In praise of Trevor and Labour

I blogged on 27 September on the review of Parliament’ . A fuller list is at that post, but some of the changes include:

  • The Clerk to record and publish attendance of MPs
  • A Bill of Rights analysis to be supplied not just at first reading but also for substantive SOPs amending bills. This is something I have advocated several times.
  • Provision for extended sitting hours without going into urgency by sitting on either a Wednesday or Thursday morning, if necessary. Again something I have strongly advocated, as it should reduce the need for urgency so much.
  • Also provision for extended sitting hours on a Thursday evening and Friday morning, but only if the Business Committee agrees, which means basically the Opposition consents to it.
  • Ministers moving urgency in future will need to state the reason for the urgency. Good.
  • Business Committee determinations to be published on the Parliament website. These proposals give a lot more power to the Business Committee, so this is good. The BC needs near-unanimous consent to make decisions, so it is about encouraging parties to work together more.

These changes were passed by the House last week, and will apply to the next Parliament. They were passed on a voice vote with no parties or MPs dissenting. Considerable credit goes to Speaker Lockwood Smith who chaired the Standing Orders Committee.

But I also want to acknowledge the role , and its rep , played. Generally changes that make the House more efficient are not necessarily a good thing for the Opposition. Take as an example the new ability to have extended hours without going into urgency. This allows the Government to pass more laws without using urgency, which means the Opposition will lose the opportunity to complain as often about use of urgency.

Labour presumably agreed partly because they plan to be in Government again one day themselves (when they will benefit from it), but partly also I think because they do want the House to operate more effectively. So it is worth acknowledging their constructive role in these changes. I’d like to quote from Trevor Mallard’s speech on the new standing orders:

Although it might cause him some embarrassment, I also acknowledge Rodney Hide and the work he has done within this. I was surprised at the number of occasions when we agreed as we progressed through the Standing Orders, and I think that having someone who has had a period as a poacher, and who, to a certain extent, has turned gamekeeper, was useful. It was useful having his view on the importance of Parliament and where the balances lie. People who look carefully at this report will see that it is one that very slightly tips the running of Parliament in favour of the Government, but provides some safeguards to that. Those of us who have been involved on both sides of the House think that that is something that could be useful going forward.

It does tip the balance a bit but there are stronger incentives now to gain consensus through the Business Committee.

Although I am less comfortable with that change, I am probably more comfortable than many of my colleagues with the set of arrangements around the extra hours—the extended sittings—of the House. I have had a role in Government business before. I know that things do not work neatly, and that therefore it is too easy for Governments to move to urgency in order to get through business that, of itself, is not urgent. Urgency has too often been used as a House management tool rather than as a tool to progress urgent business. I think the extended sittings give the right compromise there: select committees cannot sit at the same time as the House, except with leave; notice is given; bills are not taken through more than one stage at any one time; and the extended sitting occurs only once a week, unless the Business Committee agrees. In my opinion, that will give the Government a bit more power, but will move it back from using urgency in a way that I consider to have been inappropriate of Governments for just about as long as I can remember.

What I am pleased about is that a few months ago I co-operated with Labour MP Grant Robertson to publish an analysis of the use of urgency over the last few terms of Parliament. It didn’t win me a lot of friends in certain quarters, but I felt it was important to highlight the trend. I was nervous that Labour would be all rhetoric on reducing urgency, but not actually agree to changes such as the above, which would allow more business to be conducted without urgency. There had in fact been a sessional order asking for this sitting on the order paper for a couple of years, but which had not progressed due to lack of support.

So I was pleased to see Labour actually agree to changes (and Trevor suggests not all his colleagues were that keen to do so), to make a substantive move to back up the rhetoric. And the changes should mean that any future uses of urgency for non-urgent business will attract sustained criticism (with some limited exceptions such as post-election policy implementation).

There is, I think, quite a lot of extra power going to the Business Committee. Again, I reiterate my surprise at how well that committee is working. Frankly, Mr Brownlee, and especially Mr Power, with whom I have worked more often on that committee recently, have been open with the committee as to their intentions. The meetings have been slightly better planned, maybe, than at some stages in the past. You, Mr Speaker, in the way that you have chaired the committee, have also tried to seek consensus, although there has been an occasion or two where you have been the only person who has had a particular point of view. It is probably fortunate for the other members of the committee that you do not represent a party on that committee.

That’s a nice recognition of Gerry, Simon and Lockwood.

There are times when the House looks very juvenile. General Debate is a typical example. But there are also times when they rise above squabbling, and the review of the standing orders debate was one of those.

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