It's no wonder we don't trust MPs

FIRING LINE: John Banks faces questions in Parliament.
FIRING LINE: John Banks faces questions in Parliament.

I seldom watch Question Time in Parliament these days.

I sometimes wonder who does, other than the press gallery, parliamentary staff, lobbyists and those with a masochistic streak.

It's supposed to be the high point of the parliamentary day - a time when the opposition can grill the government and hold it to account.

But more often than not it's a low point - an hour when MPs let off steam by shouting, jeering, point scoring, hurling abuse and bickering with each other.

Few questions are actually answered during Question Time, either, as most ministers are trained in the art of evading rather than answering questions. And some questions aren't intended to solicit answers, but simply to score points or attack the Government.

Then there are the absurd "patsy" questions. Ministers devise questions they would like to be asked, and find a Government member to ask them. Ministers then stand up and read out the answers to the questions they have prepared in their offices. What a farce.

A lot of time is wasted on points of order, too, or barracking or interrupting the other side. And the general impression is that nobody is listening, or is there learn. So I decided to watch Question Time the other day, to see if it had improved at all in recent months.

Sadly, it hadn't. The session was banal, frustrating and pointless. Several MPs asked important and relevant questions. But ministers batted them off with superficial and patronising waffle and personal attacks, not proper answers. The Speaker allowed this to happen, because under Parliament's rules, ministers only have to "address" a question, they don't have to directly answer them.

To be fair, the present Speaker, Dr Lockwood Smith, has tried harder than most of his predecessors to get ministers to answer questions. He had a major stoush with the Deputy Prime Minister last week, when he tried to force him to answer rather than evade a question.

But despite his best efforts, Question Time remains a hopelessly unsatisfying political game. For most MPs, the objective is not to elicit or divulge genuine information, but to score points and attack the other side.

This is a real pity, as Question Time is one of the few times when the House is full, and the press gallery is in attendance. Most of the rest of the time the House is deserted.

There is an expectation that all MPs, including the prime minister and party leaders, will turn up for question time. I am not sure why, as Question Time is usually dominated by a small coterie of senior parliamentarians, and most MPs sit there, day after day, with nothing to do than interject or jeer or cheer, or simply get on with answering correspondence.

There's also a convention that MPs should not be late for Question Time. That's why, when the bells start ringing, MPs drop whatever they are doing and head for the debating chamber. It's hard to believe, watching Question Time, that a great deal of time and resource is spent preparing for it. There's a lot of competition to ask a question, and MPs and ministers will often spend hours honing their questions, or preparing responses. When a question is delivered to a minister's office, the office is put on high alert, and most of the morning is spent preparing answers to cover all possible lines of attack. Or working out how to avoid answering the question at all.

It's easy for MPs to get caught up in the daily ritual of Question time, and to end up thinking that the shouting and abuse is normal and acceptable behaviour.

But outside of Parliament, many find it off-putting and even pathetic.

Back in 2002 a group of Wellington High school pupils observed Question Time, and wrote a report about it, expressing their shock at the aggressive, bullying culture in Parliament.

“There was a lot of verbal violence. MPs shouted at each other and abused each other. They would groan or jeer or interrupt if they disagreed with what was being said.

“They didn't listen to each other and there was no sense of working toward anything."

The behaviour in the House would not be accepted in the classroom, they concluded, or even the playground.

Many MPs dismiss these sorts of criticism, and defend Question Time, arguing that it is all part of the robust cut and thrust of politics. But I believe the constant sniping and personal attacks have a corrosive effect on public perceptions of parliament and politicians.

With this sort of behaviour on daily display, it's no wonder that public trust and confidence in politicians is universally low, or that according to a Readers Digest Survey, politicians rate lower than insurance salesmen and merchant bankers in public esteem.

Sue Kedgley is a former Green MP

The Dominion Post