19 Dec 2023

Parliament's Speaker has outlined his approach to Question Time

From The House , 6:55 pm on 19 December 2023

Gerry Brownlee has begun Parliament's week by outlining his approach as Speaker to Question Time. 

Each Speaker tends to come at their job with slightly different interpretations of Parliament’s many rules. Brownlee had promised he would give guidance as to his own approach after a combative first full week of Question Time.

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 Speaker’s approach has a huge impact on how, and how well, Parliament undertakes its core role of being a check on the Executive. 

Here is Gerry Brownlee’s ruling (in bold) with with notes and explanations. 

“Members, as I suggested last week, I want to set out my approach to the answering of parliamentary questions. It's well established that Ministers are expected to answer questions unless they consider it not in the public interest to do so: Speaker's ruling 199/3. The public interest test is a high one and should be used sparingly: Speaker's ruling 200/1.”

Note: Re The Public Interest - There are a few reasons within this ‘out’ that might lead ministers not to answer a question. They include something that is sub-judice (being considered by a court), not wanting to prejudice a current police operation, privacy, commercial sensitivity, and national security.

Gerry Brownlee continued…

“Ministers are accountable to the House for the public office they hold and should, therefore, endeavour to give informative replies: Speakers' ruling 200/6. That is the cornerstone of responsible Government.”

Notes: Re ‘Responsible Government’ -  The phrase ‘Responsible Government’ does not refer to a government acting responsibly. It seems unlikely that anyone would agree what that might look like. It refers to the fact that every government is responsible to parliament. Parliament is the boss, so answers aren't just ministers being polite to pesky opposition MPs, they are actually responding to someone who is in part - their overseer. The Parliament chooses the Executive from among its members, and can also remove them from office.

“Informative answers” is a very generous description of many ministers’ responses.

Gerry Brownlee continued…

“Ministers are responsible for their answers. It's not for the Speaker to judge the quality or accuracy; the House and the public do that: Speaker's ruling 207/3. The Speaker's role is to uphold the Standing Orders, which require that an answer that seeks to address the question must be given if it can be given consistently with the public interest: Standing Order 396. Ministers must make a reasonable attempt to provide an informative answer on the matter they've been asked about. This is particularly true for primary questions, since Ministers have time to prepare their answers.

Note: Re Primary Questions - Ministers are not asked single questions during Question Time, they are asked groups of questions. The first question of each group is the primary question. It is provided beforehand and publicly available. This gives Ministers some warning of the likely topic and a chance to prepare. The supplementary questions that follow must relate to the primary.

Gerry Brownlee continued…

“Question time is a political exchange. Members will not always be satisfied with the answers they receive: Speaker's ruling 207/2. They should use supplementary questions to probe unsatisfactory answers. Only in cases where an answer is manifestly inadequate will the Speaker intervene, usually by allowing further supplementary questions: Speaker's ruling 207/6. While there is a strong expectation from the House and the public that Ministers will answer questions, the Speaker cannot force a Minister to give an answer to a question: Speakers' ruling 199/4. It is for members and the voting public to judge a refusal to answer.”

Note: Re Toothless Speakers - careful readers might notice the disconnect between the Standing Order (referenced by Gerry Brownlee earlier) 396 (1) which says “An answer that seeks to address the question must be given if it can be given in the public interest”, and the Speaker’s Ruling 199/4 that he also referenced which says “The Speaker cannot force a Minister to give an answer to a question…”.

Some Speakers try hard to enforce the letter of the law and some are much more relaxed about it. That’s not a party-specific thing; the most strident in recent years was likely National MP Lockwood Smith, followed by Labour MP Trevor Mallard.  

But when it comes down to it, Speakers have few tools other than their determination and the exercise of public pressure to enforce their will on ministers. It brings to mind the possibly apocryphal quote attributed to Andrew Jackson (the populist US President of the 1830s). Upon hearing that the Supreme Court had ruled in a way he didn’t like he is reported to have said "Well, John Marshall has made his decision, but now let him enforce it."