Thursday, 12 July 2012

The Chief Minister's Timetable and Memory Lane

On of the most extraordinary questions to emerge in Hansard was the following:

4.2 The Connétable of St. John:

Could the Minister give details of his calendar engagements for the rest of this week, please?

Senator I.J. Gorst:
I think I am going to have to refrain from answering that, because I have only got 15 minutes and it would take considerably longer?

4.2.1 The Connétable of St. John:
Could he give the calendar events for one day of this week, please?

Senator I.J. Gorst:

Yes, today, I have had a meeting prior to this States sitting. I am hoping, Sir, and I am relying on your good judgment that we might finish by lunchtime. I have 2 meetings in my diary to take place during the lunch interval. I have 4 other subsequent meetings this afternoon. Then I have an evening meeting starting at 6.00 p.m. which I expect to finish around 9.30 p.m. I was pleased to be able to read in my papers overnight that there might be light refreshments provided at that meeting, which means that I do not then need to rush home and eat my cold dinner.

Quite why Philip Rondel wanted to know that, I have no idea. But it provides an interesting snapshot into the day of our Chief Minister. It seems a very busy schedule, finishing late. Of course, we have no idea what the meetings are about, they are just "meetings". But we have some idea, for posterity, of one day in the life of the Chief Minister, and the sad spectacle of his cold dinner, waiting for him when he finally gets home.

Sir Humphrey: There's always some questions unanswered.
Jim: Such as?
Sir Humphrey: Well the ones that weren't asked.
(Yes Minister)

The Constable of St John, Phil Rondel, obviously has a liking for history, because he later took a trip down memory lane, with respect to an altercation with Derek Carter. This was a debate about how question time worked, and if it could be improved.

In the days before Hansard, minutes were short resumes of the salient points of debates, with votes, and the anecdote which follows is seeing light of day for the first time. It's nice to have these gems, that brighten up what are otherwise rather dull debates:

5.1.8 The Connétable of St. John:

Having worked on the both systems, coming in the House back in 1994, the system that was under the committee system for questions and answers was far more robust than it  is today. Far more robust. If you will bear with me a moment or 2 I will repeat one in particular. When the new marina was being built, the Elizabeth Marina, I can recall putting questions  to the President of the day, Deputy Carter or Senator Carter - I am not sure which position he was holding at that time, Senator I think - about a boat that was being used. He got so frustrated with the questioner that he threatened to knock his teeth down the questioner's throat if he would walk out into the Royal Square with him and he marched out of the Chamber.

The Bailiff of the day,  the late Sir Peter Crill looked at me and said: "There is nobody to answer your question, Deputy", so I sat down, in fact I sat down and then I immediately left the Chamber only to be drinking a cup of coffee with the President in the Members room outside where he was so exasperated. Half the  Chamber had followed me out expecting to see us both in the Royal Square having  fisticuffs. But the fisticuffs should be happening on the floor of this House, the verbal fisticuffs, not  out there. I would like to see under the current system, the person who puts the oral question given  far more bites at the cherry to get the information out of the Minister, not just be given the  original question plus a supplementary and then come back in at the end with a second supplementary.
Today that means absolutely nothing. Unless you can get the information out  of the Minister the person who puts the question should be given sufficient time to have  sufficient supplementaries to hold that person to account. That does not happen any longer and it is  definitely not working. I believe we do need changes, contrary to the previous speaker who is a former  president of P.P.C., but for somebody who spent a lot of his time on his feet putting questions,  this new system, as far as I am concerned, is totally flawed. I am talking about this particular part of Government. The question time is flawed and does need a proper review so question time  becomes really meaningful.

Deputy G.C.L. Baudains took a different point of view, and again gave us a nice anecdote about Len Norman's style of answering questions:

In contrast to the previous speaker, which you will no doubt consider to be unusual, I believe that the system of questioning under the old committee system was not ideal. I  happen to believe that the present system we have is probably as good as we are going to get it. I do agree with Senator Bailhache which may surprise him. I mean, I have been asking questions in this Chamber for 10 years or more and it is probably only half a dozen occasions in all those questions where I have not had a satisfactory response, and it is an art form.

I recall the situation when Senator Norman was president of Harbours and Airport and if you asked him if something had or had not happened he would stand up and say yes and then sit down. [Laughter] If you then stood  up and said: "I would like a supplementary on that" the Chair would rule: "What is it you do not  understand about 'Yes'?" So you learned to put your question and at the end of it say: "If  the answer is yes would the president give his reasons why". So it is the way that you word the question that is important. I am not convinced that what I consider to be the blurring between written and oral questions is going to be of assistance, I think it could be a disadvantage. I would urge Members to concentrate on getting the question in such a way that the Minister cannot avoid producing the  answer which you require.

Should that still fail there are other remedies. You could, in the last  resort, bring a proposition to force the answer.

Which not unnaturally prompted Len Norman to come in with a comment on questions - know the answer before you ask it!:
I just wanted to say briefly, similar to Deputy Baudains, I think the problem, if there is a problem, is in equal measure with the quality of the questions as well as with the quality of the answers. I think one or 2 Members have forgotten one of the basic rules of  asking questions, you do not ask a question unless you already are absolutely sure of the answer. 

It very much reminds me of "Yes Minister":

Jim: Opposition's about asking awkward questions.
Sir Humphrey: And government is about not answering them.
(Yes Minister)

Hansard is a good cure for insomnia, but these wonderful vignettes about proposed punch-ups, and questions being answered in days gone by, make it much more lively. However, it emerged that Senator Ian Le Marquand is probably not the best person to drift down memory lane, as he displays problems with his memory...
Particularly I find it difficult to give a good answer to a multi-part question which also contains factual information that is  incorrect. Now, those of you who have observed my methodology on this over a period of time will know  what will happen to such a question. My first priority will be to seek to correct the factual error. My second priority will be to answer the part of the question which I can recall. My third priority will be to ask the Chair to remind me what the rest of the question is. That is what happens almost every time and that is because bad questions are being asked and I cannot give a good answer to a bad question. It is also because my memory is not as good as it once was of course.

Let's hope he's not asked whether the introduction of Tasers is laying the foundations of a police state:

Bob: Minister are you laying the foundations for a police state?
Jim: You know, I'm glad you asked that question.
Bob: Well Minister could we have the answer?
Jim: Well yes, of course, I was just about to give it to you, if I may. Yes as I said I'm glad you asked me that question because it's a question that a lot of people are asking, and quite so, because a lot of people want to know the answer to it. And let's be quite clear about this without beating about the bush the plain fact of the matter is that it is a very important question indeed and people have a right to know.
Bob: Minister, we haven't yet had the answer.
Jim: I'm sorry, what was the question?
(Yes Minister)

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