The politics of 3-D grammatical chess

People sometimes say that MPs are solipsistic, even narcissistic. It‘s true that some politicians, for example, the US President, regularly refer to themselves in the third person in a manner that is a bit disturbing.   

But in New Zealand‘s Parliament MPs always speak in the third person, because all discussion is directed through the speaker. So if an MP says “you” in, say, criticising some other MP, they are actually referring to the Speaker.

“Don‘t bring me into the debate” is a common refrain from the chair.

But it can get really odd during Oral Questions.  This week in the House some of the mind-twisting grammatical gymnastics was over Russia.

Todd McClay: “To the Minister; for how long has he been aware of Russian intelligence activity in New Zealand?” Winston Peters: “Since I was a young boy.” House: dissolves in laughter.  Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

The language of Oral Questions gets really complicated when a minister is answering a question on behalf of another minister.

So, for example, this week when Winston Peters (Minister for Foreign Affairs), was answering questions on behalf of first Jacinda Ardern, and then later Andrew Little (Minister responsible for the SIS) who exactly was saying what was a tangle of pronouns.

When you answer for someone else, you phrase answers as if you were that person. So when Winston Peters said “I” he was being Andrew Little. 

But some of the questions to Winston Peters (as Andrew Little) were about the actions of the Minister of Foreign Affairs (who is Winston Peters), so Winston Peters was pretending to be Andrew Little, answering questions about the actions of Winston Peters. 

In which case when Winston Peters says “he”, he is referring to Winston Peters.

That‘s not even that unusual. It‘s no wonder they trip themselves up occasionally. 

At one point the Speaker defended an answer to Gerry Brownlee saying “It is absolutely clear to me that the Minister acting for the Minister in charge of the SIS, indicated that he had a meeting with Mr Peters yesterday.”

Which translates as Winston-as-Andrew says that Andrew had a meeting with Winston; not that Winston had a meeting with Winston.

Clearer any?

Listen (above) to some of the to-and-fro over Russia from this week when Winston had to answer a string of questions in the guise of various other ministers as well as himself. It was interesting, elucidating, and even frequently funny.