Red Alert

Does Parliament need to slow down?

Posted by on November 13th, 2010

In this morning’s Dominion Post there is an interview with Sir Geoffrey Palmer, former PM and undoubtedly our most distinguished (local) constitutional expert. He has expressed some concern about some of the laws Parliament has passed recently and the use of parliamentary ‘Urgency’ to do so, and I tend to agree.

New Zealand’s legislative system is very simple by international standards. We only have one chamber, so once a Bill is passed by Parliament, it’s usually law within a matter of days. In other countries, there are ‘second thought’ processes where the law is considered by an upper house, such as the House of Lords in the UK or the Senate in the US. There can also be a ‘veto’ power, for example in the US where the President, elected separately from the legislature, can reject a law. In New Zealand, while the Governor General technically has that power, it has never been used and in the event that it was, the mandate to do so would be dubious at best.

In our system, the government of the day commands a majority in the House (by definition) so it can do pretty much whatever it wants. In the past few months we’ve seen two examples of laws passed through all their stages in a single sitting, the Canterbury Earthquake legislation (supported by all parties) and changes to employment laws (only supported by the governing parties). I strongly believe both of those laws could have been improved had they been through a Select Committee process in which the public and subject matter experts were given the opportunity to have input.

I don’t think we need to go to the trouble and expense of establishing another level within the legislature, but I do think we could put a few more checks and balances on the system we currently have. For example, we could establish some clear criteria the government would need to meet before they could push a Bill through all its stages under Urgency. We could also have a mandatory review process for urgent laws, for example by adding a sunset clause that would come into effect unless a Select Committee reviewed the new law and recommended it be endorsed (or endorsed with amendment).

I’m also concerned that the significance of the parliamentary legislature is being undermined by a procession of laws that give much greater power to the Executive. The Canterbury Earthquake law and the Rugby World Cup Empowering Bill are just two examples. I wonder how our constitutional framework could be improved to avoid this leeching of power to the Executive?

Ultimately the greatest check on the government’s power comes every three years in the form of a General Election. I personally think three years isn’t a long enough term for effective governance (that’s a whole different issue) but before we could even think about a longer term, we’d need to make sure that safeguards against the abuse of power were significantly strengthened. Parliament has a vital role to play in keeping the government honest and ensuring that democracy is well served. I’m not convinced we’re doing that as best we could.

26 Responses to “Does Parliament need to slow down?”

  1. Spud says:

    There is no democracy here, just King Gerry and all his corrupties! 👿 !

  2. Idiot/Savant says:

    I personally think three years isn’t a long enough term for effective governance

    Term length isn’t about “effective governance”. Its about us governing you. That’s why the Chartists wanted annual Parliaments (or, in modern terms, a one-year term) – because they wanted politicians who were under popular control.

    Politicians who are always thinking about re-election may not give business the government it wants. But almost by definition it gives the electorate the government we want. And that is what democracy is all about.

  3. Sam says:

    Absolutely agreed. The fact that the government can simply say something is compatible with the BORA and then push ahead anyway is also concerning.

  4. Pentwig says:

    A good fix would be to have more sitting days per year.

    MP’s apppear to have more holidays than teachers. Combined with an unjustly high salary,golden parachute superannuation and the best perks (eg travel) in the business perhaps MPs should man up and do the obvious.

    Work harder. Start sitting at 1300 hrs. On Fridays start at 0900 and finish at 1500 hrs. More sitting days.

    Do this and urgency would not be needed therefore better legislation.

    It is very, very easy. Put this in the manifesto and see your
    vote increase dramatically.

  5. Politicians who are always thinking about re-election may not give business the government it wants. But almost by definition it gives the electorate the government we want.

    Not quite/Not necessarily.

    I think I favour a three year term, but the arguments the other way are good too. What if the government we want is a government that has enough time to pass laws sensibly. How would voting every year assist that?

  6. Pentwig – actually they’re not holidays. When Parliament isn’t sitting MPs are usually out and about in their electorates, attending select committees, doing portfolio-related visits etc. Not to mention the reading, policy development, media interviews etc.etc.

    Increasing parliamentary sitting hours would have a number of effects. First, the public wouldn’t have access to MPs. I meet at least half a dozen constituents a week in my electorate offices, that couldn’t happen if I was stuck at Parliament. I also wouldn’t be able to visit schools, businesses, community organisations and so forth.

    If Select Committees meet at the same time as Parliament is sitting MPs are forced to choose between doing the valuable select committee work or taking part in House debates. The quality of one or the other suffers.

  7. steelykc says:

    Good God Pentwig, you obviously don’t have much idea about how hard most MPs work. I say most, because undoubtedly there will be some that don’t do much outside of ‘normal’ parliament hours, but really, more sitting days is not the answer. Personally I believe that the rules should change regarding having to be in the building for your vote to count. MPs need to spend more time in their electorates, there is so much more they could achieve there. I dont see why technology cant be used more in the absense of a physical presence in the house.
    I agree that things need to slow down. Hasty and badly written policy is an obvious result, and this has happened to Labour as well as the Nacts. We need quality, and MPs who are not worn out. Mandatory reviews are also a good idea; Good post Chris.

  8. Dean Knight says:

    I’m a supporter of a 4 year (and fixed) term. It’s interesting and encouraging to re-read the Royal Commission’s analysis from 1986 on this point:

  9. Spud says:

    Imagine being stuck with a four year term of NACT 👿 !

    I like 3 years because it gives us a say more often. Mps and Ministers have to know their place 😛

  10. ghostwhowalksnz says:

    Just as well they got rid of the pool tables at parliament, MPs would be to busy to use them.
    Some would say the same about the overseas travel perk?

  11. KJT says:

    How about real democracy instead of re-electing a new dictatorship every 3 years.
    That way we do not have to elect National because Labour has forgotten what they stand for as we had to do in the 80’s.

  12. KJT says:

    It does not matter how hard MP’s work if they are doing a poor job as they have been for the last 30 years. If I was that bad in my job I would be in jail for negligence.
    Maybe they need to work less hours so they can consider legislation properly.

  13. Red under the Bed says:

    NZ is the wild west of democracy!
    I think 3 years is long enough simply because when thing move to four or five years governments tend to go awol and start ignoring the public and done some damage!

    I hate Mr Key to be stuck in government for four years 😛

  14. Policy Parrot says:

    Interesting perspective – but to paraphrase Seddon – “if they vote for us, who needs ’em, if they vote against us, who wants ’em.”

    This is exactly the reason why I wouldn’t be in favour of an upper house or a president retaining veto rights. There would be too many occasions where such a person could block crucial and important legislation that a government has a genuine mandate for. The legalistic system in the United States might be structurally impressive, but has arguably led to huge influence for special interests and legislative gridlock – hence the common call to “clean up Washington”. Special interests in the US are what stood in the way of a filibuster-proof Senate majority passing landmark once in a generation legislation like cap and trade, and a full public health option in the health bill, and it will likely hinder the chances of the next Congress passing Social Security reform to remove the worst abuses of the State employee pension funds.

    NZ should continue its faith in the Westminster system – even though it always will be at the discretion of those in power arguably – but as recent events have shown – pressure to maintain the cross-party norms and consensuses will hopefully assist in this area. A more legalistic approach will likely frustrate an electorate wanting a responsive government to carry out its mandate.

    Opposition party chairs of a few select committees is something that now seems to be a political consensus. The institution of Westminster-style Parliamentarianism is what you make of it.

  15. Spud says:

    Agreed Policy Parrot 😀

  16. tracey says:

    Under MMP I support a longer term, under FPP I support 3 years maximum.

    In an ideal world who we vote for would depend on what they stand for, its veracity as ennunciated by an educating and unbiased press. We dont have this. We still have situations where people think that if democracy is served (ie 80% want something), that will give us the best outcome. It’s not always the case, and is why MMP gives us s sense of democratic influence and doesnt saddle us with populist policy which was only actually “voted” by 50% or fewer of the voters

  17. KJT says:

    So Tracey you prefer something that is popular with 60 people in parliament.
    I think a well informed public would do a lot better than having elected dictators.
    Most of the objections to real democracy come from people who are arrogant enough to think they know better than the majority of us. Or from those who want unbridled power so they can inflict their individual opinion on everyone else..

  18. Parliament shouldn’t slow down, you should go in reverse..!

    Start repealing some of the more pointless laws of the 2,000 laws on the books…

    The best time every three years, is the time just after the election when you’re all scrambling eagerly for the baubles of office and for a while, just a little while we get a glipse of how great life would be without you all…

    Stop floating the idea of extending the term, you’ll need a referendum and we won’t give you a minute more without accountability than you already have…

  19. Spud says:

    Agree with your last sentence – 3 years is bad enough! That’s an entire university degree!

  20. Al1ens says:

    3, 4 or 5 years isn’t really the main issue as ultimately the public get their chance to continue support or dish out a ritual bleeding. I favour a fixed 3yr term, but it’s all semantics in the end.
    The big problem as I see it in our system is political funding, or rather, secret campaigning and/or donations like the bretheren. No wonder the right were so keen to scrap the laws as soon as they wormed their way in to power.
    If it’s not open and fair, then who’s holding the reigns becomes unclear, and that’s where all the dodgyness, public mishaprehension and mistrust of the political world comes from.

  21. The term length is critical, the shorter it is, the mpre we get to remind those in Wellington who is really in charge – us, they don’t pay it enough mind now… So semantics it is not, it’s about freedom and accountability…

    When Hipkins says we wants longer terms what we is really saying is he wants Parliamentarians to be able to force through more laws inbetween being accounatble at the ballot box…

  22. Colonial Viper says:

    The best way to remind those in WGN who is in charge is to build up strong grass roots political parties and social movements who speak loud and clear to Government every day. That should do it.

    And Al1ens quite right – private campaign money is a huge potential source of rot in the political system and it must be both limited and transparent.

  23. Dylan says:

    @KJT yeah about the direct democracy I think there should be some sovereign power that has the right to challenge a referendum if they believe the government is doing something undemocratic.

  24. KJT says:

    CV. We have that already. The business round table, Federated farmers, the banks, the brethren, the millionaires and the oil companies.

    “The biggest obstacle to democracy is the belief by the poor that we have it and the terror of the rich least we get it”

  25. KJT says:

    PP. Ask almost any citizen if they have faith in our current form of Government?

  26. Ari says:

    I don’t think we need to increase parliamentary sitting hours yet given that MPs aren’t actually require to personally attend Parliament when they want to vote. That might be a first step.

    I’m glad to hear that some MPs in the Labour caucus are coming around to the belief that our government can act too fast, and I hope you’ll remember this term when you’re next in office, and pass some limits on subsequent governments for everyone’s benefit. (With any luck it will be relatively soon that you’ll have the chance) The obvious candidates are limits on the number of times and nature of bills that can be passed under urgency, and giving BORA sovereignty over Parliament so that the courts can actually uphold human rights.

    Like our three-year terms, having a court that can challenge legislation might be inconvenient for politicians in the short run, but those who adapt to the system will become better lawmakers because of it, and able to solve complex problems in ways that enhance and protect our civil liberties.

    I/S is absolutely right- the three year term is about a voter-centric view of democracy. That is to say, the public knows what it likes, and deserves to get it often and hard. 😛