23 Jun 2021

Q&As colonising parliament

From The House , 6:55 pm on 23 June 2021

People sometimes describe Parliaments as places where MPs spend a lot of time arguing past each other. Lots of speeches, not much listening.

Some Parliaments seem to feature a slow train of politicians giving very long, slow  speeches to apparently empty rooms. And not always even talking about the matter at hand.  

Thankfully in New Zealand’s Parliament speeches are short and MPs are compelled to stay on track.  

Because Parliament has a strong bent towards experimentation and improvement, they increasingly spend a lot of their time asking questions rather than making speeches at all. 

National MPs Andrew Bayly and Michael Woodhouse react to answers in Question Time

National MPs Andrew Bayly and Michael Woodhouse react to answers in Question Time Photo: ©VNP / Phil Smith

In Select Committees MPs are all about quizzing submitters - that’s nothing new. But until recently they only quizzed each other during Question Time.

The House begins each day with an hour of oral questions to ministers; that’s a long standing tradition. Before MPs even get to the chamber they may face an inquisition from the media.

But that media format has recently escaped from press conferences and Question Time and is colonising traditional debates as well.

Questions before question time

The first thing that happened in the House on Wednesday was a Ministerial Statement from Chris Hipkins on a possible Covid-19 outbreak. 

Chris Hipkins speaks in an urgent debate on the travel bubble

Chris Hipkins speaks in an urgent debate on the travel bubble Photo: ©VNP / Phil Smith

Ministerial Statements allow a minister to brief MPs on some topical event. The briefing is traditionally followed by a round of speeches in response from the other parties. 

No more.  

The first MP to ‘take a call’ in response to Chris Hipkins was National’s Chris Bishop.

“Thank you to the Minister for the update. I've just got a series of questions that I think people would be interested in the answer to. When were officials first advised of the Sydney case, when were Ministers notified, and when was the public notified?”

Definitely not a speech. 

Those questions were answered and followed up with quite a few more in a free-ranging two-and-fro between the two MPs. The interchange usefully added to MPs’ knowledge. 

National Party MP Chris Bishop in the House

National Party MP Chris Bishop in the House Photo: ©VNP / Phil Smith

Speeches in response have now become uncommon, but are still allowed. The Green Party made a short statement in response this week but National, ACT and Te Paati Maori all had queries - or 'speechy' versions of questions.

Because this is still a very new way of doing things it doesn’t come with an accretion of rules such as have developed around Question Time.

The questions are less restricted, they come in batches, include irony, are preceded by political assertions and comments that would all be verboten in Question Time.

Sometimes these Q& A sessions feel similar to a media standup, but without the ‘who goes next’ squabbles. 

Another difference is that journalists are better at pithy questions. Politicians often wander around a topic for a while first. 

While this allows a political point on the way towards a query, it also gives the answerer plenty of time to prepare their response. 

The committee stage as quiz

Minister of Local Government Nanaia Mahuta stands to speak from the Table in the debating chamber as her bill on Māori Wards goes through the Committee of the Whole House

Minister of Local Government Nanaia Mahuta stands to speak from the Table in the debating chamber as her bill on Māori Wards goes through the Committee of the Whole House Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

This new preference for quizzes hasn't just changed the shape of ministerial statements; it has also colonised an entire stage for debating legislation. 

The only time-unlimited stage of a bill’s progress is the committee stage. 

The committee stage is when MPs get a final chance to adjust a bill before it gets a final up-or-down vote (at the third reading). It is a chance to fine tune the details.

The minister in charge of a bill has long sat at the front of the chamber to make occasional speeches in response. 

Now those occasional speeches are regular and taken to answer the flocks of questions asked by opposition MPs.

MPs can still make speeches during the committee stage, but they increasingly opt for an extended grilling of a minister instead. 

Because they can now speak as many times as they like, MPs can pop up and down with questions like an extended game of whack-a-mole.

It’s a very new way of ‘debating’ legislation. And so far it also seems to have been a successful experiment.

It is certainly a world away from the caricature of MPs arguing past each other. All speeches, no listening? Hardly.

Both asking and answering strings of tough questions is an increasingly crucial part of an MPs skill set - and not just in Select Committees or Question Time.