28 Jun 2022

Tips on surviving Question Time

From The House , 6:55 pm on 28 June 2022

Recently on The House we focused on a crucial ministerial skill: answering questions in Parliament’s debating chamber. It has nothing to do with actually managing a policy area, but everything to do with not looking like you’re failing.

For an example we looked at the successful gear shift adopted last week by the new Minister for Police, Chris Hipkins. As a follow-up I asked our ministerial example for some Question Time advice.

Labour MP Chris Hipkins answers a question in the House

Labour MP Chris Hipkins answers a question in the House Photo: ©VNP / Phil Smith

Some quick tips for surviving Question Time

“There is a certain art to Question Time that not everybody gets their head around,” says Chris Hipkins. 

If you watch Question Time at the beginning of each sitting day in Parliament’s House of Reps you will likely agree. Both ministers and opposition MPs display a wide range of skill in something that obviously not easy. 

Because doing it badly can be career-affecting (especially in government), you can imagine MPs don’t lack in effort. And yet, you might only identify a handful on either side of the House that really show what jazz musicians call ‘chops’. 

So, what quick tips does Chris Hipkins on the skills and approaches, especially (but not entirely) for those on the answering side of the contest.

Prepare, prepare, prepare

“I remember when I worked for Helen Clark and she was at the peak of her prowess as Prime Minister she would still spend an hour to an hour and a half every day preparing for Question Time in the House.”

“I always have between 1 and 2pm set-aside on House sitting days for house-related activity. Now if I don’t get any questions and I don’t have any other things I have to do in the House, then I get a lunch break, but if I do then I’ll eat my lunch while we’re doing our question preparation. And that means going through all of the background materials, making sure that you’ve got all of the most recent up an up-to-date information, trying to anticipate what the  questions might be so that you can be prepared for those.”

Stay nimble: don’t rely on the prep

“There’s a need to be very quick-thinking when you’re on your feet.” 

“You have to be prepared for the fact that you might get a question completely out of left field that you weren’t anticipating.”

“You also have to be able to think on your feet. Sometimes, if you get a question that you weren’t anticipating, it’ll actually throw up another whole line of questioning that you might not have even thought about before; so you have to be able to go with that.” 

March bravely to the scaffold

You can leave the chorus of sacrificial lambs to Poulenc’s Carmelites, this is about the quiet confidence that comes from preparation, and which is necessary to success.

“Just making sure that you feel comfortable and confident going into Question Time is a big part of being ready to answer questions.”

ASKING: Be prepared to improvise

“You have to be able to sometimes abandon your pre-scripted questions and all of your preparation and just go with your gut and say ‘hang on a minute, I just heard something that I wasn’t anticipating, let’s explore that a bit further’.” 

ASKING: Don’t over-prescribe your plans

“There’s absolutely no point in Question Time in relying on a pre-scripted list of questions because it doesn’t account for the fact that you might not get answers that you had necessarily anticipated.”

ANSWERING: Disrupt the opposition question line 

“One of the most disarming things that you can do… is give an Opposition member an answer to a primary question that they weren’t expecting because immediately those who rely on pre-scripted supplementary questions will come unstuck. Because if you’re giving them an answer that they weren’t anticipating then all of their pre-scripted supplementary questions …are gonna make them look silly.”

“You can also sometimes anticipate what their supplementary questions are going to be and front-foot that in your answer to the first question; and again they’ll end up looking a little silly if they haven’t really thought through what the answers might be. It’s amazing how many Opposition MPs think about what questions they want to ask, but they don’t think about what the answers to those questions might be.”

ANSWERING: Don’t give them time to plan 

“Sometimes just giving a straight answer to a question can actually put the opposition on the back foot, because it means (if they’re working off pre-scripted questions) they don’t have time to think about ‘what else could I ask a question about?’ “

ANSWERING: Don’t give hand-outs

“[If you give long answers] often you’ll give them extraneous information which will then give them another line of questioning. When, if you just stick to what the question was that was asked, give them a short, sharp, straight answer; that’s going to reveal whether they’ve done their homework and prepared properly before Question Time.”

ASKING: Sharp and simple 

“I always found if I really carefully thought about what questions I was going to ask as an opposition Member of Parliament and asked simple, straight questions that have been carefully thought through it’s much harder for the Government to disrupt your line of questioning if you’re doing that.”

ANSWERING: Listen carefully and accept gifts

“You do have to listen carefully to the question. The longer the question the easier it is to answer. [Under the rules] if someone asks a question that has lots of different bits to it you only have to answer one of them. …and so you choose the easiest bit, but you have to listen carefully to the question to do that.”

Go zen

“One of the arts of surviving at Question Time is actually to block everything else out. So sometimes there’ll be a lot of noise supporting you and sometimes there’ll be a lot of noise trying to drown you out, actually being able to just block all of that out is one of the really important parts of being able to succeed at Question Time. If you get too wound up in the noise one way or the other, …sometimes that can give you too much confidence, and sometimes that can just completely knock your confidence, so you have to just be able to filter that out.”