John Armstrong: Speaker drops democratic bombshell

By John Armstrong

Take a bow, Lockwood Smith. At long last, the House has a Speaker who seems serious about removing the blight on New Zealand's democracy - the increasing tendency of Cabinet ministers to thumb their noses at the constitutional convention that they are accountable to Parliament.

Smith dropped a bit of a bombshell on the first sitting day of the year when he expressed displeasure with Labour Minister Kate Wilkinson's reply to an Opposition question about the minimum wage, and then instructed her to answer the question again.

Such a practice is almost unheard of. You could see the jaws of National Party colleagues collectively dropping in shock.

For too long, however, the hour-plus set aside each afternoon in the House for MPs to quiz ministers has been much more about political theatre than ministerial accountability.

As the former and very disillusioned National MP Mark Blumsky noted before leaving Parliament last year, question time often descends into farce.

Under standing orders - Parliament's rules - ministers only have to "address" questions, rather than actually answer them properly.

As long as the minister makes some reference to the subject in question - however vague or tangential - he or she is deemed to have addressed the question.

Ministers can therefore duck the difficult questions in the one forum where they are supposed to be held to account.

Instead, as Blumsky observed, question time has become a competition to see which minister can give the "best smart-arsed answer". Democracy is the loser.

Smith's predecessor, Labour's Margaret Wilson, occasionally displayed exasperation at such behaviour, telling ministers to give more fulsome replies. She dropped more than a few hints to complaining National MPs that it was up to the House - not her - to review the relevant standing orders.

Smith is clearly going to stamp his own mark on the Speakership - something he underlined yesterday by announcing a change in route for the Speaker's daily procession to the House.

The three-person procession - which has the Mace-carrying Serjeant-at-Arms walking ahead of the Speaker with one of the latter's staff bringing up the rear - is a parliamentary tradition, but one not witnessed by the public.

The new route will take the Speaker into the entrance foyer in Parliament House and will be seen by members of the public heading for the House's galleries, thus making the Speaker "more accessible" to the public.

Smith also cited the public's interest when tackling Wilkinson over her failure to answer Trevor Mallard's question about the minimum wage. The Labour MP had asked her to state the gain in real income per week for a full-time worker on that wage following this week's increase.

Smith ruled the question was perfectly clear and Wilkinson's officials had had plenty of time to come up with a factual answer. In such instances - as distinct from questions seeking an opinion - Smith expected ministers to provide a proper answer, as did the wider public.

Such interventions will not win Smith plaudits from his colleagues. They sat in Opposition for nine frustrating years complaining about Labour ministers diving for cover when the political heat was on.

Now in Government, they would expect the boot to be on the other foot. That it isn't may be unfair on National. But stopping the parliamentary rot meant someone had to start somewhere at some time. Smith has done the right thing by serving notice that he expects ministers to lift their game. The onus is now on him to continue in the manner in which he has begun.

- NZ Herald

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