The Dim-Post

October 13, 2015

The logic of ‘Does he stand by this statement?’

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 8:40 am

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.


  1. Why, exactly, do members of the opposition want to question John Key personally?

    Sometimes, it will be important. But why do they want to do it everyone Tuesday and Wednesday? What do they hope to get out of it? If they were doing something with the footage they get of him behaving differently than his public persona, then it might make sense. But they aren’t. Or when they or the media have, it hasn’t really done much.

    I know there will be a big prize to the one opposition MP who finally asks the question that so flusters the Prime Minister that he responds that he has seen the error of his ways and will be resigning to offer his support to a Labour Administration, but [some joke ending I didn’t really think through here].

    Comment by Graeme Edgeler — October 13, 2015 @ 8:56 am

  2. You are so right. To add to pointlessness, ministers could answer “yes, except where I’ve made a mistake”. They get to be humble and avoid the opposition’s “trap”, such as it is.

    Comment by Matthew Hooton — October 13, 2015 @ 8:58 am

  3. Why, exactly, do members of the opposition want to question John Key personally?

    Short answer: because he’s the Prime Minister.

    Slightly longer answer: because he represents the Government, in both a concrete way, and in the abstract way in which for the 2.5m ordinary voters he personifies the Government and the National Party. So when Andrew Little or someone else is able to ask a question of Key and make Patrick Gower think that Andrew is doing well and John is doing badly, that message is transferred through the television to several hundred thousand viewers, who then think that Labour is doing well and National is doing badly. There’s a risk in answering questions, and retaining visual control is important. The usual tactic for communicating that to the voters is to laugh at the opposition and say ‘we might not be doing the best, but look at this bunch of fools who would be doing so much worse’. So long as the 30 people who decide what the public think are sympathetic to this tactic, it’s a useful one.

    Comment by Moses — October 13, 2015 @ 9:04 am

  4. So when Andrew Little or someone else is able to ask a question of Key and make Patrick Gower think that Andrew is doing well and John is doing badly, that message is transferred through the television to several hundred thousand viewers, who then think that Labour is doing well and National is doing badly.

    Sure, but they’ve been doing that for a while, and it hasn’t gotten them particularly far. There are other ways to get across the message that the Government is doing badly that perhaps they have less evidence showing they don’t work.

    If you ask the PM questions, those questions will tend to make the news. So why not ignore the PM, ask questions about important issues to weak ministers, and have that as the only footage from Parliament for the day? Or, you know, try it for a couple of weeks, because what they are doing now isn’t working.

    Comment by Graeme Edgeler — October 13, 2015 @ 9:14 am

  5. I was going to mention this but I see even Danyl brought it up:

    “These exchanges are punctuated by the patsy questions in which a backbench government MP asks a Minister why other things are going so amazingly well, and the Minister – it is usually the Finance Minister – elaborates at length at the brilliance of his policies,”

    When did this start happening historically? It’s even stupider than trying to get a Minister gotcha moment. Is it an MMP that’s developed with the presence of List MPs who need to be given something to do to justify their value on the list in the absence of directly representing constituents, or does it pre-date that?

    Comment by izogi — October 13, 2015 @ 9:23 am

  6. There’s a place for the theatre of rhetoric and bombast but this has just turned parliament into a three ringed court where the opposition tries to set clever linguistic traps and the govt sees it coming from a mile off. And everyone blames each other.

    I like the idea of having just a PMs question time.

    Comment by NeilM — October 13, 2015 @ 9:38 am

  7. …the patsy questions in which a backbench government MP asks a Minister why other things are going so amazingly well…

    Dorothy Dixers,

    Comment by Joe W — October 13, 2015 @ 9:44 am

  8. I think it is a valuable symbolic conflict that has a role in both displaying and purging the strong emotions associated with our political choices. The opposition suffers in question time at the moment because they are a not particularly talented lot compared with their predecessors of both left and right and because this is a mild, liberal government that has been careful to pick a few very strategic issues on which it has strong bottom lines and is able to rock and roll on the rest of them. As a target they don’t stand still which makes it hard for the opposition to maintain a focus and attack. The Greens and Labour think National is as ideological as they are, which is a big mistake.

    Comment by Tinakori — October 13, 2015 @ 9:52 am

  9. Why, exactly, do members of the opposition want to question John Key personally?

    As Darryl points out the Ministers have a Speaker who provides leeway to avoid questions, put to them directly. By asking the question to the PM, then having the question redirected to a minister, the opposition will get an answer that is acceptable to both the Minister and the PM. Ministers are much less able to waffle.

    Comment by unaha-closp — October 13, 2015 @ 10:09 am

  10. Sorry that should read Danyl, not Darryl.

    Comment by unaha-closp — October 13, 2015 @ 10:10 am

  11. When asked if they stand by all their statements, Key, English, et al. often preface their remarks / opposion-skewering with “yes, in the context in which they were made.” It’s a way of stressing the contingency of previous speech acts, the lack of any absolutes, etc.

    Comment by Nick — October 13, 2015 @ 10:59 am

  12. The Spin-Off is pretty good, isn’t it? More info in that piece than a whole year of “Um, look, you’d have to say, look …” from the Gower/Dann show.

    Mary Harris gives better advice to Labour than any Labour staffer: “Frequently supplementary questions miss opportunities because they are now almost always scripted in advance by researchers. They are often too long.”

    This has been obvious for seven years, but still they refuse to learn. Frankly they’re just slow and stupid. I long for Little or whoever to just jump up and say: “Why?” – and nothing else. Stop giving Key forever to prepare his witless one-liner. Give him enough rope instead. Or when Key says “You Labour big smelly poo”, just repeat his statement (otherwise the media won’t hear it, or want to). Just that – repeat verbatim.

    I suppose somebody will pop up here and say “Can’t, because standing orders”. Who cares? The Speaker doesn’t.

    Finally, for the Labour media people: please compare the coverage of parliament on the news 10 years ago, and now. It’s almost disappeared. What you are doing there no longer matters. Again, everybody gets this (Key certainly does) but you still don’t. It’s painful.

    Comment by sammy 3.0 — October 13, 2015 @ 12:35 pm

  13. Are Key’s press conferences open to the public?

    Could an opposition MP go to the press conference and ask questions there instead? I realise that the MP would be without the privilege of parliament, but so would Key and it might mean that the answer/not answer gets more press coverage.

    Comment by RJL — October 13, 2015 @ 2:15 pm

  14. RJL, its not unknown for a ‘germ of an idea’ to be planted in a journalist mind before going to Keys press conference.
    As for labour asking him questions, I dont think just anybody goes to them , because he wont take questions from them.

    As for Keys parliamentary answers making it back into the news cycle, just depends on how they are written. These would be some definite click bait headlines.

    10 things Key said yes to but didnt mean it.

    Key and Iraq, Did he really say that.

    Chorus of boos .. what was the question asked?

    Who did John Key call Lap Dogs

    Comment by duker — October 13, 2015 @ 4:49 pm

  15. Improving question time.
    1. Prohibit patsies. Question time is for holding govt to account not for extended spin sessions.
    2. Ask succinct questions without the personal attacks that give leeway for govt to waffle and attack. Greens generally better at asking questions but still ask too much in one question often.
    3. Replace Carter with some one competent.

    Comment by Andrew R — October 13, 2015 @ 5:36 pm

  16. “When did this start happening historically? ”

    I dunno about NZ but Benjamin Disraeli used to do it. So, a long time ago.

    Comment by kalvarnsen — October 13, 2015 @ 6:37 pm

  17. I agree it’s bloody irritating with way its being run at the moment. Carter is bloody useless!

    Comment by Alison Deaker — October 13, 2015 @ 9:06 pm

  18. and have that as the only footage from Parliament for the day?

    But that’s a decision for the media to make. Somehow I can’t imagine the media showing footage of Labour regularly hammering the Government. Mike Hosking would be apoplectic!

    Comment by Ross — October 14, 2015 @ 7:14 am

  19. I just thought it was an attack-line designed to infer that the questioned person has been caught lying, and that the questioner has some kind of dynamite with which to blow all the other’s credibility out of the water …. if only that pesky respondent wouldn’t weasel his way out of it … again … dagnabbit!

    In short, it strikes me as scratched-record sound-byte designed for the radio and six-oclock news to to stoke the by now entrenched and popular ad hominem line’

    “You can’t trust John Key”.

    Comment by Lee Clark — October 14, 2015 @ 7:56 am

  20. Another part of the logic of Question Time is that the media generally ignore press releases most of the time, but they will cover a juicy question / response if it can be sensationalised in some way. So really, QT is about trying to get some bandwidth in the media for issues they generally do a great job of ignoring (and they do that for a variety of reasons, none of which have anything to do with enhancing democratic accountability).

    Comment by Steve W (with a space) — October 14, 2015 @ 9:43 am

  21. I agree it’s bloody irritating with way its being run at the moment. Carter is bloody useless!

    As amusing as it is to say, we were lucky to have Lockwood Smith for the time we did. It’s not so much that Carter is useless, it’s that he’s following on from the guy who was a genuinely great Speaker.
    Looking back at the previous government, Wilson was terrible and Hunt was just biding time for a cushy posting to London, so Carter’s not exactly an abberation.

    Is anyone old enough to remember how Peter Tapsell handled the role as a Labour speaker in a National government?

    Comment by Phil — October 14, 2015 @ 9:53 am

  22. Top Labour strategist Rob Salmond has a PhD in parliamentary question time from UCLA so there is no doubt some deep strategy behind all this that I don’t understand, but nevertheless …

    I think the idea of “stand by statements” or “confidence in” questions is to try to achieve a gotcha of the PM or minister along the lines of:

    * Q Does he stand by all his statements?
    * A Yes in the context they were made.
    * Q Does he stand by his statement NZ has a world class health system?
    * A Yes, our DHBs and medical professionals do a great job.
    * Q Would he say that to Jane Doe who had her hid replacement delayed nine times by ADHB and is still awaiting surgery unable to walk?

    And the hope is the minister fumbles and looks callous etc. But usually the minister just responds:
    * A I am not familiar with Jane’s case but if the member would like to forward me details I will look into it and do whatever is possible to help her.

    And then there are a few more questions about Jane that are answered the same way.

    The gotcha attempt is designed to prevent the minister from getting Wellington’s vast army of bureaucrats (there are now more than even under the Clark regime) to spend their morning investigating Jane’s case and finding reasons why the delays may be justified).

    But I think it would be better to go for:

    * Q How many times has Jane Doe’s hip replacement been delayed by the ADHB?

    The benefit of this is that it does give the minister all morning to research Jane’s case (and potentially violate her privacy which would be an added bonus for the opposition). And under the rules of Speaker Smith that Speaker Carter sometimes applies, the minister will be required to actually answer such a quantitative question put on notice.

    So the minister would have to say:

    * A Nine times but only because …….
    * A I am not prepared to answer that because it would violate Jane’s privacy.
    * A I do not have that information.

    In all of these answers, the minister is on the defensive. Worse, because parliament is a confrontational environment, it is likely the minister will end up attacking Jane, the victim of the situation, as in:

    * A The facts are that Jane didn’t turn up to one of the appointments, and didn’t fill in her blah blah blah form …..

    And the opposition has already won because the minister will look like a total arsehole when Jane turns up on Story or even Seven Sharp that evening.

    Of course, the opposition runs the risk that the minister will reply:

    * A I thank the member for the question. I have spent my morning reviewing this matter and I am appalled how Ms Doe has been treated. I have expressed my extreme displeasure to the chairperson of ADHB, asked for an investigation and ordered her surgery occur with no further delay.

    But, even then, the opposition can follow up:

    * Q The minister is to be commended for addressing Ms Doe’s case, but is he aware of John Smith, whose cataract surgery has been delayed 11 times by ADHB and what action will he take to ensure Mr Smith gets the surgery he needs?

    And away we go. If there is a general debate afterwards, the opposition can then devote the whole time to the failings of Auckland Hospital and then point out how these contradict the government’s previous statements on the matter. This is then certain to get media coverage on a substantial issue from which the government can only lose.

    This approach is roughly how (I remember anyway) Helen Clark often using question time against Jim Bolger and Jenny Shipley. You use the fact the government has had plenty of time to get briefed as a weapon against it, in that it has no excuse not to be on top of the matter of concern (and it risks the government deciding to turn on the powerless and defending its officials).

    But, like I say, Rob has a PhD in all this so I am sure he knows what he’s doing.

    Comment by Matthew Hooton — October 14, 2015 @ 9:58 am

  23. Phil@ 9:53 am

    The lesson from the Lockwood Smith thing could be that the best Speaker will be someone who is bright, interested in policy more than politics, and, while from the government of the day, a bit disgruntled with its senior ministers, and with an ego in terms of wanting to make a difference in whatever they do. His policy, as I understood it, was to be like a cricket umpire giving the benefit of the doubt to the batsman – benefit of the doubt went to the opposition.

    The downside of Lockwood’s time as Speaker is that I always thought he was a bit tougher on the ministers of education, agriculture, forestry and trade in terms of “answering the question” because his background in those areas meant he knew whether or not they were. When the minister of housing was asked a question, he didn’t have the same background knowledge to know whether or not they were talking bullshit.

    I don’t feel the current Speaker backs himself to assess the degree to which an “answer” is a real answer on any topic.

    In the current government, I think Judith Collins would probably best meet most of the Smith criteria, or Finlayson (in the unlikely event he had a bit of a falling out with Key). Across the house, maybe Goff? Or Cunliffe? I don’t really know. It seems Mallard wants it, but would he give the benefit of the doubt to a National Opposition? What about – and I’m serious – Peters? He’s been around for years, been DPM, Treasurer and Foreign Minister, and is anti-establishment.

    Comment by Matthew Hooton — October 14, 2015 @ 10:09 am

  24. Margaret Wilson was the Speaker who referred Peters to the Privileges Committee, over the Owen Glenn story. By doing so, she dealt a major blow to Clark’s government.

    She was right to act as she did. Now, does anybody seriously think Carter would dare do the same to Key’s Foreign Minister? Or anyone on his team?

    Comment by sammy 3.0 — October 14, 2015 @ 10:19 am

  25. To refresh our memories …

    That summary is so far removed from Carter’s hackery, it’s not even close.

    Comment by sammy 3.0 — October 14, 2015 @ 10:25 am

  26. I like the Corbyn approach of taking questions from the public to ask.

    Of course, it isn’t playing the game, but like any game, it just takes one side to refuse to play and you can’t have a game any more.

    Comment by richdrich — October 14, 2015 @ 10:39 am

  27. The UK speaker is a lot more independent, also, because they’re elected by exhaustive secret ballot which makes it difficult for the governing party to impose their choice of hack.

    Comment by richdrich — October 14, 2015 @ 10:40 am

  28. 22 — Clark had a much easier time finding scandals because Shipley’s government was so incompetent. The current government is also very good at shutting down the individual scandal attacks.

    Comment by Keir Leslie — October 14, 2015 @ 10:49 am

  29. What about – and I’m serious – Peters? He’s been around for years, been DPM, Treasurer and Foreign Minister, and is anti-establishment.

    Virtually incorruptible.

    Comment by unaha-closp — October 14, 2015 @ 11:12 am

  30. What about – and I’m serious – Peters? He’s been around for years, been DPM, Treasurer and Foreign Minister, and is anti-establishment.

    Peters knows nothing about Parliamentary procedure and shows it virtually every time he raises a point of order.

    Comment by Graeme Edgeler — October 14, 2015 @ 11:35 am

  31. It seems Mallard wants it, but would he give the benefit of the doubt to a National Opposition?

    Loathe him as I do, I think Mallard would probably make a great Speaker.
    He knows the rules in and out, he old and tired, and I suspect he wants to create a meaningful legacy after being a multi-decade schemer and trougher.

    Comment by Gregor W — October 14, 2015 @ 3:28 pm

  32. @Matthew: In theory violating Jane’s privacy or attacking her as a skiver should make the government look bad, but they’ve done this and it never really seems to hurt them in the polls. The public seems to believe that if one of Key’s myrmidons, let alone Key himself, goes on the attack against some random beneficiary or surgery patient, that beneficiary or patient must have had it coming for some reason.

    Comment by kalvarnsen — October 14, 2015 @ 4:58 pm

  33. 29 – “You cannot hope
    to bribe or twist,
    thank God! the
    British journalist.

    But, seeing what
    the man will do
    unbribed, there’s
    no occasion to.”

    I think this could also be well applied to Mr Peters.

    Comment by richdrich — October 16, 2015 @ 1:23 pm

  34. Graeme Edgeler asks why they want to do it every Tuesday and Wednesday. That’s because he’s not there on Monday Thursday and Friday and he should be asked questions. He will smarm his way through with support from a weak speaker whatever he’s asked. At other times he will take the approach of the time of questioning about his mate in the GCSB. That was a real hoot – more “Can’t remember” sort of lines than an Amnesia Conference and more material for body language and lying experts than a whole history of Question Times.

    Comment by poled — October 19, 2015 @ 10:18 pm

  35. That is why Lockwood Smith was sent to the other side of the world – because the Nats do not want to address questions.

    Comment by Jason McGregor — October 29, 2015 @ 3:25 pm

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