How to Fix Question Time in Parliament? [UPDATED]

 Spinoff sought some experts to comment


We know Question Time for NZ Parliament is nothing but a drag especially to the cut and thrust of Australian Question Time.

Spinoff went asking what can be done to improve our Question Time to which you can read here: How to Fix Question Time in Parliament? MPs, Media and Other Experts Weigh In


I am going to put the reply former Clerk of the House Mary Harris had given to Spinoff:

Mary Harris: Up to the members, not the Speaker

The structure of the New Zealand Question Time is well regarded around the world. Lodging questions on the day keeps them topical and the 60 odd supplementary questions over the 12 primary questions allow members good scope to probe Ministers’ replies.

Ministers can be expected to give informative replies, because they have had at least three hours’ notice of the primary question. While there is no strict time frame for Question Time, for some years now it has become well accepted that an hour is about the right amount of time. This keeps it moving, but without time limits, there is some flexibility about the length of answers and how supplementary questions are used. Many parliaments have strict time limits on questions and replies, which result in Ministers taking all the time allowed on replies and as a result reducing the overall accountability. This is after all the primary purpose of Question Time, but it is also a political test of Ministers.

What could be improved? Speakers are always concerned about the quality of answers. But the question is important to getting an answer. Too often questions ask for opinion: Does the Minister agree …? Does the Minister stand by his statement …? More often that not an opinion by way of an answer will not satisfy the questioner, but there is little the Speaker can do to assist. An opinion was asked for and one was given! Question Time is most effective when the questions are short and seek information and the questioner listens to the reply and asks probing supplementary questions based on the reply.

Frequently supplementary questions miss opportunities because they are now almost always scripted in advance by researchers. They are often too long. They ask numerous questions and introduce political statements, which allow Ministers to comment on them and in so doing get off the hook. As Speakers have said many times, straight questions should get an answer and the Speaker will assist. While the Speaker cannot force a particular answer, the Speaker does have the ability to express disquiet about a reply, allow the question to be repeated and to allow a member additional supplementary questions where a Minister is being particularly evasive. While an informative answer may not always result, it certainly puts the acid on Ministers and demonstrates their relative ability.

However, Question Time is most effective when the focus is on members asking probing questions and Ministers replying – accountability. It ought not to be about the Speaker. Recognising this, Speakers tend to let Question Time run rather than taking a very strict rules based approach. They leave it to Ministers to reply, intervening only if a Minister disclaims responsibility or an answer is patently inadequate. But what does need to be recognised is that the Speaker is not a judge of the correctness of a reply. Question Time is a political exchange. It is not a quiz.

We have a system of representative democracy, which provides for our elected representatives to hold the government to account on behalf of their constituencies. This is their role on behalf of the people. To do it well they need to learn to be effective in Question Time. This is not an easy thing. There are risks around direct democracy – it can never be representative! Question Time is a political exchange – a test of Ministers’ ability. To be effective it must be very topical and fast paced: there are often multiple issues to cover. There are other ways in which the public might interact with Parliament on the issues that are important to them. From my experience people are interested in Parliament when the issues, rather than the politics, interest them. Ways could be found for instance, using the electronic media, of petitioning for debates on topics, or recording levels of support for members’ bills that would allow them to be introduced without having to be drawn in the ballot.

Mary Harris retired as Clerk of the House of Representatives on completion of her seven-year term in July


So while the onus does fall on Ministers and the Opposition I am still of the opinion that the Speaker should be a retired Supreme Court Judge on a 7 year term as the Clerk is. The “neutral” Speaker as such would be given expanded powers to “fine” Ministers and the Prime Minister for inadequate answers to proper questions as well as being allowed the throw MPs out in Question Time for up to three days with pay docked.

Watch the MPs sharpen their act up when pay starts getting docked for bad behaviour.


The idea is not to present Question Time with MPs looking like headless chooks
The idea is not to present Question Time with MPs looking like headless chooks