The painful art of extracting answers

JANE CLIFTON - ABOUT THE HOUSE
Last updated 08:13 31/05/2012

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OPINION: Prime Minister John Key took to flashing his cash around in Parliament yesterday, in an effort to deflect Opposition attacks on the Government's tax-tightening on children's pocket money.

However, perhaps in keeping with last week's Budget, the money went straight back into his pocket before it could dangerously over-stimulate the economy.

Labour's Grant Robertson had asked what had changed since Mr Key, as Opposition leader, had borrowed some money from a boy to play a video game on a trip to Manawatu, urging the boy to be sure he paid him back, as "I don't want to take your pocket money".

Mr Key kept trying to change the subject from the new taxing of paper boys and girls, to the Government's removal of babysitters' tax obligations, and suddenly whipped a note out of his trouser pocket, saying, "Babysitters - I dunno, $100? More?" As it was only $5, this last-of-the-big-spenders gesture fell a little flat.

Mr Robertson then tried to table an account of the Manawatu pocket-money raid, which, as Labour's Trevor Mallard pointed out, was headlined by Mr Key's firm denial (to questions from children) that then-prime minister Helen Clark was his girlfriend.

This closed a frisky question time, in which Labour's David Cunliffe tried to make an issue out of Mr Key's having said that if someone wanted to "buy" a country, "why wouldn't they buy New Zealand?"

"I think the member might find that that is what is known as a metaphor," Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce retorted. "I would have thought, as someone who wrote poetry at Harvard, the member might recognise a metaphor," he added in ungallant reference to Mr Cunliffe's notorious verse.

The Opposition had fun, but little success, trying to find out how the Government let a miscalculation of the new teacher-pupil ratios get through the Budget process. Education Minister Hekia Parata's answers were wilfully opaque, especially over whether she had received a list of the schools that would lose more than one teacher.

Speaker Lockwood Smith had Labour's Chris Hipkins ask the same question three times, but her answer still wasn't clear, so Dr Smith tried to be helpful, saying he interpreted her various answers as meaning "no". He later clarified this as "no, in a round-about way". He told the House he was pretty sure this was what she meant, because when he said "that was my understanding of the answer, the minister nodded".

Mr Hipkins, however, did not feel helped. "Your interpretation of the minister's answer is useful, but the problem is that we're left relying on your interpretation of the minister's answer. We don't have the minister's answer."

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Mr Mallard wanted to clarify where this new Speakerly translation system - in which the Speaker divined a minister's real meaning via a nod-and-a-wink and reported this to the House - would lead. "Going forward, will it be in order for members to submit questions in the form of, 'Further to the Speaker's interpretation of the minister's answer . . .'?"

Dr Smith said plaintively, "I'd prefer the minister to answer the question." He got Mr Hipkins to ask the question yet again - did Ms Parata seek or receive a list of the worst-affected schools? - and at long last she said, "No, Mr Speaker, I did not." All of which was another example of how a root canal can be completed in less time than a parliamentary question and answer - and with much less discomfort.

- The Dominion Post

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