I’ve participated in a few parliamentary debates on important legislation in the last two and a half years.
As a new MP , with little prior experience of parliamentary process, it’s taken a while to get my head around the procedural stuff and some of the seemingly odd rules. Standing orders, conventions etc. Some of them are very odd. Outdated even. Others are grounded in sense and democractic principles.
I believe in the way we run our parliament. That a Bill gets put up by the government, goes to a select committee where the public get the right to submit and comment, it gets thoroughly scrutinised and commented on by officials and the members of the committee from all sides of the House. A revised version goes back to parliament, where it goes through several more stages before becoming law.
But I’m becoming more convinced that much of this process is a farce. Under this government. I don’t know enough about previous governments to comment. But I reckon it can’t have been worse than it is today.
Urgency is used frequently and consistently to push through non-urgent bills and to rush through laws that suit the government’s purpose without the public’s ability to comment. Arrogant disregard for good process and the importance of public scrutiny. And arrogant disregard for the role of Opposition.
Last Thursday an example of this has left me feeling that the concept of actual parliamentary debate is all just a farce.
Steven Joyce is a new Minister. He’s been in parliament as long as me. He’s smart. He’s described as the Minister for everything. He’s completely self assured, arrogant and brushes off public criticism on any issues as being irrelevant.
Humility, the ability to listen and take due regard are qualities I value. Steven Joyce does not posssess these.
The biggest piece of legislative change in the telecommunications sector is currently going through our parliament. Last Thursday saw us make progress in the committee stage through about half of the Bill. It is a very controversial law change. The select committee process was rushed. Labour and the Greens are vehemently opposed to the Bill in its present form. The Act Party members were opposed to it, but appear to have changed their minds. The Maori Party did a deal with the government in order to buy their support.
The Bill structurally separates Telecom into two businesses, one of which; Chorus 2, will be the infrastructure company awarded the bulk of the contract to roll out ultrafast broadband. Strutural separation hasn’t happened like this anywhere in the world. The government’s model has been widely criticised. Some changes have been made, but they’re not enough for the Opposition which believes the Bill cements an anti-competitive monopoly which will be able to make the new network system work to its own advantage for generations to come.
In other words, it will allow the worst practices of the existing Telecom to be replicated in the new company. We believe innovation and affordability have been sacrificed in order to prop up big corporate interests. Putting the interests of foreign investors ahead of those of domestic consumers (sound familiar?)
The Committee stage of a Bill is where the Opposition parties get the chance to ask the Minsiter to clarify issues, to argue a point and to deal with new issues arising.
Labour has put up six serious amendments to the Bill. Four of them were up for discussion during this part of the debate. The Minister took no notice and would not engage despite repeated requests to.
Instead, Steven Joyce sat through the committee stage of the Bill impassively, looking bored, playing on his mobile phone and flicking through papers.
He stood once at the beginning when the critical issue of all reference to the Kiwi Share Obligation (KSO) being removed from the legislation was raised. In his normal style, he brushed aside all concerns as irrelevant. That was the only time he engaged. The KSO gurantees all NZers a standard phone calling service no matter where they live at a standard rental, with emergency services and free local calls. It also prevents more than 10% of Telecom being sold offshore without govt permission. It looks like these provisions, by being taken out of the legislation are being split between the two new companies being formed. There isn’t much information about what this means. This change was made in a last minute amendment. There’s been no opportunity for discussion.
My senior colleagues tell me that in years past, a Minister would respond to questions during the committee stages. Some existing Ministers do. Perhaps they believe that parliament has a purpose. Steven Joyce clearly doesn’t. It’s his way or the highway, and democracy is just an annoying irrelevance to him, but one that lip service must be paid to. Trust me, I know what I’m doing he tells us all. Well we don’t and I question whether he does know what he’s doing.
The committe stage continues this Tuesday. I hope you’ll be watching to see for yourselves.