Some of the key players during the current term for Question Time

Why Question Time is more than just squabbling and mud-slinging

From the outside, parliamentary Question Time looks like a juvenile farce. But it matters far more than many give it credit, writes long-serving aide to the late Jim Anderton, Tony Simpson. 

The many filmgoers who have seen Saving Private Ryan may recall a vignette near the beginning in which General George Marshall reads out a letter of sympathy from Abraham Lincoln to a bereaved mother who has lost multiple sons in the civil war. But most will not be aware that the letter was written not by the President but by a man called John Hay who was Lincoln’s private secretary.

I have always particularly savoured that, because for fifteen years I worked for the late Hon Jim Anderton. One of my many tasks was to manage his political correspondence. The issue that generated the greatest volume of correspondence was, believe it or not, the excise tax on what passed for cheap sherry, but it was run a very close second by letters along the generic line of “why don’t youse jokers stop childishly squabbling among yourself and put your energy into running the country, catching burglars, restoring the death penalty for riding a bike without a light”, you name it.

Most of it was pretty silly but it did point up a problem. New Zealand is one of the few countries in the OECD (it may be the only one) which doesn’t have a civics component in its core school curriculum. The upshot is that most New Zealand citizens have no idea how their government works and so they are given to senseless criticism of its component parts. All public servants are lazy wasters of money. All politicians are corrupt and only interested in feathering their own nests. They should do something about gangs, why do Māori get special treatment, and so on and on. And nothing comes in for more stick on a regular basis than Question Time in parliament.

I wouldn’t disagree that it can seem rather silly if looked at in isolation. A lot of putative adults slinging mud at one another over trivia. But it shouldn’t be seen in isolation, because it’s part of an overall process which goes to make up liberal parliamentary democracy. Not only that – it’s one of its most important components.

Parliamentary democracy is predicated on the basis that you can’t operate executive government without commanding a majority in parliament. That applies under FPP, MMP, and any other structure you might choose to adopt. The English, whose system we follow, spent most of the seventeenth century establishing that principal; in the course of doing so they executed one king by the head chopping method and chased another one off the throne, until the monarchy got it and stopped interfering directly in politics. They spent a good part of the next century establishing the principle that just because the minority didn’t agree with the majority this didn’t make them a crew of treacherous dogs who deserved to be hanged. Instead they became what was known as ‘the Loyal Opposition’. And that’s where Question Time comes into the picture.

In most jurisdictions the parliamentary system gets tangled up with democratic choice of the majority in parliament, and that in its turn is predicated on a belief that the voters will be sufficiently well informed to make that choice every so often (in our case every three years usually). You may not think I need to tell you this basic stuff, and in your personal case I may not, but to a surprising number of people, in my experience, this is new and surprising information.

The problem is that it’s quite hard to find out what’s happening, because most of the work in parliament is conducted in Select Committees made up of all stripes of politicians. They spend most of their time working co-operatively to ensure that the country is administered, that laws get passed, that governments and their public servants are held to account, and that no-one spends money without authorisation by parliament in the annual Budget.

The apparently obvious way of ensuring that we the voters know all about this happening is for journalists to tell us about it, and mostly they are allowed to attend Select Committees for that purpose. But as a core process the Committees are long winded, detailed, and above all tedious beyond belief. One of the reasons I never followed up on the opportunity to become an MP myself was the risk of dying of boredom in a Select Committee, or worse dying of boredom and no-one noticing.  

Being an MP means working long hours for relatively low rewards given the levels of responsibility entailed, and with little to show at the end of it but a litany of abuse and complaints. I don’t know why people bother apart from a sense of service to their fellow citizens who mostly don’t want to know the detail of what politicians are up to – unless something spectacular happens.

As far as that goes, however, parliament has seen fit to make life easier for journalists and citizens alike by allowing MPs an opportunity a few hours a week to ask questions which dramatise the issues of the day in an  adversary situation. Voila! This is Question Time. I’d say that it takes up about five percent of the time of parliament overall. But because it’s mostly what gets reported (it’s very dramatic) and it’s all that people notice about parliament, it’s easy to get the impression that parliament is a place where people spend all of their time indulging in silly squabble about nothing in particular.  

Sometimes it can descend into that, because the temptation by the opposition to score off the government can be great. And sometimes it seems like a great waste of time if you aren’t interested in the specific issue under debate. But mostly it’s key to running our country in the way that most of us want it to be run – as a fully accountable democracy.


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