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.