27 Oct 2021

Diving into Patsy

From The House , 6:55 pm on 27 October 2021

On Tuesday, when MPs ‘went through the mail’, amongst the bills, reports, and papers was a petition wanting a change in Parliament’s rules. 

The petitioner wanted a ban on Ministers “reading from, or referring to, any written material when answering a supplementary question from a member of a party in Government.”

Grant Robertson wondered aloud if the petition was secretly from the Speaker, who often intervenes when the answers to those, patsy questions start to drag. 

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Grant Robertson (probably the MP most likely to have a post-politics career in stand-up). file photo Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

We need to talk about Patsy

The petition was obviously from someone who apparently follows Question Time closely and really dislikes one aspect of it. I wondered how much most people knew about that part - the patsy question. So here is a deep dive into the world of the patsy.

Firstly, patsy is the slightly derogatory name for any question an MP asks of a minister from his own party. It refers to a newspaper agony aunt of yesteryear who wrote herself questions to have better topics to answer.

In Parliament they are soft lobs from a friendly team member helping you hit the answer for six.

Patsy questions are frequently maligned but they do have a value. They are the equivalent of the legal norm of allowing the defence team to also choose and ask questions of witnesses in court.

The construction of a line of questioning can shape a narrative, and different questions can make for very different answers.

A day in the life of Patsy

I thought it would be interesting to consider how they work with a single day as an example. In this case Wednesday October 27, for no other reason than that’s the day this story was made. 

So, on Wednesday Labour MPs asked Labour ministers five of the twelve primary questions in Question Time. 

Note: There are twelve primary questions but as many as 60 follow-up questions in each Question Time. The follow-up (supplementary) questions can be used to follow up after any primary question but they tend to cluster around prominance. (For example the most each day are typically asked by the Leader of the Opposition of the Prime Minister.)

All parties get an allocation of the primary and supplementary questions according to relative party size, but a governing party's portion is much reduced because the totals ignore ministers.

Labour has 26 Ministers and undersecretaries, the Green Party has two. After that deduction, while Labour has nearly twice as many MPs as National it only gets a few more questions.

It varies slightly but on Wednesday the party availability of supplementary questions was like this:

  • Labour - 26
  • National - 21
  • ACT - 6
  • Green - 5
  • Te Pāti Māori - 2

That numerical dominance doesn’t play out though. Governing parties almost never use all of their available supplementaries - on Wednesday Labour used 17 of a possible 26. 

Fifteen of those questions were planned supplementaries following from a patsy primary question. Two more were tossed in amongst questions from the opposition. 

That second purpose is one reason governing parties always leave questions available. They can be useful to help a minister out of a hole, or provide them with the opportunity to clarify an answer, or to give more information, or just take a swipe back at the opposition (though they might call that putting things in context).

Brevity is the soul

Patsy questions often have long answers. They are frequently pre-prepared  (which the petitioner dislikes), but despite that most primary patsy questions are short - because there are only a few follow-ups. 

On Wednesday the four shortest groups of questions were all from patsy primaries. 

You’ll remember there were five primary patsies though. The fifth was actually quite long - the second longest of the day. 

It was a series of questions to Nanaia Mahuta on Three Waters Reform. Ms Mahuta had a busy day because that topic also enjoyed a primary question from the opposition. 

A rough breakdown of the time for each primary question was as follows:

  • National to Prime Minister - 9:10
  • Labour to Finance Minister - 2:10
  • ACT to ACC Minister - 4:25
  • National to Finance Minister - 5:00
  • Labour to Local Govt Minister - 8:25
  • ACT to Climate Change Minister - 3:20
  • Labour to Building/Construction Minister - 1:30
  • National to Covid-19 Minister - 3:00
  • Green to ACC Minister - 5:40
  • Labour to Assoc Education Minister - 2:30
  • National to Local Govt Minister - 6:60
  • Labour to Workplace Relations Minister - 2:25

So, in total today the House spent roughly 17 minutes on primary questions that were patsies, and 38 minutes on those less friendly. 

The purpose of a patsy

We are mostly looking at primary patsy questions here. 

Variously they might outline a policy, reiterate an announcement, proffer good news or correct what a government sees as a misunderstanding. Sometimes they are just a publicservice  announcement.

On Wednesday they went like this.

Question 2 - Labour MP Barbara Edmonds to Grant Robertson.

The Minister of Finance used question 2 as a chance to deliver his own verdict on the economy. He doesn’t always relate only positive news, but that’s the theme. The patsy as the opportunity for good news is widely used.

Kiri Allan wasn’t involved on Wednesday but often begins her answers to patsies with the exclamation “Mr Speaker, more good news!”

Grant Robertson both read and referred to answers - but he was outlining various economic statistics and quitting individuals, so that’s hardly surprising.

Question 5 - Labour MP Rachel Boyack to Nanaia Mahuta.

The Minister for Local Government was putting the Government’s perspective on the Three Waters Programme - an effort to restructure and fix problematic water infrastructure currently administered by numerous local bodies.

Nanaia Mahuta was also grilled on the same topic by Nicola Willis later in Question Time. Watching the two sets of questions side by side is illustrative of the incredibly varied outcomes and characters of the different approaches.

Question 7 - Labour MP Greg O’Connor to the Minister for Building and Construction.

Poto Williams was re-announcing a new code of ethics for licensed builders. This was very short and snappy with just one follow-up question. It was the first time I had heard of it.

After a number of recent ‘my-builder-screwed-me’ media stories this question could be seen as a public information opportunity or, more politically, as an effort to demonstrate that the government is working to improve an area of concern. 

Question 10. Labour MP Angela Roberts to the Associate Minister of Education

This was a former teacher quizzing a former principal. Jan Tinetti seemed to be mostly giving a public service announcement. The Ministry of Education is apparently reviewing the way that Learning Support is working for the highest needs students. She was updating people on the state of that review and encouraging them to feed into it.

“I encourage all of those who wish to have a voice in the future of learning support services to actively engage in this work. More detail can be found on the Ministry of Education's website.”

Question 12. Labour MP Ibrahim Omer to the Minister for Workplace Relations and Safety.

Chris Hipkins was standing in for the minister but as it was a Covid-19 issue, it’s in his bailiwick. This was a mix of policy reminder and political messaging. The topic was the increased range of vaccine mandates for workers. 

The key informational messages were “We're mandating vaccination for workers at businesses where customers need to show COVID-19 vaccine certificates.” and “a new four-week notice period will apply if people are terminated if they choose not to be vaccinated and their work requires vaccination.” 

The political message was ‘employers and unions have asked for clarity and are happy with the outcome.’ 

The Patsy verdict

Are they read, useful or boring? 

Yes, patsy questions are often read out (and some ministers read like someone trying to apply aural anesthesia). But they are also information heavy and full of statistics, facts and quotes, so that is understandable. The rules demand Ministers get those things correct. 

Yes patsies can be dry, dull or even boring, but non-patsy questions aren’t likely to be set to music for the stage either. Parliamentary debates can be even more plodding. 

But none of that is the point - entertainment value is not the measure of worth in a Parliament. It is a contest of ideas, not of attention.

Yes, patsies are often political - but so is pretty much everything in the House. That is a given.

Personally, I frequently learn things useful both as a journalist and as a member of the public from Question Time - and from patsy and non-patsy alike. They both have this value.

But for most people (who don’t follow Question Time closely), they miss out on patsy questions entirely because we in the media usually ignore them. When you get right down to it, the blood sport of non-patsy questions is just more diverting and media cant help but gravitate towards conflict.

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