsible government. Congressmen can’t ask cabinet members questions unless they subpoena them first. 

In the UK they are called planted questions (though there are also references to patsies in their Hansard).

The patsy twins 

It’s important to note that there are two kinds of patsy questions: 

  • Patsy primary questions: the kick-off questions that select a minister to answer and a broad topic of inquiry); and, 

  • Patsy supplementary questions: the friendly follow-ups to primary questions. Some of these patsies are defensive (interposed into an opposition MP's question line), others just continue the line of questioning from a primary patsy. 

Leader of the Opposition Judith Collins considers her options for follow-up questions during the first Question Time of the 53rd Parliament

Opposition leader Judith Collins ponders the options for her next supplementary question while she listens to the prime minister's response to the previous one. A perfectly good question line can be derailed by a good defensive patsy. It's no wonder oppositions traditionally don't like them. Photo: ©VNP / Phil Smith

The patsy-haters 1: The Opposition

Two main groups dislike patsy questions: opposition MPs and journalists.

Opposition MPs dislike them because patsies don’t much assist in their mission to probe and criticise the government, and hopefully to remove it from office.  

Patsies can also be detrimental to the argument an opposition is trying to build - especially supplementary patsies. 

From the opposition benches it must feel like sitting through a government promo. 

Of course, once opposition MPs are in government these views are likely to change. In 2015, when he was Leader of the Opposition, Andrew Little told The Spin-off “We should also get rid of patsy questions. They are nothing more than tax-payer funded ads.” It’s a fluctuating point-of-view thing. 

The patsy-haters 2: Journalists

Journalists dislike patsies because news stories seldom begin “Government says it’s doing a great job… .”  

Because patsy questions often serve up good news they win very few column inches. To a journalist they feel like a waste of time and space.

Hard news is seldom good news, and journalists like hard news. The more cynical reporter would argue that good news is for human interest reporters, and for PR flacks (ironically called the dark side).

Parliament: Court of public opinion

Parliament is sometimes described as the ‘court of public opinion’. This metaphor is particularly true of Question Time when Parliament’s objective of ‘holding the government to account’ is on full public display.

Let’s stick with that metaphor: Question Time is a court hearing and the defendant facing prosecution is the government of the day.

A basic premise of any just court is that questions don’t only come from the prosecution. In this metaphor patsy questions are questions from defence counsel. 

We know from TV that a good prosecutor can more easily portray the accused as guilty if unchallenged. Well asked questions are a very efficient weapon and can corral the possible responses to build a specific picture.

Green MP Chloe Swarbrick asks a supplementary question in the House

Green MP Chloe Swarbrick is one of the House's better exponents of the defensive supplementary patsy. Here she references a quickly googled counter-detail on her phone. Photo: © VNP / Phil Smith

Supplementary patsy questions

To recap, a supplementary is a follow-up question after a primary question has identified the minister under scrutiny and an area of focus.

In Parliament the patsy supplementary that follows an opposition primary question is the equivalent of the defense attorney’s cross-examination. These questions can provide evidence the court would otherwise miss. 

They might: 

  • Allow comparisons. (“Is this a new issue?”)
  • Allow the witness to deflect blame. (“Was this a problem when you entered office?”)
  • Allow a wider context. (“Can the minister provide an overview of…?”)
  • Allow counter-evidence. (“Has the minister seen any evidence that…?” )
  • Allow contrary opinions to those already heard. (“Has the minister seen any reports that suggest…?”) 
  • Suggest a rebuttal the witness hadn’t thought of. (“Isn’t it true that…”)
  • Help the witness summarise. (“Is the minister saying that...?”)
  • Allow a mulligan after a bungled answer with an easier version of the question.  
  • Or just answer for them (“Would it be accurate to say…?”)

Cross examination patsy questions provide the parliamentary jury (and the public) with a different perspective (and sometimes more information). Just as you would expect in a court.

Minister of Finance Grant Robertson on comedic attack during a General Debate

Grant Robertson, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance is probably the most regular recipient of patsy primary questions. They are an opportunity for him to reflect on positive economic news and reports that the opposition would be unlikely to highlight. Photo: ©VNP / Phil Smith

Primary patsy questions

The patsy primary question is even more vilified.  

They are the friendly initial questions that feel like “what wonderful things has the minister done recently?” or “what great news have they received about their performance?”

Yes, they sound like a promo. They often are. They could sometimes be much better, but they do have a purpose. 

Like a court, Parliament’s oversight of government performance requires reliable and balanced information. 

There’s no reason that the areas of evidence should be chosen only by the prosecution - who aim to paint the defendant in the poorest possible light.

In court, defence barristers cross-examine prosecution witnesses, but they also get to choose witnesses of their own. 

A prosecution would never willingly present a witness with evidence that might exonerate the accused. That is the defence team’s job but to do so they need to be able to choose witnesses of their own.

Of course the prosecution barrister (or opposition MP) is able to cross-examine the defence witnesses as well as their own. In reality opposition MPs frequently ignore the ‘defence witnesses’ to save up supplementary questions to follow their own primary questions. 

Other methods

Some people have suggested eliminating primary patsies altogether. In a 2015 article from The Spinoff, then-RNZ news director Brent Edwards, a former political editor, said “I would restrict Question Time to just eight questions and rule out government MPs being able to ask primary questions, although they could ask supplementary questions.”

Most opposition MPs would agree with this approach (until they become government MPs). But this wouldn’t necessarily achieve much.

If patsy primaries were no longer permitted I suspect they would be replaced by a sudden increase in ministerial statements

The outcome would be similar, but would take longer. The statement, questions and responses around a ministerial statement take roughly half an hour. A patsy question usually lasts no more than a few minutes. 

MPs’ opinions on the 'patsy as defence'

There are many former lawyers in Parliament. And many kinds of lawyers. Human rights lawyers, employment lawyers, property, commercial, treaty lawyers, prosecutors. All sorts. But, as far as we can determine there are just two MPs with experience as defence barristers. I figured they would have the best perspective on whether patsy questions relate to their own experience as trial lawyers.

Golriz Ghahraman, Green Party List MP

Green MP Golriz Ghahraman on the Foreign Affairs, Defence, and Trade select committee.

Green MP Golriz Ghahraman on the Foreign Affairs, Defence, and Trade select committee. Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

Golriz Ghahraman (Green Party, List MP), has experience as both a prosecution and defence attorney for the UN in war crime cases.

"Whilst the primary purpose of Question Time is to have a transparent public forum for the opposition (and non-government MPs) to question the government," she said. "It would be misleading to the public if the governing parties’ own work and perspective were excluded from that forum. That’s what I see as the purpose of the so-called ‘patsies’. 

"Just as in a criminal trial both sides have an opportunity, not only to challenge their opposition’s case, but also to put forward their own independent narrative. Question Time gives an opportunity for both sides to present their story.

"Prosecutors who have never worked as defence lawyers miss this. Often the prosecution would prepare for a trial anticipating defence challenges to the weaknesses in their prosecution case, but hardly ever anticipate that an independent defence case or narrative was also going to be presented. And that that case would stand alongside their case. That’s exactly what Question Time does.

"Cross examination is an absolutely essential part of the work of a defence lawyer, but so is Examination in Chief* by both sides as they draw out the facts that are important or complementary to their own side of the story."

Joseph Mooney, National Party, MP for Southland

National Party MP Joseph Mooney

National Party MP Joseph Mooney Photo: ©VNP / Phil Smith

Joseph Mooney (National Party, MP for Southland) has both prosecution and defence experience in various courts across New Zealand. 

"I would say there is some similarity between a primary patsy question and witness examination in a trial. There is also an element of witness selection.

"The prosecution and defence select witnesses who best present their case at trial before the jury.

By analogy, the government selects a minister (similar to a witness), who best presents the narrative the government wishes to present to Parliament and the public.

"Having selected their witness (aka minister), the government then elicits the evidence it wants (aka answer) via a patsy question (similar to questions asked in examination in chief in a trial).

"Supplementary patsy questions can be a mixture of witness selection and cross-examination.

"Government MPs can ask further patsy supplementary questions, which are similar to further questions asked in examination in chief*, by say, the defence of its own witness in a trial. They are designed to elicit further information related to the first question which makes the minister and the government look good.

"The government MP is aiming to make their witness (minister) look good in the eyes of the jury/public.

"Opposition MPs can however also ask a supplementary question, and if they do so, their question will be framed in a way that is similar to the way a cross-examination question is used in a trial.  

"In other words, the opposition MP is aiming to pose questions that relate to the original patsy question (and answer) but are designed to clarify and/or contradict the answer previously given by the minister.

"The opposition MP could also be aiming to undermine confidence in the evidence (aka answers) previously given by the minister in the eyes of the jury/public."

*Examination in Chief refers to the questions that a barrister asks a witness that they have chosen themselves. Cross-examination refers to the follow-up questions a barrister asks of a witness chosen by their legal opponent.