After an effective four month gap, Parliament resumed this week. There was a short session in December 2011, but that was primarily to swear MPs in, elect a Speaker, and have the speech from the throne.
This week has been the first to conduct "question time" where opposition parties can hold the Government to account.
Question time last year was dominated by Labour and National battling it out. The Greens would have only one question, and all other parties would only have occasional questions.
This year it has been very different.
First up there is a new Labour leader in David Shearer. He has yet to serve three years in Parliament. He was not even on the front bench last term, and Labour gave him just 10 primary questions to ask in the House over the last two and a half years. That works out to around one question every three months. By comparison, other first term MPs such as Clare Curran had 23 primary questions last term.
Now Shearer has to do at least one question every sitting day. He didn't make much of an impact this week, but to be fair to him, no new opposition leader ever does. Don Brash didn't suddenly crush Helen Clark in his first week as Opposition Leader - nor did John Key. Shearer's confidence and agility will improve over time. The agility is the hardest part of asking questions in Opposition. You and your staff will have prepared numerous supplementary questions based on what you think the answer to the primary question will be. However if the answer is not what you anticipated, you need to be able to throw away your prepared questions, and narrow in on the answer that was given. Some MPs are very good at this, and some are just incapable of doing it.
The challenge for Shearer isn't looking good against Key (as no one is expecting him to at this stage), but looking good against the leaders of NZ First and the Greens. What he doesn't want is a meme gaining traction that they are the real leaders of the opposition.
Winston is back in Parliament, and had a good first week in the House. His chosen issue of wasteful spending under the whanau ora programme is a good one for him (and one I approve of). Labour and Greens are reluctant to go there, as they worry that they may be seen as being against the aims of whanau ora, which is seeking to improve the lives of whanau. ACT would have once attacked such spending, but with their sole MP being a Minister they don't get any questions in the House. So into the vacuum comes Winston.
However in my opinion Peters has not done quite as well, as some journalists have proclaimed in columns of adoration. While his choice of topic is excellent, he has been unable to actually land a blow on a Minister because he doesn't provide any details of the issue in his primary question. It is the traditional "Does the Prime Minister have confidence in all of his Ministers". When he then starts asking about a grant of x thousand dollars to some family, the PM can and does simply reply that he needs to ask the relevant Minister that question as his primary question.
There has been a fascinating series of exchanges between the Speaker and Peters. Peters complains that the PM has not answered his question, and the Speaker points out it is totally unreasonable to expect the PM to be able to answer a supplementary question on details of a small grant, when the primary question did not refer to the grant in question. Despite being told this on Tuesday and Wednesday, Peters persisted with this approach, and again on Thursday got the same reply from the PM. If he is smart, he will take the advice of Mr Speaker, and start providing details of the alleged wasteful spending in the primary question. But maybe secrecy is so ingrained with him, he can't bear to reveal his target in advance.
As I said, a good first week for the NZ First Leader, but it could have been better with smarter tactics.
Finally we have the Greens. They now get two questions a day, which gives them the opportunity to make more of an impact at question time. But their impact in the first week was limited due to their choice of topics. On one day, their question was on the situation in Syria. What is happening in Syria is awful, and is an important issue. But it is a situation New Zealand has almost no influence on, and was a waste of a question.
The problem with the Greens is that it appears they have an overly democratic approach to question time. In the major parties, the senior MPs effectively decide what the topics will be questions, and who will ask them. But as far as I can tell in the Greens they almost rotate the questions around each MP, and defer to them as to what the topic will be. This is great if you are a backbench Green MP as you get to pursue your pet topics, but not so useful for the Greens as a whole, because they need to use their questions strategically to build up profile on key issues such as green jobs, the environment etc. There are absolutely no votes in asking questions about Syria.
On the plus side, the new Green MPs look like they will perform well at question time. New MP Holly Walker had her first question against the formidable Judith Collins. While Walker didn't overly bother Collins (I suspect few things short of a direct hit by a mortar would), she raised a point or order with the Speaker over whether one of the answers, was a response to her question. New MPs are generally encouraged not to try and engage in points or order, as the standing orders are complex and arcane and it is easy to embarrass yourself. It requires considerable confidence to do a point of order during your first ever question in the house, and more so to do it well enough to get the Speaker to agree with you. Walker has set a high bar for the other new Green MPs.
So National is looking to have a tougher time in the House this term, than during the previous term. With Labour, NZ First and the Greens all to a degree competing to be the most effective opposition party, some of them will land some hits. The only thing that might be worse for National is if they actually co-operated, rather than competed.
Thankfully for National, this looks a very unlikely prospect.