There are a lot of things that I think are useless in this world. Public holidays that fall on weekends, decaf coffee and carob are just a few, and until recently I thought “patsy questions” were similarly useless.
Now not everyone has seen a patsy question. Chances are most of you haven’t. The Public Gallery at Parliament usually consists of Grey Power, and school kids who have been forced into a tour. Question time affords Parliament the opportunity to provide a check on the Cabinet, basically to keep them honest. To a large degree this occurs – opposition MPs probe at proverbial bugger ups that the Government has made. Question time also allows members of government outside Cabinet to question ministers. Historically this would have allowed Government backbenchers the chance to test and question the policies of their Cabinet. This role, however, has largely folded to the point where you are more likely to see Paul Holmes eating dinner with Kofi Annan and the local Jewish community than see Tariana Turia ask the Prime Minister why she has done a u-turn on race relations policy.
The basic structure of a patsy question is as follows (this has of course been paraphrased):
Generic Government Backbencher with Cabinet Aspirations “Tell me something good that your ministry has done lately.”
Generic greasy pole climbing Minister “Well I’m glad you asked, actually just this morning my ministry announced the following initiative… (3 minutes)… which is more than you saw from nine years of National government!”
Put simply, it’s bragging time, not quite in the “nah nah nah nah we’re in government and you aren’t type,” but close enough. Ministers get to fly their own kite and sycophantic backbenchers get to get their names put in Hansard. Recent patsy questions have included (to the Minister of Education) “What steps is he taking to ensure that all children develop basic literacy skills?” and (to the Minister of Health) “Has she received any reports on nutrition in New Zealand?”
It seems that someone forgot to tell Winston Peters that patsy questions are usually only asked by Government MPs. In under two years Winston has slipped from his post election posturing about whether Bill English could claim the title Leader of the Opposition to the point where his party and his preferred Prime Minister-ship has slipped to single figures in the polls. Enter a new strategy. Winston has started using questions in the house as a chance for Labour Ministers to knock National – it’s kind of like he has changed the game from softball to tee-ball. He has been taking great delight particularly in bringing up the similarity between the Orewa speech and one that Jim Bolger delivered in the early 1990s right before National started writing the words “treaty principles” into legislation like they were going out of fashion. The disturbing thing is that Winston seems to have slid into something that his core supporters are probably known to; nostalgia. If he doesn’t start getting traction soon though, the pinstripe prince is going to have to find some bright new ideas if his party – as he put it last week – is going to be indispensable to the post 2005 election government.