18 Feb 2018

A Q&A on questions and answers

From The House, 7:35 am on 18 February 2018

You ask a question. You get an answer. You’d think it would be easy. But MPs constantly get it wrong, and the Speaker is endlessly pulling them up for breaking the rules about Questions for Oral Answer.

The MPs aren’t stupid and often break the rules on purpose to gain a political point. There are quite a few rules you can break. Some are more useful than others.

The House sat down with the Speaker (Trevor Mallard), and the Clerk of the House (David Wilson) to go through some of the rules frequently transgressed.

Labour MP Phil Twyford 20 June 2017

Phil Twyford in the House: A core skill for ministers is confidently and correctly answering trick and tricky questions under a barrage of interjections.  Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

The basics are easy. Every day that the House sits, questions get asked of Government Ministers. There are twelve pre-notified questions shared out between the parties, according to their proportion of the non-executive MPs. The opposition get more than the governing parties.

The early notice allows the minister who will answer each question to do some homework to prepare. But the askers don’t always want the minister warned or briefed, so the questions are often very broad, like ‘does the Minister stand by all of her statements?’ 

The Speaker of the House Trevor Mallard.

Speaker Trevor Mallard, who 'umpires' Questions for Oral Answer, a task for the brave. Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

After each of the twelve ‘primary’ questions there are (potentially) a series of follow-up questions. Each political party gets proportionally allocated follow-ups or ‘supplementary’ questions. National gets most of them, ACT gets just two a week.

The supplementary questions aren’t set in stone though, they are all given at the discretion of the Speaker. Trevor Mallard as Speaker has used this discretion as a tool to keep the MPs from misbehaving too badly during Oral Questions.

Supplementary questions have to follow on from the primary question or an answer given in the set of questions. So those broad primaries allow varied supplementaries (another answer for such kick-offs). But broad questions can’t demand as much specificity as acute ones. So there are advantages and disadvantages to that approach.

Clerk of the House David Wilson

Clerk of the House, David Wilson, whose office collates and offers guidance on the rules around questions.  Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

The person asking a question is not meant to make a statement, but many try. It's a way of getting something said you want said, or of making a snide crack - something else that is not allowed.

The person answering is also not meant to make unnecessary statements or sarcastic remarks but the temptation is often overwhelming. 

What can actually be asked of ministers is narrow. You can't ask them what they had for breakfast, because that's not part of their job. You can only ask questions that relate to their ministerial role - their 'responsibility'. What they did or said while in opposition is not relevant to that, and they are also not responsible for what the previous government did, or what they did in another role (say, as an electorate MP).

For more details on the rules and why MPs sometimes knowingly break them; and on the process of how the primary questions get collected, checked and approved, listen to the interview with Clerk of the House, David Wilson and Speaker Trevor Mallard.

Further Information

Starting with the simple and getting harder:

You can read more about Oral Questions on the Parliament Site

You can read what Parliament's 'bible' (Parliamentary Practice in New Zealand) has to say about questions.  

You can read the rules that MPs are referring to when they make 'points of order' (appeals to the speaker), in the  Standing Orders (rules). Or just the section on Questions to Ministers, here.

The more crucial interpretations of the Standing Orders that various Speakers have made in response to Points of Order are collated as Speakers Rulings and have the weight of rules as well (like common law). The relevant section starts on page 151.