Greens’ concern over Parliamentary urgency gains widespread support

Last year, around the time the shameful Hobbit Bill was being rammed through Parliament in two days and without Select Committee scrutiny, Russel Norman posted here and here about his increasing concern over the National-led Government’s use of Parliamentary urgency to bypass normal Parliamentary process:

The problem with urgency is that it often means that laws don’t receive the kind of scrutiny they should. So it means you get laws with mistakes and laws that do bad things without ever giving the people a chance to influence them.

To be fair, sometimes urgency is just extending the sitting time of parliament just to get through a backlog but using normal processes. Nonetheless, the amount of time parliament spends in urgency can give some indication of how much the governing parties are trying to subvert the usual checks and balances of parliament.

It is great to see Russel’s concerns now being echoed by others in the political arena and the media.  Here’s Labour MP Grant Robertson, last week:

1. By-passing the select committee process should be something that is done in only the most exceptional circumstances. It may be that a different kind of urgency motion should be required for that, with perhaps 75% of the House having to agree.

2. We should investigate whether there is a way of extending the sitting hours of the House in a way that does not compromise the integrity or quality of the legislative process. One suggestion that has been floating around is to allow for the Committee of the Whole House to sit on Wednesday and Thursday mornings when the relevant Select Committee is not sitting. I am sure there will be other suggestions.

And National aligned blogger David Farrar:

  1. That standing orders be changed so that a bill can bypass select committee stage only with approval of the Speaker (as is needed for extraordinary urgency).
  2. That standing orders be changed so that question time automatically carries on, even if the House is in urgency
  3. That the number of sitting weeks be increased, hence reducing the need for so much urgency, from 31 to 33 by reducing the number of two week recesses from five to three.
  4. That standing orders be amended to distinguish between “extended sitting hours” which would merely extend the sitting hours on Wednesday and/or Thursday and full urgency (where you specify particular bills, and the House keeps going until they are disposed of)

Today, the NZ Herald joins in:

The copyright law is an especially curious case. It was set aside after being reported back from a select committee last November, and did not seem a pressing matter. All the Government’s rush has done is spread apprehension. A more considered approach would have avoided this. Likewise, there seemed little reason for urgency for the latest Christchurch legislation, other than to establish the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority. The Government had already granted itself wide-ranging emergency powers under law passed after the first earthquake.

Legislation rushed though in this manner has a much reduced chance of being good law. When the select committee stage is bypassed, a valuable chance to iron out problems is removed and opposing viewpoints are denied due consideration. A glaring example of this was the law change introducing national standards in schools.

Well done, Russel, for getting this discussion started.  All we need now is for National to take notice of your concerns. Maybe that will happen now some of their supporters are beginning to share them.

16 Comments Posted

  1. Good thoughts MikeM.

    It was just a couple of weeks ago that Randy Jackson reminded us that you have to pick songs and perform to win, not to avoid the bottom three and elimnination.

  2. We need a realistic, large, third party, that has credibility. How the heck do we get one of those…?

    For that to happen I think there needs to be an attitude of pro-actively voting for what’s wanted, rather than voting out what people have grown tired of, if that makes any sense. Either that or a third party needs to convince people that it’s not radical and can be trusted. National/Labour are perceived as being so close (and both have “experience” governing the country in the past, even if it was with mostly different MPs) that many voters will happily substitute one for the other.

    As a nation we’re stuck with a belief that the two big parties have to exist for the system to work, simply because they’ve already been here for so long. Rather than representing specific ideals, the major parties continue to exist because over time they morph and mutate their ideals to follow what they think voters want most. We’ve really had quite a lot of different parties in government over the last few generations made of radically differently-thinking MPs, they were just all called either National or Labour, and (especially under FPP) they were elected by using their name to appear as the most trusted alternative to a government that voters were getting sick of.

    To state the obvious, few people have really tried to push any metaphors that imply anything other than a set of parties spread along a line with no party having common beliefs with any others beyond the two either side, even under MMP. We’re still using metaphors like ‘political spectrum’ and ‘swing voter’, for instance. To get people to consider alternatives that aren’t traditional for them, it’d be necessary to start pushing a metaphor like a Venn diagram (for instance) and show people where the new options fit compared with the other two, if that’s even possible, and thereby give those unhappy voters an alternative over Labour or National when they’re getting sick of the incumbent. Personally I’ve no idea how it’d look for the Green Party, but maybe there’s a lack of visibility of Green Party policies on areas that interest people who often vote National, or something like that.

    Just some unedited thoughts, anyway, and subject to change.

  3. Dbuckley,

    I think the issue is that most people still think in terms of two parties, irrespective of the fact that MMP allows for multiple parties in parliament. Since the late 1970s minor parties have gained about 20% of the vote (with some exceptions), irrespective of whether the voting system was MMP or FPP. Indeed the biggest vote for minor parties was in 1993 (under FPP) when about 30% voted for the minor parties.

    The problem is (in my opinion) that the two main parties have converged to such an extent that they represent pretty much the same policies, with minor differences in the details. However many people haven’t realised this, or think there is no alternative to vote Labour and National. I suspect many people essentially vote to punish the last pack of bastards by voting for the other main party, even if they don’t really like who they are voting for.

    Perhaps the solution would be a coalition between Labour and National so that one of the minor parties could become the second main party? Then again, this will achieve little if the minor parties converge towards the same sort of policies as the main parties, which some commenters on this blog (such as Bryce) suggest is happening.

  4. Zedd:

    MMP is NOT a two party system

    Absolutely agree, compared to FPP, MMP is wonderful.

    But… the problem is that to actually operate a government, you need a bunch of people who are roughly naturally aligned to a common goal, or a whip system, where the members are forced to a common goal. This is why the party system was declared to be a massive advance on what went before it, namely just lots of candidates individually voted to serve.

    MMP allows us to have a governing “group” that consists of twenty parties of four MPs each, but could that work? Just look at the minor parties we have today, and even in the space they have they are always squabbling…

    We need a realistic, large, third party, that has credibility. How the heck do we get one of those…?

  5. Sort of on topic I noted as a firearm owner recently that the police policy on MSSAs is going to pushed through behind closed doors with no consultation with shooting sports groups.

    Not very democratic and a waste of tax payer money with zero effect on gun crime.

    NZ Police didnt win in Palmy high court so now they are trying to push through the back door.

  6. @dbuckley..
    I’m actually hoping that those kiwis under $100k who are considering voting to return Key & co. COME TO THEIR SENSES & realise that N-Act is only looking after the top end of town.. smiling & waving does not make a good PM !

    If voters don’t want either National or Labour.. they can actually vote GREEN or maybe another ‘minor’ party.
    MMP is NOT a two party system, that there is some talk of returning to.


  7. Katie: who needs a manifesto once you’re in power… eg We’re not going to raise GST… The blame lies with (Americanism warning) We the People. You’re part of the People, right? When you say you’re not culpable, perhaps you (plural) are more culpable than most, as you campaigned “against the centre-right” (though that doesn’t say what you campaigned for), and as history records, you failed.

    My culpability extends to voting for the only party I though wouldn’t be totally disastrous to the country, namely the Bill and Ben party. Unfortunately, there were only 600 odd of us, so they didn’t make the house, which is a real pity. For this election, so far I’m at a loss who to vote for.

    Zedd: In what universe do you think that a National led government wont be returned? There’s going to need to be a large portion of hell freezing over before that happens.

    The big, big, big problem at the moment is that the only group of bunch with the credibility to run the country are those running the country today, however bad a job they are doing of it, and trust me when I say you ain’t seen nothing yet. Sickening. And frustrating.

    Carrying on the BTO theme:
    And said, You ain’t seen nothin’ yet
    B-B-B-Baby, you just ain’t seen n-n-n-nothin’ yet
    Here’s something that you’re never gonna forget
    B-B-B-Baby, you just ain’t seen n-n-n-nothin’ yet
    And you’re thinkin’ you ain’t been around, that’s right

    Just a few months till the real rogering starts, the Second Term…

  8. db:
    “In my particular recent blathering about National, my central argument is that we have no right to complain, as we put them in power, with eyes wide open, for what was coming.”

    No, I didn’t.
    They were not elected by a majority of the New Zealand voting age public, either.
    You may feel that it is a consequence that you are responsible for, but leave the rest of us out of it.

    I helped to campaign against the centre-right, on policy isssues made clear to the public, in 2008. I don’t recall any policy manifestos from that National party campaign period that were fully carried through once they were in term as Government; to the contrary I recall that we marvelled at how slim was the policy they released, and how much of the campaign seemed to be shallow, and merely images of smiling wealthy people doing recreational things in front of journalists and cameras.

  9. One has to wonder if this trend will be ramped up, IF this Nat-led Govt. get back in november ? maybe they think ALL their bills should go under urgency ??

  10. Valis: Yes, my issue is the idea that because something is done under urgency it is automatically dubious legislation. Note my post above was not party specific, and could apply to any government.

    I think National (actually, scratch that, replace with: governments of every colour) have proved beyond reasonable doubt they don’t need urgency to pass bad legislation, though it is certainly true that some bad legislation has been passed under urgency.

    In my particular recent blathering about National, my central argument is that we have no right to complain, as we put them in power, with eyes wide open, for what was coming. We now know, again, eyes wide open, what we’re going to get next term. And what astounds me is that most NZers are willing to turn the other cheek, so to speak, bend over, and take it.

    On the other hand; as we sit today, there is no reasonable alternative to more of the same, so its difficult to blame the populous when a one horse race is about to be run.

    Toad: Yes, absolutely

  11. @dbuckley 10:21 AM

    An alternative explanation is that there is a volume issue; too much to do, and so little time.

    That may be the case in some instances, like the pre-Chritmas urgency last year. But it is not the case with the worst examples, such the Bill to introduce National Standards, the first Fire@Will Bill, the ECan travesty, the CERA Bill. These were rammed through under urgency not because they were urgent but because submitters and Departmental officials may say things the Government didn’t want to hear and didn’t want the public to hear.

  12. dbuckley, I find it interesting that you comment about being screwed by the Nats in one thread and yet say they need more time to do it in this one. National can never say why these laws are so important, so I don’t buy either argument that they are urgent, or that there isn’t time. Since there’s almost no checks on a govt in power, there’s no way I’d give them even more scope to push their agenda through.

  13. Yes, MikeM, big ups to Idiot/Savant too for consistently raising this issue. I should have given him some credit in my substantive post.

  14. Well done, Russel, for getting this discussion started. All we need now is for National to take notice of your concerns.

    I don’t wish to criticise the efforts of MPs in recent times, including Russel and Grant, DPF and everyone else who’s been bringing it up. But let’s not forget that I/S over at No Right Turn deserves some credit for trying to bring attention to mis-use and sometimes blatant abuse of urgency since at least 2008, starting (I think) with a point about the previous government using it to rapidly get through legislation which might not have been possible after the election. Since then there’s been an October 2009 post with comparitive stats between governments, followed by more in-depth comments, and more recurring posts since then than I can be bothered locating and linking to.

    This isn’t exactly a new thing that’s only just being brought to light, though it’s great that it’s finally getting more attention.

  15. Whilst wholeheartedly supporting the thrust of the post, this statement may be a step too far:

    Nonetheless, the amount of time parliament spends in urgency can give some indication of how much the governing parties are trying to subvert the usual checks and balances of parliament.

    An alternative explanation is that there is a volume issue; too much to do, and so little time. Hence the ideas that Roberson and Farrar put forward have serious merit as they speak directly to this possibility.

    (Never ascribe to mendacity etc)

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