3 Dec 2017

What’s in the Ministerial fridge? A testing week for the Speaker

From The House, 7:31 am on 3 December 2017

At the beginning of a new Government, and in the early days of a new Speaker, Parliament is fiercely gladiatorial. The debating chamber becomes a test-to-destruction environment where the Opposition trials the new Ministers and Speaker.

The Speaker gets particularly harsh treatment as Opposition MPs prod, test and challenge them to see what they can get away with; to see if they can gain psychological dominance, and to attempt to create precedents that will work to their advantage for the rest of the Parliament.

The 52nd Parliament in session.

The 52nd Parliament in session. Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

It is reminiscent of a naughty school class testing the boundaries of a new relieving teacher. And like a decent teacher, the speaker has the difficult task of maintaining authority, while retaining a sense of fair, independent, even-handedness.

So the speaker is peppered with points of order (queries as to whether the rules are being followed correctly), and then challenged over every call.

And during Oral Questions this week the Opposition had their teeth into the perfect topic to test both the Speaker and the Government - a political negotiation document no government would want to release.

So questions all week tested the rules around Ministerial Responsibility and how far it reached.

If a document had instructions for people who were ministers was it covered under the rules? What if someone who was a minister possessed a document was it then open to inquiry? What if they changed the font on it while they were a minister? What if the person changing the font worked for a minister? What if the document was stored in a ministerial phone or computer? What about a minister’s safe?

It got to the point where the Speaker felt it necessary to point out that keeping your packed lunch in a ministerial fridge did not suddenly turn a ham sandwich into a ministerial document.

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Photo: PHOTO NZ

It was gruelling and the Speaker particularly will be tired and counting the days until Christmas.

The questions may all have seemed very odd but had a good reason.  There is a lot of marble and concrete in the Parliament Buildings, but there are also many paper walls. The paper walls are erected between political and government roles.

There is meant to be a distinction between the two, and Parliament is administered by a group of different organisations to stop the non-political or governmental functions from becoming mixed up with politics. As hard as that might sound, people try very hard to keep the distinction - and these questions show why the paper walls are useful.

Apart from anything else, they are a defence against a party’s business becoming open to investigation by the opposition as a matter of Government.

So, for example in Parliament, the Office of the Clerk (which administers the Debating Chamber and the Select Committees) doesn’t provide any services to MPs offices (like researchers or secretarial support). Those are supplied By Parliamentary Services.

But when an MP goes from being a backbencher to a minister, his role is partly supported by staff from yet another branch - Ministerial Services.

And who does what in a Minister’s office is also clearly delineated. There is safety in a paper wall - but ministers have to work on both sides of those walls at once. And it must be difficult to maintain the distinctions - especially in a new administration.  

Because where responsibility lies can depend on which hat you have on at the time. Jacinda Ardern for example is, at different times, and together, the MP for Mount Albert, the leader of the Labour Party, the Minister for Arts, and the Prime Minister.

Now which one of those roles ordered the ham sandwich?