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Liberty Belle Visits Commons For PM's Questions

Liberty Belle Visits House Of Commons For PM's Questions

This week I went to the House of Commons for Prime Minister's question time and I was appalled to realise how far the New Zealand Parliament has strayed from the Westminster system. For a start, New Zealand - unlike Britain - doesn't have a session whereby questions are directed at the Prime Minister only. At 12 noon Tony Blair comes into the House, equipped only with a red folder for help. He stands at the table and the first few questions are trifling, to do with his engagements. Then the Leader of the Opposition stands opposite and the battle begins. Blair must think quickly, speak fluently and forcefully, and not get caught.

Remember too, that at question time in New Zealand the questions are handed in to the clerk's office at 10:00am. The questions must be spelled out precisely, and when the MP asks the question in the House, he/she must not deviate in any way from the way the question is printed on the Order Paper. The Ministers have almost four hours notice, and time to rehearse their answers in front of the mirror.

In England, the questions are blind. All Blair has is a list - Q1 to Q12 - with just the MP's name and constituency. For example on Wednesday, Q6 was Mr Andrew Dismore (Hendon). Blair's minders will gather all information they can about that constituency, and may get a rough idea of what the question will be about. But will it be education or health? Will Blair need to know how many teachers were made redundant by that Local Education Authority? Or will he need to know how many people are on waiting lists at the NHS hospital in that constituency? Blair must not only have this knowledge, but also ammunition to fire back at the Tories, such as when they were in power, how many people died waiting for heart surgery in the West Midlands, or some other obscure piece of information most of us would find impossible to keep in our heads, let alone when under pressure.

Blair was impressive. He could switch in a second from a heated, fiery argument with Ian Duncan-Smith, to soothing words addressing a backbencher's concerns about health spending in their constituency. From dredging up a quote made by a Tory candidate about the EU during the last election campaign and using it against the party, to deflecting concerns about a cabinet reshuffle and a Welsh representative.

And all the time he did this amid the most tremendous din of barracking, jeering, hear-hears, roaring and general pandemonium. But there was no "order, order" from the Speaker. No MP was ejected for saying "green cheese". This uproar is accepted as an essential part of the debate - the Prime Minister must be subjected to such a gruelling because it's part of his job. He draws the Prime Minister's salary, so he must do the work of a Prime Minister.

There are few MPs in the New Zealand Parliament who would even attempt to handle, let alone survive the treatment and questioning meted out to Tony Blair. Helen Clark certainly wouldn't because she'd be too scared. Plus her arrogance would bring her down. Michael Cullen would be too smarty-pants for his own good. David Lange would have survived; Robert Muldoon would have thrived. I have no doubt that both Richard Prebble and Rodney Hide could easily handle it - they have quick brains, a good understanding of parliamentary process and, most important, they stick to their principles.

New Zealanders should be outraged that our own Prime Minister behaves so badly in Parliament; that she is paid to do a job which she believes means photo opportunities with film stars or refugees, attending the orchestra, reading the polls and focus groups (which she is, indeed, very good at), climbing mountains but doesn't involve fronting up and answering questions.

Take Wednesday this week, the same day I was in the British House of Commons. One question, asked by Bill English, related to the newly-introduced 'Care of Children Bill', which will create 'female fathers' by declaring that a woman in a lesbian relationship will be known as the 'father of the child'. (I can't believe our country has come to this degree of political correctness - please someone pinch me and let it be a nightmare).

Helen Clark said, and I quote: "It is amazing how trivial the things are that some people will get their knickers in a knot about. It is simply amazing". Apparently we needn't be concerned about this because, according the Prime Minister who is neither a mother nor a father, it is just a "drafting technique".

So no answer to Bill English's question from Clark.

Then Winston Peters had a go, and asked the PM if, in light of her answer, that she "agrees with same-sex parents".

Rt Hon Helen Clark: "I have no idea what the intent or effect of the question is."

(In ACT, I am sure we have a range of opinions on this issue. Some of us may believe, as the conservatives do, that state recognition of gay marriage or gay parents undermines the 'traditional family'. Others of us may believe that such recognition is long overdue. And still others, I am sure, will say: Why on Earth would anybody seek out the Nanny State's 'approval' for such personal decisions? Whatever our personal opinion, I am sure we all agree that knowing what the Prime Minister thinks is of public interest: Ms Clark's 'worldview', as she grandiosely calls her set of poll-responsive values, underpins the policies that our nation chooses.)

But I digress. Helen Clark of course knew exactly the intent of Winston Peters' question. She just thought it was smarter not to answer. In the great Houses of Westminster she would have been roared out into the lobbies. She would have been crucified by the Press Gallery; skewered by the cruel cartoonists (and they are vicious), she would eventually be replaced as leader. Clark once boasted you couldn't slide a piece of paper between her and Blair. She obviously hadn't watched him in the House. Lady (I use the term loosely here), you could drive a hovercraft between the two of you and not see the coasts.

As I watched Blair and Duncan-Smith go head to head, I kept feeling there was something missing. Then I realised - no one was making a point of order. They didn't need to, because questions were being answered. I admit, it's easy to get tired of endless points of order in the New Zealand Parliament, but it is done mainly because Government Ministers will not answer the questions put to them.

The other graphic example these past few weeks was Parekura Horomia giving wrong answers, refusing to give the correct answers, not turning up to question time, and generally doing everything he could to avoid the fact that Rodney Hide and Murray McCully were forcing him to do his job. Truth is, he's not up to the job. Horomia draws a cabinet minister's salary - he should have to front up and justify that salary. Instead, he is taken aside during question time and 'coached' on how to handle the gruelling he's getting, a gruelling he could have avoided by being straight with his answers in the first place.

But should we blame him, when we see the examples set by his leader? There was the Paintergate episode. There was the apology (but only if you were silly enough to take offence) to George Bush episode. There was the 'I didn't use the term law of the jungle, the Guardian did' episode. In fact, Miss Clarke frequently blames the media for putting words in her mouth, words any self-respecting journalist would never be lazy enough to utilise. And recently there was the fiasco over words in the RMA Amendment Bill that somehow miraculously appeared in the legislation of their own free will. Fancy.

One of my children was like that when she was small. If she dropped a plate and smashed it, it just 'jumped off the bench'. If missing clothes or makeup belonging to her elder sisters were found in her bedroom, they just walked in because they felt like a change of scenery. If her week's pocket money was gone by Monday, it was because the amount was too small to begin with or she had to buy a present for Grandma.

Children have to learn to take responsibility for their actions if they're to survive as autonomous adults. Mums and Dads teach them not to blame everyone else when things go wrong, or when they get caught out. But then, with this Labour/United Government, accepting responsibility has about as much importance as the family.

Yours in liberty,

Deborah Coddington MP

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