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How to be a politics tragic - The week
A rough guide to being the most annoying person in any room.
Good morning and welcome to the first ever edition of Museum Street.
Instead of jumping into a topic from the news I wanted to start with a bit of a guide to tracking politics in New Zealand. This first piece focuses on the typical political week - but I’m also keen to do some posts on the months-long processes by which ideas become law, and how to use the internet to know more about Parliament than some MPs.
Now, if you’re one of the people who signed up to a former political reporter’s newsletter before it had any content in it, you are probably already something of a political tragic.
But I hope there will still be things in these guides you didn’t know, or had forgotten over time. I hope it can serve as a helping hand to anyone else trying to keep track of the multiple streams of discourse that will shape the future of our country - whether that be so they can write more informed tweets about how the other guys suck or because they need to be across things for their job.
The political week
Political life in New Zealand has rhythms.
Nothing really happens between Christmas and late January, when the major parties hold “away” caucuses and travel to Rātana. The pre-budget and post-budget periods are replete with business breakfasts and carefully crafted spending announcements. Most people are hungover throughout much of December.
But the main rhythm is set by the sitting week.
Parliament sits for around 30 weeks a year, with a long break over late December and January and a shorter break in Winter, timed to be close to the school holidays around this period. That means that if your kid is going to school right now it is more likely than not that Parliament is sitting this week, although by no means guaranteed - kids go to school for about 40 weeks.
And kids go to school for five days a week, while the House usually sits for just three days - Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. But the House is not the be-all and end-all of a sitting week: here’s a look at a typical one.
The Cabinet room on the tenth floor prior to refurbishment. Source: Parliamentary Service.
Monday - Cabinet baby!
Nothing happens in the debating chamber on Monday, and select committees almost never sit on this day either.
But the political week begins bright and early not long after 7am, when the Prime Minister does a round of broadcast interviews. These are all carried live and the Prime Minister does them one after the other. Slotting them all together on one day is far easier for her team, as she can essentially prepare for one “mega” interview likely to traverse the same topics. Stuff had a slot for a period while I worked there, and we were last - meaning the Prime Minister had really had a chance to practice her lines. Nobody that I know of has ever shared questions in advance, but the staff of the leaders of both of the major parties typically ask the night before if there are any topics that the interview is likely to focus on. Whether you answer this does not determine if you have an interview or not, but it does determine whether the leader can simply say “look I’m not across that sorry” when you bring up something out of left-field.
These media rounds rapidly get churned out into content by the various outlets involved, so if you don’t have time to listen/watch all of them, you can just wait to see if anything pops out as a news story. If you can only listen to one, the RNZ interview is usually the most in-depth.
Things then get quiet for a while as Minister prepare for and then meet at Cabinet in the early afternoon. Many decisions get made in Cabinet sub-committees - but the main meeting is still very important, as every major decision has to be signed off here.
At 4pm on sitting weeks (or 3pm on recess weeks) the Prime Minister holds her longest press conference of the week - “post-cab” - in the Beehive theatrette, which typically lasts about 30 minutes.
Post-cab is the best chance most political reporters get to have a sustained conversation with the Prime Minister, with question lines followed for two or three questions, something that is usually impossible at the shorter “standups” later in the week. Sometimes the whole gallery kind of kicks in as one and a single topic dominates for ten or so minutes. It’s also worth noting that some reporters who do not come to the press gallery every day (or even most days) still come into post-cab - especially foreign reporters or those from smaller outlets. Post-cab is crucial for the outlets who don’t have the reach to demand regular sitdowns or slots with the Prime Minister - which accordingly means the questions can be quite a lot more focused on say, monetary policy.
The Prime Minister typically but not always has something to announce at post-cab.
Photo credit: Rob Kitchin/Stuff
Post-cab wraps up at around 4.30pm and the TV folk rush off to produce content for the 6pm news. Print reporters have often already filed something from inside the press conference.
You can watch post-cab live on various news websites, but if you have something better to do (or just half-remembered some throwaway line) the fine folks at Hansard now transcribe every post-cab press conference, usually uploading the document on Tuesday on this page.
Tuesday - absolute chaos
Tuesdays during sitting weeks are feats of endurance for all involved, with most important MPs facing the media twice in one day, as well as each other in Question Time.
It’s the first day of the House “sitting,” meaning many of the non-ministerial MPs have very early starts getting to the airport to fly to Wellington. They largely arrive in Parliament between about 7.45am and 9.30am - and if a party or its leader is in trouble this is a great chance for the press gallery to “door stop” MPs, basically staking out available entrances to the building and attempting to interview the MPs as they enter.
The first proper event of the day are caucus meetings, when a party’s entire rostrum of MPs all meet up in one room, instead of just ministers or the top of the shadow Cabinet. Labour typically meets at 10am while National typically meets at 10.30am, although this was switched when National were in power and using the Government caucus room.
Why not just meet at the same time? Well because the media have created a great little tradition called the “caucus run” - where they stand in the corridors leading to both caucus rooms and ask every MP possible about the various issues of the days. These more impromptu press conferences are called “stand ups” - because everyone is typically standing - and either party can basically decide to walk off whenever it feels like it. Often during a caucus run there can be four or five stand-ups going on at once, so reporters need to think fast to decide which is the one they need to be in, and if they’ve got enough from the one they are currently standing in.
Caucus runs are far more fun than most other “runs” for reporters because they are the best times to get normal back bench MPs, not just ministers or party leaders. They are also the times where internal party drama can be best exposed - sometimes in real time, as when Nikki Kaye described Paul Goldsmith as Māori during a caucus run in 2020, only to have Goldsmith deny this about 45 seconds later two metres away.
The caucus run is also the first time the Opposition leader gets in front of the media for the week, and they usually treat it quite seriously, with a little speech at the top laying out what they wan to achieve that week. Caucus runs are also fantastic for reporters because within the space of an hour you can get comment from both the Government and Opposition on whatever contentious issue, usually enough for a pretty good news story.
After caucus MPs head for lunch and leaders get in some Question Time prep - because at 2pm the House sits.
On their way into the debating chamber the press gallery once again gets a chance to stop MPs and talk to them in stand-ups. This one is called “bridge run” after the bridge between the Beehive and Parliament House, but since MPs don’t actually get stopped on the (fairly narrow) bridge any more, this title doesn’t make that much sense. This “run” happens on the famous black and white tiles in the lobby outside of the debating chamber.
The Prime Minister on a bridge run.
These standups can be a little strange because the press gallery had a chance to ask most of the present MPs questions just a few hours earlier. But you never give up a chance to talk to the Prime Minister - she can make news with a sentence - and it’s also a great chance to talk to the leaders of the minor parties for whom there is no “caucus run”. (These parties do appear to meet on Tuesdays, but no one can get to their corridors to hold standups - although they would probably let reporters in for the coverage.)
Bridge run used to start about 1.45pm, lasting an extremely chaotic 15 minutes until “the bells” summoned MPs to enter the chamber. But ACT leader David Seymour has cottoned onto the fact that if he arrives at 1.30pm he will get the press gallery’s undivided attention for quite a while, so the start time has started to bleed backwards.
At 2pm the House actually starts for the week. Before Question Time gets going the Clerk reads out petitions delivered and papers to be published by the House - Parliament receives and publishes all sorts of papers, from SOE annual reports to Select Committee reports, so if you’re tracking an issue it makes sense to listen in.
Then the fireworks begin with Question Time, which lasts for about an hour.
Question Time deserves its own post, and if you’ve read this far I’m sure you know all about it. News is rarely made afresh in Question Time these days, but the sparring is absolutely key for the TV news bulletins, who use it to illustrate various stories - so it is still very important. [If you’re the kind of sicko who wants to upload video from Question Time soon after it happens, or you just want to check the wording of something faster than Hansard can type it up, don’t wait for it to arrive on the Parliament website - go straight to their Vimeo, it’s typically up within minutes.]
Every MP anywhere near Wellington typically attends Question Time to roar for their side. But at around 3pm when it finishes quite a few leave the House for other matters - leading to another round of stand ups the press gallery calls “second bridge”. These got fairly rare during Covid-19 but in the 2017-2020 term were the best place to get long standups with ministers on contentious issues - and Winston Peters in particular. Radio reporters particularly like these standups as they are less noisy than the usual bridge run.
But the House doesn’t finish at 3pm - indeed, that’s when the actually important work of “Government Business” begins - ie passing laws. On Tuesdays this lasts until a dinner break at 6pm, then from 7pm to 10pm. If you want to catch a politician for a drink, the dinner break can be your best bet.
Wednesday - Opposition slots and select committees
Wednesday is (currently) when the leader of the opposition does their broadcast media slots, nice and early in the morning. As with the Prime Minister their staff usually asks for a list of topics the night before, so they are somewhat across the detail of whatever they are asked about.
These slots will start off a new round of stories, some good for the Opposition, some bad. Clever strategists plan certain news stories or releases to come just before the PM or Opposition’s media appearances - for example last week Labour’s Megan Woods released an excoriating attack on National’s climate credentials on a Tuesday night, basically guaranteeing Luxon would be asked about said attack on Wednesday.
With no caucus meetings in the way Wednesday morning and early afternoon in Parliament is dedicated to select committee meetings. Select committees have a huge range of business to get through - from their own inquiries into matters to bills that are becoming law to petitions to the annual reports of various departments. The submissions on these matters generally take place in public, and every select committee is now live-streamed. (Find the schedule here.)
These select committees often feature top public servants submitting on various things, as well as key lobbyists, who reporters might collar for a standup outside the committee room. Select committee watching (and submitting) is an art of its own I don’t have room to discuss here.
Then on Wednesday afternoon the House sits again - expect the same bridge run from 1.30pm then Question Time for an hour at around 2pm. Instead of going straight into Government business there is usually a “general debate” following Question Time - a great watch if you want to see which politicians can actually deliver a joke. This is the most free-wheeling time in Parliament, as the debate really doesn’t have to take the form of a question or a speech on a specific bill - so it also a perfect setting for MPs to defame people with the protection of Parliamentary privilege, should they wish to do so. (Privilege basically protects MPs entirely from being taken to court over anything they say in the House. Anything.)
As on Tuesdays Parliament sits until 6pm for a dinner break then again from 7pm to 10pm.
Every second Wednesday is a bit different with “members’ night” - where the Government essentially hands over control of the legislative programme to a random ballot in a biscuit tin. Again I don’t have the space to go into the ins and outs of this hallowed tradition, which has brought us everything from same-sex marriage to the disenfranchisement of prisoners, but it can be a fascinating time to watch the House.
Occasionally the House also sits on Wednesday morning - as an extension of Tuesday’s night’s hours, if the Government hasn’t got through all it wants to that day. Oddly enough this still counts as “Tuesday" in Hansard etc. Wednesday night can also be extended into Thursday morning. The House used to just go absurdly late when this happened, but now it almost always finishes up at 10pm, unless they are in the middle of a vote.
Party leaders love to get out of Parliament on Thursdays.
Thursday - some calm
The House still sits on Thursdays but everything usually feels a bit less manic.
Select committees again meet in the mornings (and occasionally the afternoons.) Bridge run happens at 1.30pm, Question Time just after 2pm. Everyone is generally a bit tired, as functions often happen on a Wednesday night in Parliament - it’s a day you can guarantee most MPs are in Wellington.
The calmness is especially concentrated because both the Prime Minister and Leader of The Opposition typically don’t show up to Parliament on Thursdays, instead travelling somewhere else in the country and making some sort of announcement. With the TV cameras focused elsewhere the vibe is much more relaxed.
The House only sits until 5pm - a relatively recent innovation that allows MPs in far-flung electorates to get home on Thursday nights. Like on Tuesday and Wednesday the House can be extended, but on Thursday this first happens into the evening, then into Friday morning. It is fairly rare.
Friday - No Parliament, but still plenty of politics
The House almost never sits on Friday, and MPs have generally gone home for the weekend. But the politics doesn’t stop: This is when print political editors write their big weekend columns, and often MPs take advantage of the relative quiet to make some sort of announcement.
The weekend - Rest and reflection
MPs go home to their electorates on the weekends, and Parliament itself is quiet.
But politics never quite sleeps, with the morning shows across the weekend providing a place for longer form interviews on contentious issues and panels.
Press gallery reporters typically don’t work on Saturdays, and there usually aren’t any big Government announcements on a Saturday either - as much of the country is enjoying themselves and not thinking about the news.
Sunday at 6pm on the other hand often sees the largest TV news audience. That means TV stations often (but not always) launch a poll on that day, and there can be an announcement or two.
Then the whole machine whirs into motion and it starts again.
Or it’s a recess week - in which case there’s still post-cab (at 3pm instead) - but no House. On recess weeks you can instead expect a much steadier stream of policy announcements, as MPs have less time they have to commit to the House - and reporters are a bit less busy too.
Credit: Rob Kitchin/Stuff
Before I go I thought I’d share some pieces worth reading - hopefully this is a regular feature.
A very interesting interview between gallery doyen Audrey Young and Winston Peters - where he rules out working with Labour again, but says he is coming for their core vote. This is a shift for Peters who typically likes to keep parties in the dark, and is a big gambit to lock onto some of the voters he lost in 2017 when deciding to go with Labour. But it’s quite a risk - both John Key and Simon Bridges once ruled out working with Peters, and Luxon could too. Also Peters despises ACT.
A piece of mine in The Guardian arguing that 2023 will see NZ elect either its most left-wing or most right-wing Government since the introduction of MMP. Why? Because the only realistic path to power for either National or Labour will have to involve a lot of concessions to either ACT or the Greens. Then, maybe NZ First come back in and I look like an idiot, who knows.
Thomas Coughlan on the weird series of U-turns National made on climate on Wednesday, including its claim to have always supported the Clean Car Standard.
Marc Daalder’s big scoop on the watering down of the hate speech reforms.
See you next time!