Friday, September 08, 2006

Speaker of the house

Thanks to the Maori Party, the Greens and even United Future for pointing out that question time in the house is exactly that - for answering political questions.

The main problem is they and many parts of the media are still pointing partial blame on this at the National Party - however the blame here really lies completely with Labour, and more specifically the Speaker; Margaret Wilson.

It has been documented many times before now the number of complaints about Ministers failing to answer a question put to them; instead being allowed to give anything from a personal attack on the opposition to an "I couldn't comment on that" as "addressing the question". And so the question time has both been allowed to degenerate, and in fact couldn't help but to degenerate to the mess it is now in.

The minor parties here have shown the way forward. Next time any minister fails to answer the question the procedure must be:
* Raise a point of order that the question has not been addressed
* When Margaret again fails to bring the minister to order, raise a motion of no confidence in the speaker
* If the motion fails, walk out.

The opposition and coalition parties need to bring some respect back into Parliamentary proceedings. Labour won't - it is not in their best interest. They are already seen with the most derision by the general public in terms of accountability and behavior. They can only win by dragging other parties down to their level. Here is hoping that the members of all other parties will have enough decency to stay above it, and show that the "highest court of the land" can be a place of genuine debate and thinking.
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backin15 said...

IIQ, walk out? Seriously? Can you imagine how petulent that would seem to the public? I think you're being a bit naive here. Standing Orders are very clear that the Speaker is not responsible for what a Minister's answer says. If you'd be around Parliament you'd be aware of this. I recall my own frustration at questions not only not being answered by Ministers in the last National government, but even transfered from the relevant Minister to some other Minister.

National have never been a particularly adept Opposition and have always appeared unable to make Question Time work for them - staging a walk out would be seen by the Gallery as a final admission of their inability to press home any advantage they might claim to have.

iiq374 said...

backin15 - Standing Orders are very clear that the Speaker is responsible for ascertaining whether a minister has actually addressed a question.

While there has always been more latitude allowed around that than what I would want, Margaret Wilson has set a new depth to which an answer is classified as having been addressed.

iiq374 said...

The following for example is absolutely ludicrous:

Hon David Carter: Did the Department of Conservation sponsor the conference involving the New Zealand Ecological Society, held in Wellington between 28 August and 1 September; if so, why?

Hon CHRIS CARTER: The Department of Conservation funds and supports a range of different environmental conferences. If the member wishes to find out exactly what the level of our support was, I suggest he put in a written or oral question to me on that, and I shall provide the correct information.

Hon David Carter: I raise a point of order, Madam Speaker. I have just asked the Minister whether the Department of Conservation sponsored it, and the Minister’s answer was that if I wanted to know I should put it down as a question.

Madam SPEAKER: The Minister addressed the question

iiq374 said...

But in a rare display that yes she does have the power - and even infrequently the inclination to actually get an answer:

Hon David Carter: Is it appropriate for this ecological society to put out a press release dated 31 August, entitled “Land Tenure Review Failing the Public Interest”, when the Department of Conservation is the main antagonist in the land tenure review process?

Hon CHRIS CARTER: I guess that is a lot more ethical than taking cash for policy, which the National Party does.

Madam SPEAKER: No, that is not relevant. That is not an appropriate reply to the question.

iiq374 said...

Sorry - and to address the first part of the comment about walking out;

It would show the New Zealand public that they are as fed up with the BS as the NZ public are themselves.

As Margaret Wilson continues to stand in the way of any other legal recourse they have of holding the Goverment account.

backin15 said...

IIQ, I think you'll find that the consistent application of SO's is that Minister's must address the question asked - the Speaker is not responsible for it's content, the Speaker is responsible for the consistent application of SO and Rulings. Check out SO 377.

I've not worked in Parliament for a number of years, however, with a few other researchers, I used to share responsibility for getting oral questions through the Office of the Clerk. I well remember the discussions about the respective roles of Members, Ministers and the Speaker - perhaps something has changed, it's not obvious looking at SOs.

If the National Opposition can't frame a question sufficiently tightly that not answering is worse that answering it, they need to go back to training.

As to your views on the walk out, I simply think you're quite wrong - Chamber theatrics have to be very carefully played, I think a walk out on these issues would look like what it is; petulent and childish. The last resort of an Opposition struggling to handle themselves in the Chamber.

iiq374 said...

Backin15 - I would draw point to the exchange between D Carter and C Carter - how would you "frame the question sufficiently tightly that not answering is worse that answering it?"

As for the walk out we just differ on view obviously - don't know that there is actually anything for us to debate there other than stating differences of opinion ;D

backin15 said...

What I mean is that you can ask questions in such a way so that if the Minister avoids answering it that becomes the story - Labour were good at it, few on the current Opposition benches are. Parliament can be an effective forum for debate and politics but only when the two sides are capable and in truth, National no longer have many genuine parliamentary talents.

I note your example of Wilson becoming involved, but one swallow does not a summer make.

iiq374 said...

The Speaker has become involved in this specific issue many times every question time for far longer than this Government.

What has been unique about this reign is MW's absolute contempt for using her power to get ministers to answer a question. I take on board that there has always been some realm of latitude allowed in this respect - but never the cavernous gaps now abused.

I could pull more examples from Hansard both of previous speakers actually upholding questions being answered, and Wilson not - if you really need the proof dug out for you?

backin15 said...

Feel free to dig up more examples if you like but I guess having sat through literally hundreds of Question Times under 5 or 6 Speakers I've got to tell you I'm not going to be easily convinced that anything much has changed.

I recall Doug Kidd regularly, weekly or more possibly, advising the Labour Opposition that he was not responsible for the content of a Ministers' replies - this is still the Speaker's position even if, on occassion, they step in to encourage Ministers to be more forthcoming.