Avoid answering three times, and you are home free

He asked him once, he asked him twice, he asked him three times - but in a strange re- imagining of the biblical parable in Parliament yesterday, it was Speaker David Carter who cried uncle when Green Russel Norman could not get the cock to crow.

The rooster in question, Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce, was happy to crow about how clever the Government was to have saved The Hobbit trilogy, but was cheerfully determined not to say whether Hollywood executives had pressured the Government to change labour laws for the films.

Mr Carter let Dr Norman ask the same question three times, and agreed Mr Joyce had not answered it, but argued there was no point spending further time on it. The public would note the refusal to answer, and judge accordingly.

This caused great Opposition grumpiness, as it meant that all a minister now had to do was waffle irrelevantly for three answers, and he or she was off the hook.

In frustration, Dr Norman pointed to an assurance another minister, Gerry Brownlee, had given to Parliament in 2010 that the movie moguls had asked for no favours, and demanded to know whether Mr Joyce stood by it.

Mr Joyce smiled sweetly and said: "I have been working my way through all of Mr Brownlee's speeches since I have been in the House, because they are generally brilliant speeches, but I am only up to 2002 at this point, so I have a fair way to run before I get to 2010."

Prime Minister John Key was quick to catch on to the new "three strikes and the Opposition's out of luck" rule and spent a chirrupy few minutes avoiding answering questions about fallback plans for the asset sales programme should the court rule against the Government, and dodging further interrogation about the SkyCity casino deal, finishing off by calling Labour "those muppets over there!"

Completing the hat- trick, State-Owned Enterprises Minister Tony Ryall deployed both an eye-straining tangerine striped tie and a pious intonation of, "It's an operational matter" to deflect inquiries about the apparent extravagance of failing state energy giant Solid Energy. The corporation might now be $1.5 billion shy on its balance sheet, but Mr Ryall said airily that the company "was doing very well until 2011".

However, also dressed in traffic cone hues was Labour's newly promoted Annette King, whose job it is to mark Mr Ryall's other portfolio, health. In her first outing on a health question, she managed to tell Mr Ryall to "man up", and to call Social Development Minister Paula Bennett "a fishwife" before Mr Carter could get a word in. And rather than chide Mrs King, he told a rather startled Ms Bennett to pipe down or she'd be thrown out.

Mrs King gave the sort of basking smile that only a veteran can get away with, knowing that in the absence of a killer question, a knife-flick interjection or two can at least get you bonus points. Editorial A8