Why try for consensus when you can go brawling instead?

In the week when great minds pondered anew whether the Al Qaeda attack on the Twin Towers five years ago changed the world, what did Clayton Cosgrove do? He called for Statistics New Zealand’s operation manual.

Swift action from the Minister of Statistics was apparently needed to save the nation from staff tea-making rules which made media mirth.

Cosgrove could instead, as Minister for Building Issues, have been expediting his rewrite of the dilapidated building code, thereby to improve the nation’s health, save it energy and make it safer.

At least reading tea leaves was preferable politics to his superiors’ brawling in the Chamber.

Labour was brawling there because it had seriously misjudged the parliamentary funds spending abuse issue, not grasping that if a rule is bad, playing by the rule is bad, too. Consequently, the National party’s over-the-top charges of “corruption” had begun to get public traction and under the Labour leadership’s skin.

So Labour declared “war” in question time on Tuesday and laws on election funding to National’s disadvantage will follow.

In fact, National’s rant that Labour “stole” the election by way of Helen Clark’s pledge card vastly overstated the card’s vote-pulling power — a power so weakened by over-use that there was a perverse logic in the claim that the card was not campaigning.

But for Labour to wave a Bill English pledge from the 2002 campaign also paid for by you, the taxpayer, was to ask you to agree two wrongs make a right, which they don’t.

Question time is a grim example of the two-wrongs precept.

Ministers seldom actually answer questions except when dished up a patsy by a backbencher or friendly support party. They then retail their latest plan, strategy, initiative or review, with self-puffing flourishes and garnishes of snarky asides about National.

Questions the Opposition asks are merely “addressed”, which in Parliament need not involve something resembling an answer. No more than a tangential flick at the topic is required. The Opposition naturally gets angry.

But ministers give the Opposition the runaround because Opposition questions are mostly provocative and snide. Oppositions long ago abandoned the pursuit of the public interest through searching questions — except insofar as the public interest coincides with the Opposition’s interest in scorching the government and regaining power.

So it goes on: tit for tat for tit for tat. Instead of question and answer and useful information there is barracking, barking, caterwauling, shrieking, hooting and name-calling that would shame a gaggle of sugar-hyped seven-year-olds.

This is best understood as ritual — disgraceful ritual, but politics is not a nice business.

Unfortunately for all of us, this ritual belittles MPs and the political system and belies the fact that outside question time the great majority of MPs and ministers work hard and for what they believe to be the nation’s betterment. In Parliament’s engine-room, the select committees, MPs do sober, sensible, useful — and largely unrecognised — work.

The barracking in question time has this year come mostly from National, which has got it in for Speaker Margaret Wilson. But on Tuesday and Wednesday Labour went feral.

And that nearly triggered a Greens-led walkout on Thursday of small parties (except New Zealand First whose leader is an inveterate participant in the ritual). A walkout might have got the old parties a salutary public caning. But Labour was tipped off and went quiet and the walkout stalled.

National, nonetheless, was in full riot from the start when the Greens’ Jeanette Fitzsimons asked David Parker if the government would try for a multi-party, indeed national, consensus on climate change policy. She was echoing a wish expressed at a business forum that morning.

Parker (who has been generating copious cabinet papers on the topic) merely suggested National “get in behind”. Ritual again. (On orders from above?)

Climate change is the sort of huge issue that demands a national policy, not policies which swing with governments. The same goes, for example, for another huge issue, immigration, now in David Cunliffe’s charge. Immigration touches the labour market, industry and economic development, national identity amid ethnic and religious diversity and the multiple challenges for us of Melanesia’s demographic explosion.

But it seems governments will seriously attempt consensus on truly big matters only if non-government organisations and lobby groups drive it from below and force politicians’ hands.

Parker and Cunliffe are new, younger ministers making a fair fist of their portfolios. Cosgrove is another. Though inclined to self-importance, he is a man of energy, intelligence and action.

Bothering about a tea ceremony belied his ability and potential. But he can be forgiven in a week in which his superiors finessed the great international and national strategic issues with self-indulgent, destructive ritual.