12 Dec 2023

Question Time answers become optional

From The House , 6:55 pm on 12 December 2023
Gerry Brownlee in the Speakers chair during the Commission Opening of Parliament.

Gerry Brownlee in the Speakers chair during the Commission Opening of Parliament. Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

Each new Parliament goes through a birthing process where it finds its own shape and mood. They all tend to end up a little different, or a lot different. A crucial determinant of that shape is how the new speaker will interpret the Parliament’s rules. 

New parliaments don't create new rules. The Standing Orders (rules) are already agreed. But interpretations of those rules can shift. Alongside the rules are Speaker’s Rulings, the accreted rule interpretations of many successive speakers. 

Like in scriptures, you can often find a Speaker’s Ruling to support widely varying interpretations of a rule’s intent. 

With each new parliament and speaker, those interpretations tend to shift again. The early Question Times are often long and combative as the new approach is slowly enunciated, and as MPs work to nudge that interpretation in a direction useful to their own team. 

On Tuesday the new Speaker’s approach began to take shape. For example, Gerry Brownlee ruled like this in Question 5:

1 - Any answer is an answer: Ruling as haiku

Grant Robertson: "Point of order, Mr Speaker. I don't believe that question was addressed in that answer. I asked her whether she was ruling it out or not."

Speaker Brownlee: "Well, that's often the case. The question is asked; an answer is given; the question is addressed."

Grant Robertson: "That's very philosophical, Mr Speaker."

Very philosophical, and very nearly a haiku from the new Speaker Gerry Brownlee. The gist appears to be that any answer from a minister is considered to have addressed the question. For years the necessary requirement has been that a question should be, if not answered, at least ‘addressed’. Possibly the definition of addressed has shifted? 

2 - 'Rhubarb, rhubarb… job done'

This interchange from Question 9 seemed to confirm that.

Speaker Brownlee:  "...Now, what I do is irrelevant here. What he says is what the House gets as an answer in addressing a question…"

Chris Hipkins: "Point of order, Mr Speaker. I recall a previous shadow Leader of the House asking a then Speaker whether or not a Minister could stand up and simply say "Rhubarb!" in answer to a question, because at that point the Speaker had ruled very similarly to what you have ruled today — that simply standing up and giving an answer was sufficient to address the question. So I once again raise the point of order that was raised by the then Hon Gerry Brownlee to the then Speaker — I can't remember which Speaker it was at the time — as to whether or not that continues to apply."

Speaker Brownlee: "Well, I can assure you that the Hon Gerry Brownlee got a very unsatisfactory answer at that time, and I'm sorry I can't give you a better one now."

I looked up the point of order they were referring to. It was in 2007 and the Speaker was Margaret Wilson. In fact despite Mr Brownlee’s memory of the event Margaret Wilson did require the minister to address the question. Not answered to his satisfaction, but answered.

That ‘rhubarb’ supposition was also asked of a speaker in 2003 by Winston Peters.

(Quick quiz: Only five MPs remain from that parliament - which ones? Answer at the bottom).

The Speaker way back then was Johnathan Hunt, who replied:

Speaker Hunt: “The answer is no. I regard questions asked in this House as deserving an answer. That question got one.”

Again, the answer the Minister gave (that time it was Helen Clark) was not what Bill English was wanting, but there was an answer and it did include new information. It is however pretty rare for an opposition MP to be satisfied with an answer.

Winston Peters during the first debate of the 54th Parliament.

Winston Peters during the first debate of the 54th Parliament. Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

3 - Choosing to answer 

The rulings in Question 8 seemed to take the approach even further, intimating that choosing to answer at all was entirely in the hands of ministers. In this specific case Rawiri Waititi had asked a question of Winston Peters in te reo, which is not that unusual. For this reason MPs have access to simultaneous translation into English.

It seemed that Winston Peters initially missed the translation and when Rawiri declined to ask it again in English, Peters refused to answer. While Peters did ultimately answer some further questions also asked in te reo the initial refusal quickly introduced ordure to ventilation.

There was quite a bit of discussion about his baulking at the language, but the Speaker held that it wasn’t up to the Speaker if a minister chose not to answer a question.

Debbie Ngarewa-Packer: “Point of order. With respect to the House and to everyone watching, can we please seek clarity from the Speaker: are our questions in te reo no longer going to be answered by Ministers if they chose not to use the interpreter? That's a really important subject that we're looking for clarity on, please.”

Speaker Brownlee: “I can't answer that question for Ministers. The provision is made here for the translation. A Minister decides whether or not an answer can be given, and there are very clear outlines in the Standing Orders as to how they might make that decision.”

He referenced that ruling (199/6) again later, and apparently conflated it with another one (199/4). Speakers Ruling 199/4, which dates back to Speaker Richard Harrison from the Muldoon years) and says:

199/4  “The Speaker cannot force a Minister to give an answer to a question and has no responsibility for the quality of the answer given.”

Reasons a minister might refuse to answer are outlined in 199/6:

199/6  “A Minister must give an answer “if it can be given consistently with the public interest”. The Minister is instructed under [Standing Order 396(1)] to consider the public interest in framing a reply. In considering consistency. with the public interest, the Minister may address such principles as privacy, commercial sensitivity, or national security. But, ultimately, the judgment of whether a particular reply is consistent with the public interest is for the Minister to make. It is not a matter for the Speaker to judge… .”

The possible reasons for not answering were privacy, national security or commercial sensitivity. Brownlee was subsequently asked by Marama Davidson about a third ruling in that 199 grouping relating to answering questions. This one from Lockwood Smith in 2009.

199/3  “Where a question is clear I expect Ministers to answer it, unless they consider it not to be in the public interest to do so. If a Minister decides that to answer a question is not in the public interest, I will accept that. But where a question is clear, I think New Zealanders expect Ministers to answer it.” 

Marama Davidson asked “...It's very clear that where the question is clear, there is an expectation that Ministers will answer it unless they consider it not to be in the public interest to do so. So I'm just seeking clarification on whether it is not in the public interest, or what is the ruling that you are calling to allow Ministers to have that choice?”

Mr Brownlee sidestepped that poser. “The ruling stands, but it is not for the Speaker to determine the interpretation of that ruling.”

At the beginning of this article I noted that Speakers can pick and choose which of the various rulings to focus on and thereby slant their own interpretation of the rules. For example, Brownlee might have chosen to focus on the demand-an-answer ruling 199/3, but went for the largesse rulings instead.

Before it went further, Labour MP Kieran McAnulty, who is now Shadow Leader of the House, requested that the Speaker think further on this new situation and come back to them.

Can ministers refuse to answer any question at will? Must they give a reason for refusing to answer? Is any utterance sufficient to have addressed a question? It will be interesting to see where he ultimately lands.

Answer to the quiz question: The five MPs that remain from the 47th Parliament (2002-2005) are: Gerry Brownlee, Winston Peters, David Parker, Judith Collins and Damien O'Connor.

RNZ’s The House – journalism focussed on parliamentary legislation, issues and insights – is made with funding from Parliament’s Office of the Clerk.