18 May 2022

Question Time: How to get it straight

From The House , 6:55 pm on 18 May 2022

You probably have the impression that Parliament’s debating chamber is a bear pit of political jibes and raucous, outlandish claims. You’re not far wrong.

But there are times in Parliament’s gladiatorial day where it only really functions if MPs can keep it reasonably straight - hard as that may seem.

Most obviously is Question Time, because you can’t expect a straight answer without a straight question. So, Question Time is performed as straight as possible, but not always by choice.

There are many rules (and a Speaker) to help.


Reasonably regularly, the Speaker has to remind opposition MPs (who have the most temptation to toss in wobbly questions) to try harder. For example on Tuesday, National Party Deputy Nicola Willis had this exchange.

Nicola Willis: “Well, can he explain how action 3.3.1 in the Government's emissions reduction plan to "develop an income insurance scheme"—that is, introducing what is sometimes described as a "jobs tax" —will reduce…”

Speaker: “Order! Order! The member will rephrase her question.”

The Speaker is pretty consistently generous in second chances on questions and Willis knew exactly which phrase to excise in order to fall inside the rules. 

Standing Order 390(1)b says “Questions must be concise and not contain any arguments, inferences, imputations, epithets, ironical expressions, or expressions of opinion.”

The epithet “jobs tax” contravenes a couple of those taboos. 

It’s clever politics to attempt to influence public understanding by normalising a politically laden phrase. “Jobs tax”, “death tax”, "death panels" and “hard-earned tax-payers’ money” are all examples.

Willis is not alone in breaking this particular rule. It’s been broken regularly recently.

National MP Mark Mitchell in the House

National MP Mark Mitchell in the House Photo: © VNP / Phil Smith

Here’s an example from National’s Justice spokesperson Mark Mitchell, last week.

“Is this investment in targeting the gangs an admission that the government's "soft-on-crime" approach has failed?”

The Speaker also allowed Mitchell to make a second attempt but he didn’t seem to know how to rephrase his question without the heavily politically laden “soft-on-crime” epithet and he lost his question.

National Party Leader Christopher Luxon tried a similar trick last week.

“Why does she think it's OK for government agencies to waste taxpayer money, when up and down the country, everyday Kiwis are having to spend…”

He too failed to rephrase his question inside the rules, but I'm going to presume you can figure out which phrase was the naughty one. Can you?

Finally, here’s one from ACT Deputy Brooke van Velden. If you want to play Speaker at home, here is the rule. “Questions must be concise and not contain any arguments, inferences, imputations, epithets, ironical expressions, or expressions of opinion.”

“Why are rural New Zealanders so often overlooked and forgotten by this government, and is this just the latest case of the government ignoring the needs of rural New Zealand?”

Strike one - try again. That may all seem slightly pedantic but there are good reasons for the many rules around Question Time. Each of them is anchored in long experience and has been agreed by MPs (not just Speakers).

In this case, highly political questions invite highly political answers and once that mood gets a go-on Parliament doesn't discover anything useful from ministers, but does accrete layers of stinky mud.

Even more practically, if you ask an obviously slanted question you may not get any answer at all. The Minister is within their rights to simply reply, “I reject the assertion in that question.”

And that doesn’t get you anywhere. 

If you want to get into the weeds of Parliament rules you can find the most recent edition of the Standing Orders here. Rules about questions and answers mostly start at page 105. 

If you want to dig even further, interpretations of those rules are kept in Speakers’ Rulings here. (Note the first numbers in the rulings' index refer to page numbers. Don't get lost, you may never find your way back out.)

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