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Dunne Speaks: Question Time Is Anything But

The focus placed on the first couple of Question Time exchanges between the new leader of the National Party and the Prime Minister will have seemed excessive to many but the most seasoned Parliamentary observers.

Most people, especially those outside the Wellington beltway, imagine Question Time is exactly what it sounds – a session where the Opposition gets to ask Ministers questions about their portfolios to gain information, and where Ministers respond, leaving Parliament better informed as a result.

In fact, Question Time is anything but the genteel exchange of information some imagine it to be, and others wish it were. Rarely is anyone seeking genuine information at Question Time. If that were the true intent they would be better off accessing the resources of the General Assembly Library, or even the cumbersome processes of the Official Information Act to get what they were after.

For Ministers, the art of being successful at Question Time is to give away as little information as possible, unless it presents the Government in a favourable light, while for the Opposition parties the aim is to trip up or otherwise embarrass a Minister. Little of it has anything to do with the accuracy or depth of the information being sought or provided.

In that regard, Question Time is a ritualistic game, albeit an important one, played out generally at the start of day’s Parliamentary proceedings. Its purpose is about establishing dominance, and which side is on top that day, a little like the opening skirmishes in a rugby test match. And it is not a phenomenon exclusive to the New Zealand Parliament. Although the form of their Question Times differs somewhat from ours, the same dynamics are at play in the House of Commons in London, and the House of Representatives in Canberra, and many other Westminster-style Parliaments around the world.

The mistake is often made of assessing Ministerial and Opposition performance on what goes on at Question Time. Some Ministers are quick-witted natural performers who thrive on the rough and tumble of Question Time. Likewise, some Opposition MPs are extremely good at asking awkward questions that make even the most experienced Ministers squirm. But none of this is necessarily an indicator of their overall effectiveness. Others may, for example, be far more effective as policy developers, or in select committees, more interested in solid achievement than the theatre of Question Time.

While the natural tendency for an Opposition is to want to take on and hopefully topple the Government’s best performers, good Oppositions learn over time the futility of that. Far better to ignore the Government’s strong performers by not asking them any questions at all, thereby depriving them of the oxygen to use Question Time to score at the Opposition’s expense. It is often more profitable for an Opposition to use Question Time to expose and put pressure on the Government’s weakest Ministerial links, forcing other Ministers to spend more of their time in Question Time defending their embattled colleagues, rather than promoting their own leadership and policy achievements.

When last in Opposition National took some years to realise the futility of attacking Helen Clark and Sir Michael Cullen when they were at their most dominant. It was a similar story with the last Labour Opposition which was fixated on attacking Sir John Key for far too long. Both eventually dropped the tactic and simply ignored them thereafter, once they realised they were losing more from the ongoing attacks than they were gaining. Weaker Ministers offered far richer pickings!

All of which brings us back to the current contest between Christopher Luxon and Jacinda Ardern. While it is clearly too soon to form a definitive view after just a couple of days’ performance so far, it does seem that Ardern will be more vulnerable on questions that are not Covid19-related where she cannot take the same high ground approach she has since the outbreak of the pandemic. Luxon therefore should shift his attack away from the Covid19 sphere and onto policy areas where Ardern is far more vulnerable – like overall Government performance, housing provision, child poverty and climate change, for example. If he cannot score against her on those areas, he may, over time, like those before him, need to think about ignoring her altogether to starve her of the Parliamentary opportunity to score points at his expense.

Whatever course the future Question Time exchanges between Ardern and Luxon take, we are unlikely to gain any substantive new information on Government or Opposition intentions. After a little while we will get a sense of who is the more dominant in Parliamentary terms, and the impact that is having on the respective morale of their teams. In time that might also translate into a wider public perception of who is winning and who is losing.

The pressure Question Time imposes on party leaders in Government and in Opposition is much more about constantly performing at a high level, than it is about asking or answering questions. If a party leader is being frequently bested at Question Time, it starts to sap the party’s morale, and, in turn, raise questions about the future of the leadership. MPs on both sides will be watching Ardern’s and Luxon’s coming performances intently in that regard.

Getting on top at Question Time is for both Jacinda Ardern and Christopher Luxon an important pathway to getting on top with the rest of the country. It should be no surprise that the questions asked, and answers provided will always run a far distant second to that quest for dominance.

MY SECOND WEEKLY COLUMN IS ON NEWSROOM.CO.NZ

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