John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: A question of when an answer is really an answer

Prime Minister John Key.  Photo / Mark Mitchell
Prime Minister John Key. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Among John Key's favourite phrases are "I know this much ..." and "what I can say is that ..."

Much to Opposition parties' frustration, the Prime Minister uses the phrases to circumvent Parliament's rules that forbid ministers from answering questions by referring to things for which they have no responsibility, namely the policies, record and statements of National's opponents.

When asked a detailed supplementary question, Key makes a habit of saying he does not know the answer and then adds "I know this much ..."or "what I can say is that ... ..." What then follows is a quickfire put-down of the questioner before Speaker David Carter has had the chance to bring him to heel.

The Opposition yesterday sought to do something about it. Labour's Grant Robertson and New Zealand First leader Winston Peters questioned the relevance of Key's replies after the Prime Minister accused Labour leader David Cunliffe of making up income figures.

Robertson complained to Carter that he had noticed the Speaker had appeared to have been at the point of ordering Key to sit down such was the irrelevance of Key's answer.

Carter replied that might be Robertson's opinion , but he considered Key had adequately addressed the question.

A couple of minutes later Robertson questioned why the Speaker had not sat Key down after Key had made it clear that he did not have the information to answer the question. "Anything else he says ..." Robertson continued before being brought to a halt by Carter. "I will determine when the Prime Minister has finished his answer," Carter added angrily.

This provoked another point of order, from Peters.

"Your answer to Mr Robertson," he told Carter, "was that you determine when the Prime Minister has finished answering the question. Around about when were you going to do that, given that those last two sentences from the Prime Minister related to another administration ..?"

Robertson then sought clarification as to what criteria the Speaker was using to judge whether the Prime Minister's answers remained relevant.

"I will be determining when I decide the answer is sufficient. I will not hesitate if I have reached that point to ask whoever is answering the question to sit down," replied Carter.

He was as good as his word. He interrupted Key twice during a following question.

- NZ Herald

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John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Herald political correspondent John Armstrong has been covering politics at a national level for nearly 30 years. Based in the Press Gallery at Parliament in Wellington, John has worked for the Herald since 1987. John was named Best Columnist at the 2013 Canon Media Awards and was a previous winner of Qantas media awards as best political columnist. Prior to joining the Herald, John worked at Parliament for the New Zealand Press Association. A graduate of Canterbury University's journalism school, John began his career in journalism in 1981 on the Christchurch Star. John has a Masters of Arts degree in political science from Canterbury.

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