Standing Orders and Oral Questions: New Zealand

In the second part of our review of Standing Orders governing Question Period in other jurisdictions, we will now look at New Zealand.

The New Zealand Parliament’s Standing Orders contain a rule addressing the matter of relevancy (SO 111):

(1) All debate must be relevant to the question before the House.
(2) After having called the attention of the House to the conduct of a member who persists in irrelevance or tedious repetition either of the member’s own arguments or of the arguments used by other members in debate, the Speaker may terminate that member’s speech.

Unlike here in Canada and in Australia, however, there is no disclaimer in the New Zealand procedural manual, Parliamentary Practice in New Zealand (more commonly referred to simply as “McGee” among procedural geeks) that this rule does not apply to oral questions, as we will discuss in more detail further below.

Oral questions in the New Zealand parliament share one important characteristic with oral questions in the UK House of Commons: Members must give notice in writing of a question for oral answer (SO 381), meaning the questions are tabled in advance:

(1) Notices of oral questions are lodged by members in writing to the Clerk. A notice of an oral question must be—

(a) signed by the member or by another member on the member’s behalf, and
(b) delivered to the Clerk between 10 am and 10.30 am on the day the question is to be asked.

(2) Twelve oral questions to Ministers may be accepted each day. Questions will be allocated on a basis that is proportional to party membership in the House. The Business Committee decides the weekly allocation and rotation of questions.
(3) Oral questions that have been accepted are circulated.

Once lodged with the Clerk, all questions are reviewed to ensure they comply with the Standing Orders. If a question is found to be out of order, it is returned to the Member who tabled it, or it may be accepted “subject to amendment or authentication of a statement or quotation contained in it.” (McGee, p. 548) As well as tabling questions to be asked of Ministers, questions may be put to a Member (not being a Minister or the Speaker) relating to any bill, motion or public matter connected with the business of the House, of which the member has charge. Questions can also be put to the Speaker, but only written questions. Questions put to other Members (not Ministers) are answered after the questions put to Ministers (SO 379).

As per SO 378, questions to Ministers must relate to public affairs with which the Minister is officially connected, or proceedings in the House or any matter of administration for which the Minister is responsible. The question cannot touch on the actions of a Minister in a personal or party capacity, nor can a Minister be questioned about a statement he or she has made if that statement was not related to some aspect of the Minister’s portfolio. (McGee, p. 556) 

Standing order 300 deals with the content of questions:

(1) Questions must be concise and not contain—

(a) statements of facts and names of persons unless they are strictly necessary to render the question intelligible and can be authenticated, or
(b) arguments, inferences, imputations, epithets, ironical expressions, or expressions of opinion, or
(c) discreditable references to the House or any member of Parliament or any offensive or unparliamentary expression.

(2) Questions must not seek a legal opinion.
(3) A written question must not repeat the substance of a question already lodged in the same calendar year.
(4) Questions must not refer to proceedings in committee at meetings closed to the public until those proceedings are reported to the House or (subject to Standing Order 115) to a matter awaiting or under adjudication in, or suppressed by an order of, any New Zealand court.
(5) Where the notice of a question does not comply with the provisions of the Standing Orders, it is not accepted. If, by inadvertence, such a notice is accepted it may be subsequently disallowed by the Speaker unless it is amended or revised so as to comply with the Standing Orders.

Similarly, rule 386 deals with the content of replies:

(1) An answer that seeks to address the question asked must be given if it can be given consistently with the public interest.
(2) The reply to any question must be concise and confined to the subject-matter of the question asked, and not contain—

(a) statements of facts and the names of any persons unless they are strictly necessary to answer the question, or
(b) arguments, inferences, imputations, epithets, or ironical expressions, or
(c) discreditable references to the House or any member of Parliament or any offensive or unparliamentary expression.

(3) Replies shall not refer to proceedings in committee at meetings closed to the public that have not yet been reported to the House or (subject to Standing Order 115) to a matter awaiting or under adjudication in,or suppressed by an order of, any New Zealand court.

McGee provides some interesting commentary regarding the answering of questions (pp. 563-66). Ministers “cannot be forced to answer a question”, but an answer ought to be given if it can be given consistent with the public interest. “It may be refused if, in the Minister’s opinion, the public interest would be imperilled by giving the information sought.” An inadequate or unsatisfactory answer is not a refusal to reply. If a Minister has decided that he or she will not answer a certain question, Speakers have stated that the Minister should indicate this via a point of order prior to the question being called. Strictly speaking, however, a Minister can simply refuse to answer when called upon by the Speaker. A Minister who refuses to answer a question is not obliged to give reasons why, but it is preferable if they do so:

A Minister’s response to a question that he or she does not intend to answer it is in fact a reply, unsatisfactory as it may be to members. Sometimes Ministers may be reluctant to give an informative response on a matter that is under negotiation or consideration by another body. A response in these terms is not, strictly speaking, a refusal to reply. Whether to respond in this way is a matter for ministerial judgment.

When a Minister does reply (and for the most part, they do), they are expected to address the content of the question:

The Minister’s reply must address the question asked. This involves a question of relevancy. The reply must be a direct response to the question; it cannot be a statement on an unrelated matter which it suits the Minister to introduce. (…)

While Ministers are required to “address” the question asked in their replies, whether the reply provided actually “answers” the question asked is a subjective judgment. It is no part of the Speaker’s role to make such a judgment. The test of adequacy is whether the answer addresses the question by being relevant to it. Essentially, the House itself and public opinion (assisted by the news media and reports of parliamentary proceedings) are the judges of the adequacy of a reply by making a political judgment on the matter. This is the position whether the criticism of a reply is directed to its accuracy in terms of facts asserted or its comprehensiveness in answering the question asked. (The Speaker does have a role in ensuring that it remains relevant to the subject matter of the question.)

Thus the Speaker cannot be appealed to on the ground that the reply is inaccurate. A deliberate attempt to mislead the House would be a contempt and if a Minister discovers that incorrect information has been given to the House the Minister is expected to correct the record as soon as possible. But subject to these circumstances, accuracy or otherwise is a matter that may be disputed and the Speaker is not the judge of it. It is a matter for political criticism of the Minister concerned if members believe that a Minister has answered incorrectly.

Again we see the argument that it is not up to the Speaker to judge the content of a reply, but in New Zealand, the Speaker is expected to ensure that the answer at least appears to be relevant to the question asked.

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