The Spin-Off has an overview of ways to improve Parliamentary Question time. I’m in there suggesting we scrap it, but what struck me is the number of commentators complaining about the ‘Does the Prime Minister stand by his statement’ questions. Why does the opposition always ask them? Why aren’t they more direct?
There are two reasons for this. First, if you ask John Key anything specific he will almost always transfer the question to another Minister. It has to be something super-vague, like ‘Does he stand by all of his Ministers’ or ‘Does he stand by all of his statements’, otherwise you don’t actually get to question him.
Secondly, the Opposition does actually ask direct questions of government Ministers on a fairly frequent basis. Some actually answer them – Nikki Kaye comes to mind. But the general template followed by Key, Joyce and English and the other senior Ministers is to reply, ‘Well Mr Speaker, what I can say is that the Labour Party had nine long years . . .’ and then attack the opposition until the Speaker stops them. Lockwood Smith used to insist that the Ministers answer the question. David Carter always just rules that ‘The Minister has addressed the Question’, no matter what the Minister said.
But Ministers can’t very well refuse to stand by a statement that they’ve made, so the logic of the ‘Do they stand by their statement’ question is that it establishes that they’ve said something, and the supplementary question can go on to establish that what they’ve said was contestable or silly or wrong.
None of this ever accomplishes anything, which is why we should get rid of it. But that’s the reasoning behind the stupid questions.