Urgency

October 27th, 2009 at 10:00 am by David Farrar

Some Left-wing bloggers such as No Right Turn and Labour MP Grant Robertson are crying foul over the government’s use of and getting stuck into Leader of the House Gerry Brownlee.

Now Labour are being rather hypocritical here, and I will explain the different sorts of urgency. In essence there are four version of urgency. They are

  1. Extraordinary urgency. This is incredibly rare and can only happen if the Speaker consents to it. It tends to be used for tax bills only, and means the House sits without pause (except meal breaks) until the bills covered by the extraordinary urgency are passed.
  2. Urgency to pass a bill through multiple stages. This is when the House goes into urgency (which means longer sitting houses) to pass a bill through all stages, without referring it to a select committee. This is generally quite undesirable as bypassing select committee both robs the public of a chance to submit, but also means drafting flaws are less likely to be corrected.
  3. Normal urgency. This extends the sitting hours of the House, and effectively cancels question time, but bills do not generally go through more than one stage at a time.
  4. Urgency with question time.This is when the Government goes into urgency to extend the sitting hours, but modifies it so the House can still have question time every day. This reflects the importance of the Opposition being able to hold the Government to account through question time.

Now a lot of people don’t realise that the House normally sits for relatively few hours each week. On Tuesdays and Wednesdays it sits from 2 until 6pm, then 7.30pm until 10pm. On Thursday it sits from 2pm until 6pm.

That’s 17.5 hours. That sounds like quite a bit of time for the government to pass bills. But remember that Question Time happens each day between 2pm and 3.15-3.30. On Wednesdays there is a general debate between 3.30 and 4.30. And every second Wednesday is a members’ day, when the government can’t advance government business.

All this means that in a normal week, the government gets only around 12-13 hours (depending on how long Question Time lasts) to pass Bills. Every second week it gets only 7.5 hours! I won’t even get started on urgent debates (granted by the speaker), motions of condolence, etc, all of which take more time. Overall it tends to mean less than 10 hours a week on average to actually pass laws.

Urgency means that the House extend its sitting times. From the day after the motion is moved (so Wednesday if moved on a Tuesday) the House sits from 9 am to midnight, which is 13 hours a day excluding meal breaks.

In theory the House could sit until midnight Saturday, which would be 58.5 hours. In reality normally the House still rises on a Thursday, so the extra time gained is Wednesday and Thursday mornings plus Thursday evening.

This is what the government has been doing lately – just extending the hours on Wednesday and Thursday.

The problem of lack of time to pass Bills is not one that has just affected this government. That is why Labour is being totally hypocritical over the use of urgency. and Chris Hipkins in particular know better given they were advisors to the last government. Dr Cullen regularly put the House into urgency between 1999 and 2008 and a helpful reader has done the numbers for me.

In the 1999-2002 Parliament, Labour took urgency 22 times and extraordinary urgency twice. 23 bills passed their 3rd reading under urgency. Indeed in Labour’s first year in office, they took urgency ten times.

In the 2002-2005 Parliament, Labour took urgency nineteen times and a massive 78 Bills passed their 3rd reading under urgency!

In the 2005-2008 Parliament, Labour took urgency ten times and 48 bills passed their 3rd reading under urgency.

Urgency was often moved in October, November, and December of each year under Labour, as the end of the year approached. That’s what this government appears to be doing as well. It’s nothing to do with poor House management – it’s simply extending sitting hours in the traditional pre-Xmas period.

The other thing that I want to stress is that urgency normally  means question time is not held, how ever National has consistently arranged urgency so that question time is still taken, ensuring Ministers remain accountable to the House. This was very rare under Labour.

I expect as the Parliamentary term goes on the use of urgency will decline a bit. Further down the track the government might like to take a look at the sitting hours and practices of the House. Should the House sit regularly on Thursday night for example? Is there potential to have the House sitting regularlyin the morning even while select committees are considering Bills?

Personally I would change also, to reflect the different types of urgency. I personally would not call merely extending the sitting hours “urgency” if question time (and members day) is retained. I would also look at whether the Speaker’s permission might be needed for urgency which is used to bypass select committee, to make it harder for Governments to do so.

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28 Responses to “Urgency”

  1. MikeNZ (3,234 comments) says:

    I don’t agree David.
    If there isn’t an emergency then it isn’t urgent.

    All things that go through parliament need to be properly thought and spoken through.
    look at the crap law passed by the house in the last 9 yrs.

    Why can’t they have 12hrs on tues weds thurs that’s 36 hrs.

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  2. Graeme Edgeler (3,274 comments) says:

    I would also look at whether the Speaker’s permission might be needed for urgency which is used to bypass select committee, to make it harder for Governments to do so.

    I wouldn’t go quite that far. Give the government two options:

    urgency: which is extraordinary urgency as we currently know it, which requires the speaker’s agreement
    motion to extend sitting hours: basically urgency as we currently know it, with question time automatic

    bypassing a select committee (with the exception of revenue bills, etc. which don’t go to select committees) would require a motion suspending standing orders (which would be the first thing debated after either urgency, or extended sitting hours have been agreed to).

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  3. Grant Michael McKenna (1,156 comments) says:

    Insisting of facts is so facist DPF- emotion is what is important! I agree with MineNZ though- extending hours would be good.

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  4. Graeme Edgeler (3,274 comments) says:

    Of course, none of this explanation gets around the fact that National has been putting Parliament into urgency, and then not having enough to do once they’re there. The House was in urgency on Wednesday, and rose at 8:05pm. If this is all about the need for extra hours in which to pass laws, why weren’t any laws being debated between 8:05pm and 10pm (a time when the House would normally be sitting anyway)?

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  5. s.russell (1,580 comments) says:

    It seems perfectly sensible to me that the House should adjust its sitting hours to meet the need of the workload (which could work both ways). It would be rather pathetic for MPs to say “No, we can’t debate that legislation to fix NZ’s problems, our tea break is much more important.” That does not need to mean cutting back on the debate, just taking more time for it from other activities, when needed.

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  6. Inventory2 (10,166 comments) says:

    I can remember when the House not only sat on Thursday nights, but on Wednesday and Thursday mornings as well, and far more frequently than the current sitting schedule. Sure, the rules regarding the duration of debates have changed, and almost all debates are time-limited, but the actual sitting hours of the House are pretty limited these days.

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  7. emmess (1,393 comments) says:

    It would make more sense to change the name of it from urgency to something else
    There is a manager at my work who prefaces every email as urgent.
    The result of this is that she has devalued the word urgent. It she wants something urgently looked at she now needs to say it is super urgent.

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  8. Rob Salmond (260 comments) says:

    Hahaha – nice try David. No amount of verbeage from you can obscure the following:

    1. National has used urgency more than three times as often as the 2005-2008 Labour-led government (figures from I/S, in his other post about this that you chose to ignore)

    2. As Graeme points out, having declared urgency National has found that it did not have anything to debate anyhow, so it gave up and went home early, ruining a Members’ Day in the process. (from Red Alert, in Trevor’s post about this that you chose to ignore)

    3. National is substantially bypassing the public submission process on massive changes such as its reforms to the ETS, by providing submitters with inadequate notice and inadequate time to present their views. They even contemplated hearing all the over 100 ETS submissions in one day. Even ACT was pissed off!

    4. And, in a fantastic coup de grace, Brownlee had to be corrected last week by Lockwood on the issue of what Cabinet had agreed the previous day in one of Gerry’s own portfolios!

    These and other transgressions add up to a laughable ineptitude and inability within National to do the most fundamental thing in parliament – pass laws with due process.

    I loved your solution to the problem of “too much urgency” by the way, which seems to amount to “call it something else.” That does not solve the problem – it just turns “too much urgency” into “too much something else.”

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  9. Graeme Edgeler (3,274 comments) says:

    I loved your solution to the problem of “too much urgency” by the way, which seems to amount to “call it something else.” That does not solve the problem – it just turns “too much urgency” into “too much something else.”

    A number of excellent points, Rob, but this one is off the mark.

    DPF’s solution to the problem of “too much urgency” was actually “forbid the government from using urgency to bypass select committees without the Speaker’s agreement”. Basically, DPF doesn’t think urgency is a problem, he mostly considers onlt that urgency that subverts normal Parliamentary processes (select committee consideration, etc.) is a problem.

    Edit: it’s also not necessarily three times as often. One of the problems with comparing DPF’s post to others is that he’s looking at the number of times urgency is used while Mallard and I/S are looking at the amount of time (in hours).

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  10. Rob Salmond (260 comments) says:

    Graeme – In the sentence before the one you cite, DPF says: “I personally would not call merely extending the sitting hours “urgency” if question time (and members day) is retained.” To me that looks like a name change proposal. I agree there is more to the proposal than that, and I apologize for the simplification. But it was a pretty good gag line I thought. And on the other issue, I think the pertinent issue here is hours of urgency rather than counting the declarations of urgency, because the substance of DPF’s complaint was about the sitting hours available to progress government business. I take the “number of declarations” thing to be DPF again playing silly buggers with the numbers. Nobody really cares how many times you say “I’ll buy us some beer” – the important thing is how much beer you buy.

    [DPF: Sigh, I did number of declarations as they are easier to find. Counting up the total hours is a more time consuming process, if comparing the last 12 years.

    I also note that comparing to the 2005-08 Govt is misleading for two reasons. One is that a brand new Govt almost always has more legislation to pass. The second is that Labour in its third term struggled to get its Govt partners to agree to urgency.

    I note Rob ignores what I consider a quite important point - retaining question time voluntarily, something pretty rare under Labour. Of course one might suggest National likes retaining question time under urgency as Labour are so hopeless in Opposition at using question time]

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  11. PaulL (5,977 comments) says:

    Rob, so the complaint is both that National has the house in “urgency” – meaning extended sitting hours – for too many hours. But also complaining that they in fact aren’t using all the hours that they request. So which are you counting – the hours they request, or the hours they use?

    In business, it is pretty normal to make provision for more time than you need, and then if you finish early everyone is happy and goes for a beer. Presumably if you make a decent amount of hours available, there is less incentive for the opposition to play silly buggers delaying tactics – you’ve made it clear there is enough time available to pass the law, the only thing playing silly buggers will achieve is everyone going home later. Sounds like wise management to me.

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  12. dave (986 comments) says:

    DPF, How about comment on going into urgency and then finishing early, at a time when parliament normally sits. Did that mean one less members day? ( cant remember) . If you want to suggest changing the hours that parliament sits , there are rules around that. Change the rules, don’t use ” urgency”( whatever of the four definitions) as a means to extend hours to reduce non-government bills because the workload cant be managed in the allocated time.

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  13. PaulL (5,977 comments) says:

    Again Dave, I don’t understand the argument that finishing early is poor management. Where I work, finishing late or not getting through your work is poor management. Finishing early is good management. Am I missing something?

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  14. Rob Salmond (260 comments) says:

    DPF says: “Sigh, I did number of declarations as they are easier to find.”

    First, I take you at your word. Second, it seems comparing your data with I/S’s that there is little correlation between number of declarations and amount of urgency. That is not especially surprising. Third, given this lack of correlation and given that the amount of urgency is the substantive issue here, I would politely suggest your chosen metric is pretty poor. Which kind of undermines your analysis. So “sigh” away if you like, but it does you no good.

    DPF says: “I also note that comparing to the 2005-08 Govt is misleading for two reasons. One is that a brand new Govt almost always has more legislation to pass…”

    Well that may true for most new governments, but not for this new government which couldn’t manage to find **one day** worth of legislation to pass after declaring urgency last Wednesday. They ran out of urgent things **on the same day that urgency started**. It was the same day, David! (I’ve always wanted a context to say that here.)

    DPF says: “I note Rob ignores what I consider a quite important point – retaining question time voluntarily…”

    First, I accept this point and congratulate National on retaining QT. That is a good thing for them to have done. Second, now that I have acknowledged the one issue in National’s favour here that you say I ignored, maybe now it is your turn to acknowledge the multiple issues that I/S, Grant, Trevor, Chippy, Graeme, I, and others have raised on the other side of the ledger which you have thus far ignored.

    [DPF: I agree it is stupid to put the House into urgency when there is not much to debate. But sometimes it can be because the Opposition stops debating bills. I have not checked into the actual circumstances of the occasion you refer to. I'm quite happy to say that the House management has not been optimal, and hope it continues to improve.]

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  15. AG (1,797 comments) says:

    Hmmm…

    Labour are hypocrites for decrying National’s extensive use of urgency. Probably right. But what, then, to make of comments such as these?

    Dr Wayne Map (National)
    “I refer Government members back to a former Labour Prime Minister’s book, Unbridled Power—published some 29 years ago, in fact—in which he spoke of these kinds of issues. The way the New Zealand Parliament was characterised back then was that it was the fastest lawmaker in the West. What are the characteristics of being a fast lawmaker? It is actually about the House being in urgency all the time, or at least on a regular basis, in relation to bills.”
    http://www.parliament.nz/en-NZ/PB/Debates/Debates/a/8/5/48HansD_20080903_00000196-Employment-Relations-Breaks-Infant-Feeding.htm

    David Bennett (National)
    “Why are we in urgency? To stay in power. Why are we passing this legislation? To stay in power. Why are we passing the emissions trading scheme legislation? To stay in power.”
    http://www.parliament.nz/en-NZ/PB/Debates/Debates/a/8/5/48HansD_20080903_00000196-Employment-Relations-Breaks-Infant-Feeding.htm

    Jo Goodhew (National)
    “We have considered this bill and have looked into the bill and have many, many questions. The first of those questions must be why this bill is being considered under urgency. What exactly, after 50 years, requires it to be considered this year rather than next February? ”
    http://www.parliament.nz/en-NZ/PB/Debates/Debates/d/9/4/48HansD_20071212_00001187-Public-Health-Bill-First-Reading.htm

    Tau Henare (National)
    “We are here in urgency, and urgency requires that there is something urgent to be brought to the House. The word is “urgency”. I know that the Leader of the House may have had something urgent to bring to the House—or he may not have—but certainly this bill is not urgent.”
    http://www.parliament.nz/en-NZ/PB/Debates/Debates/7/a/4/48HansD_20071213_00000539-Mauao-Historic-Reserve-Vesting-Bill-First.htm

    Or, for some not-so-left-wing criticism of the practice …

    Deborah Coddington:
    “Bad things happen late at night when Parliament is in urgency.”
    http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10374448

    And for why the practice of taking urgency should be restricted, here’s a non-partisan voice:
    http://15lambtonquay.blogspot.com/2009/04/urgency-parliament-and-bill-of-rights.html

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  16. david (2,550 comments) says:

    It is an interesting observation that the amount of time taken to consider any particular piece of Legislation is almost entirely in the hands of the Opposition. The best a Government can do is to a) make provision on the schedule for the maximum number of speaking slots to be used and b) estimate at what point the Speaker will allow the question to be put. We have already seen in the past few months Pete Hodgson babbling on about semantics and taking slot after slot without saying anything meaningful at all.

    In general Speakers are generous to the Opposition when the Government stops putting up speakers in a debate so it is a real punt to estimate how much time is needed. Not even his most ardent supporters would credit Gerry Brownlee with having a crystal ball so the law of averages say that sometimes he will get it wrong especially if the Opposition want to prove a point or get home earlier on a Thursday than would otherwise seem likely.

    It is all game playing.

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  17. dave (986 comments) says:

    Paul – its a bit like doing overtime at work – and getting paid penal rates – when there’s no work to do. Why would an employer grant overtime if there is no work to do? Similarly why grant urgency when items of business can be done in normal time as was the case in point….

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  18. menace (407 comments) says:

    ops wrong topic.

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  19. PaulL (5,977 comments) says:

    Dave: it is like asking someone to work some overtime just in case, and then finishing early so not paying them that overtime. Actually, it is a really bad analogy either way. It sounds mostly like a beatup about nothing to me.

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  20. Graeme Edgeler (3,274 comments) says:

    and then finishing early so not paying them that overtime…

    No. Staff and MPs still get paid for working between 8:05pm and 10:00pm even though no-one was passing laws.

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  21. MikeNZ (3,234 comments) says:

    One issue not mentioned is the habit of governments to throw extras into bills at the last minute.
    Stephen Franks once remarked that he was a fast reader of law but the government had given him so little time to read through, digest and then debate (both the intended and unintended consequences of the bill and it’s changes) that ACT weren’t going to vote for it on principle.

    I had hoped John Key’s National wouldn’t be like Helen Clark’s 9yr parliament, it’s not a good look when they use urgency for non-urgent things.
    If we have a major disaster in NZ, then we need urgency but so that a Govt can ram through legislation without proper debate that’s not on.

    Sadly key has been a failure to draw a line in the sand to put Parliament right, it seems to be the same old same old.

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  22. tvb (4,240 comments) says:

    The alternative to the frequent use of urgency is to extend the standard sitting hours of Parliament. On 17.5 standard sitting hours maybe this should be increased.

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  23. berend (1,673 comments) says:

    Do we really need to pass more bills???

    I’m opposed. We need less hours. I would love to see the day that parliament sits for 0 hours a week for a year. We need less, rather than even more laws.

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  24. GPT1 (2,103 comments) says:

    In terms of “value for money” (putting to oneside the fact that Parliament should really be finding laws to abolish rather than making new ones) I would have thought urgency with Question Time should be encouraged.

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  25. Brian Marshall (194 comments) says:

    Berend at 1:28pm, I disagree. We need more hours out of our employees. At present we’re not getting good value from the MPs.
    17.5 hours is very little time & Parliment should be operating much longer to make the laws we have, much better.

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  26. Philonz (91 comments) says:

    Some advantages of MMP have been to slow down our lawmaking, increase compromise and stop the country swing wildly in the space of a year from left to right or vice versa. As AG points out we had been labelled “The fastest lawmakers in the west” and we seem to still be fighting this urge still. I understand that a new Government will want to move quickly on their agenda but we have seen in the past that rushed, poorly debated legislation (EFA?) only leads to more legislation to fix it up. What’s the rush? You’ve got 3 years, take your time and get it right.

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  27. tvb (4,240 comments) says:

    Get rid of the term “urgency” for routine applications to progress bills through the House. Basically the Government cannot pass its legislation unless the house goes into continuous session to pass them. Perhaps the routine urgency motion should be renamed a “continuous sitting” motion and the House is then in a “continuous sitting.” Urgency conveys the wrong message when the Government wants to get legislation passed.

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  28. georgedarroch (316 comments) says:

    You’ve been taken down, DPF.

    First ten months of National-ACT-Maori, compared to the first 3 years of Labour-Alliance.
    <blockquote.
    * Crown Retail Deposit Guarantee Scheme Bill
    * Education (National Standards) Amendment Bill
    * Electoral Amendment Bill
    * Electricity (Renewable Preference) Repeal Bill
    * Employment Relations Amendment Bill
    * Energy (Fuels, Levies, and References) Biofuel Obligation Repeal Bill
    * Local Government (Tamaki Makaurau Reorganisation) Bill
    * Parole (Extended Supervision Orders) Amendment Bill
    * Sentencing (Offences Against Children) Amendment Bill

    From grepping Hansard, Labour in its entire first term passed just three:

    * Local Government (Prohibition of Liquor in Public Places) Amendment Bill
    * Local Government (Rodney District Council) Amendment Bill
    * Tariff (Zero Duty Removal) Amendment Bill

    Two emergency patches, and one reactionary bill with actual implications.

    Meanwhile, your Government rammed through a bill that gives the police* the right to take DNA material from anyone they want for any reason at all. All they have to do is ‘intend’ to charge them (Minister’s scare quotes).

    *and possibly Government agencies. Most legislation these days gives the police the power to share such information with other agencies without any safeguards. Nobody has seen the Act yet, so nobody has a clue, but it wouldn’t surprise me.

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