In the days of the Prohibition there was a slogan that went 'lips that touch liquor shall not touch ours.'

The Green Party has now taken its own vow of abstinence on so-called 'patsy questions' in Parliament's Question Time - deciding it will let the National Party use its precious allocation of oral questions rather than soil their own lips by asking a patsy question.

Parliament Television's screening of Question Time does not have a massive viewership so the overriding question for many in the public is possibly "what the hell is a patsy?"

A "patsy" is a question usually asked by a backbench MP on the Government's side to allow a minister to bang on about how wondrous a recent announcement was or to highlight new statistics that show the Government in a positive light.


Green co-leader James Shaw has described them as a waste of time and boring. He says they were never covered in the media and if he wanted to gloat about something as Climate Change Minister he would put out a press release "rather than creating a patsy question about how great I am in the field of climate change".

He has a point about the boring bit. Both questions and answers are highly scripted and usually nobody listens. They are the intermissions in Question Time.

Forfeiting its questions has been described as an effort by the Greens to distinguish itself as a small party in Government to help it avoid the fate of other small parties which have been swamped, lost all trace of their own identity and disappeared.

That is overplaying the significance of the move – it is such a beltway issue that Shaw has rightly identified that the public are more likely to judge the Greens by whether they meet the promises they had agreed with Labour rather than whether they ask patsies or not.

But they will also be judged by how firmly they stand up against any moves that go against Green ideals.

In that regard, foregoing patsies may be seen as principled but it does not necessarily mean a party should give its questions to the enemy to use instead.

Shaw has indeed said the Greens will keep their questions if they decided there was something they wanted to tackle the Government over.

If they cannot come up with one thing a week to hold the Government to account for, they don't deserve the questions anyway.


The Green Party gets one to two questions each sitting week. They are not bound by Cabinet collectivity (other than on issues in their own portfolios). NZ First in particular is pursuing policies that are anathema to the Green Party.

Green members will be split on the step. One party volunteer tweeted rather sarcastically that he was "really glad that my hard work will be reflected in Judith Collins getting more airtime in Parliament".

There is a high likelihood that the issues the National Party thinks it is worth holding the Government to account over will not coincide with the issues the Green Party thinks the Government should be held to account over.

The likely demise of charter schools springs to mind as does anything to do with farming and mining on which National and the Greens have a rather different view of matters.

On the other side of the coin, the newly minted Trans-Pacific Partnership is something the Greens might want to hold the Government to account over which the National Party will not.

There are some areas of common thinking – currently around the waka jumping bill and Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary (although National's primary aim there is to drive a wedge between the Government parties by pitting the Greens' principles against the NZ First-Labour agreement to let sleeping dogs lie).

Shaw is also missing the point that one of the reasons for patsy questions is to get such matters recorded in Hansard for posterity.

In the long run, that too can sometimes be valuable for holding a minister to account if those boasts come to nothing or are later contradicted and their words come back to haunt them.

The strategy they have adopted does at least add a certain air of suspense to proceedings.

Using the weapon sparingly at least ensures people will pay attention when a Green Party MP is down to ask a question. Everybody will know something has displeased them enough to keep a question.

That will worry Labour primarily because it risks overplaying the perception of a rift in the government ranks whenever a Green MP stands to ask a question.

National however are delighted by the Green Party's high-minded principles. They are not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, so they will hoover up those questions with glee.

But if the Greens are hoping for reciprocity should National regain the Government benches in the future, they'll be a long time waiting.