Rise of the House of quizzes: questions gain ground in parliament

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In Parliament’s debating chamber most of the action is debate – hence the name. Many debates built out of many, many speeches.

That’s no surprise. Parliament is from the old French parler (to speak) and means both the august body and the speeches themselves.

But recently, the speeches are getting thrown over for a quiz.

The rise of the questions

Questions aren’t new in the House. Questions to Ministers go back to 1856 (shortly after New Zealand’s Parliament began). They are a core aspect of what we understand to make a ‘responsible’ government.

And every debate is over a yes or no question, ultimately voted on. Which is why some votes are prompted by the motion ‘that the question be now put’.

But the questions have escaped their traditional containment and are now roaming free around the chamber. Well, almost. And not just questions, but answers.

One new inroad for quizzes has been underway since last year. The other began this week.

The classic arcade game Wack-a-Mole. Picture title: 'Gayla's highscore = 140 '

The classic arcade game Wack-a-Mole. picture title: Gayla’s highscore = 140. Photo: Sakura, CC-BY-2.0

Whac-a-Mole at the committee

Last year Parliament trialled a new way of doing committee stages (the penultimate stage of a bill when the House considers amendments).  That stage has moved from speeches to an open Q&A with the minister in charge.

The minister was always allowed to respond to speeches, and sometimes they were asked questions, but that is now the focus. To make it more possible MPs can now speak as many times as they like. On occasion they pop up and down like a game of whac-a-mole.

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On Tuesday for example, National MP David Bennett took a turn during the committee stage of the Climate Change Response (Auction Price) Amendment Bill. The minister in charge was Green Party MP James Shaw.

The brief exchange lasted just 303 words, but included 13 different ‘calls’ (parliament’s words for a member taking the floor to speak). Two of the calls were a single word long. Traditionally those calls would have stretched towards 5 minutes each for a total of more than an hour.

It’s not always like that – but now it is allowed to be.

Chris Hipkins answering questions in the House

Chris Hipkins answering questions in the House Photo: ©VNP / Phil Smith

I bite my thumb at your statement, sir

The new incursion of the quiz into the domain of speechifying is the Ministerial Statement. Ministerial Statements happen a few times a year when a Minister wants to inform the House about some important matter. This week it was Chris Hipkins updating the House on recent Covid-19 alert level changes.

The traditional form is the minister makes a statement and then an MP from each other ‘specified’ party (a party with at least 6 MPs) make a speech in response.

No more.

The new rules for this Parliament encourage the MPs to ask the minister questions. The Speaker described his plan for the first outing.

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“So the Minister can make the statement, and then members may ask questions if they wish and/or make comments. I will allow an extended time, if necessary, for [members] who ask questions. Ministers are required to address these questions but are not given carte blanche to make another speech.”

In practice the MPs still got roughly five minutes of speaking time, but this was interspersed with answers from the Minister. So the whole thing took longer, but was also more interesting.

Chris Bishop in the House

Chris Bishop in the House Photo: ©VNP / Phil Smith

And how was this different from Question Time?

In this first outing the main difference seemed to be the questions themselves.

The questions asked of ministers during Question Time are constrained by numerous rules built from more than a century of Speakers’ rulings. Accretions of the common law of daily practice.

These new quizzes are a fresh beast more-or-less untethered from that structure.

Among the usual constraints is a ban on preambles or comments in the questions. Not so here. These questions were long, they were discursive and parenthetical. Frequently they were multi-pronged well beyond the two-legs good rule.

Many questions included commentary that would never be allowed during formal Oral Questions. “This was New Zealand’s first yo-yo lockdown” (Chris Bishop); or “this government had a less challenging job than any country on earth going into this pandemic,” (David Seymour) wouldn’t get close to being allowed.

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Secondly, during Question Time you are not allowed to follow up on an answer by launching into a speech critiquing that answer. You can’t even sigh dramatically in mock response.

Those rules don’t apply here. Because MPs could either ask questions and/or give speeches they did both. The questions were usually questions but the speeches included much rhetoric and commentary on answers given.

“All he had to do was get up and say, “Here’s a bunch of countries.”, but he couldn’t, because there isn’t one.” – David Seymour.

It was a whole new frontier. Whether it will encourage ministers to make statements is yet to be seen.

Either way, the quizzes are out, and roaming free.

Now we just need a way to keep score. ‘Ministers to your buzzers please’. ‘A starter for five points.’ ‘A supplementary question for a bonus point’, and ‘that’s a breach of standing orders, minus five points.’

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