The following op ed was published in today’s Dominion Post.
In New Zealand Parliament’s committees can and have played an important part in shaping legislation. Their current form has mixed ancestry, a bit of Westminster, a healthy dose of Geoffrey Palmer idealism, and some influence of MMP tempered by the current lack of truly independent backbenchers in our House.
Committees get the business done. More bills go to them than in any comparable overseas jurisdiction. The public, informed and not, make submissions. They are heard, amendments are made and bills are sent back to the House. Occasionally it becomes clear legislation is unworkable and it goes to the bottom of the order paper and is later dropped.
My first committee, still using the Muldoon system, was statutes revision. Ministers, including Mr Palmer, sat on it. It was chaired by Labour’s Trevor de Cleene, while a parliamentary under secretary, but we regarded it as a creature of Parliament not the Government. That was formalised with the 1986 reforms which further separated Parliament from the executive. Committees got smaller and ministers got the boot.
I served on a variety of committees and chaired some before becoming a minister in the Clark government. Since 2008, I’ve mainly been a member of the education and science committee, chaired by the late Allan Peachey, with whom I shared a love of education, albeit with quite different approaches to, and definitions of, success.
Mr Peachey was a champion of letting people have their say. He was interested. Submissions were not a nuisance to be heard in a pro forma manner but an opportunity to learn. Sometimes just a nugget of gold within an argument that all the committee disagreed with could result in an improvement to a bill. He didn’t care too much what the minister or officials thought of proposed changes. If something needed fixing, it got fixed.
More recently, I’ve spent a couple of years on government administration, chaired by David Parker and now Ruth Dyson – both Labour colleagues. The committee has a National Party majority, but I can’t remember the last time we voted on party lines on legislation. There are often odd alliances where placement on the political spectrum gives way to ideas, logic and experience.
Submitters to both committees were invariably treated politely, even when major issues were at stake and cross- examination was intense. They had often put in days preparing for the committee, taken time from paid employment and travelled without reimbursement. They deserved and got respect, and good chairing, taking care of process, is an important part of that.
Recently, however, I had what was almost certainly the worst experience I have had as a committee member. I was a substitute member on the finance and expenditure committee as it heard submissions on the Mixed Ownership Model Bill, the legislation to facilitate the partial privatisation of the state-owned energy companies.
The bill was obviously controversial. The submissions I read before attending the committee (something I saw no sign of from some members) were all opposed and in some cases used substantive and original research.
I was appalled to discover submissions were allocated only five or 10 minutes, depending on whether they were from an individual or a group. That included time for questioning from the committee. In most cases that meant one question per submission.
It was absolutely impossible to pursue a line of questioning. At the time, the committee had more than two months to consider the bill. I asked what the need for the speed was. It was clear the chairman, Todd McClay, a relatively inexperienced member from Rotorua, saw the hearings as a duty, something to be got through as quickly as possible, and with no potential to usefully amend or enhance the legislation. As it turned out, the bill returned to the House five weeks ahead of schedule.
This shambles has caused me to ponder what can be done to improve the process. Finance and expenditure is Parliament’s most important committee. It considers the most significant legislation and has the power to direct some of the work of other select committees. It should not be a political plaything.
I think the answer is remarkably simple – give the responsibility for chairing the committee to a senior Opposition member. I’m not suggesting the numbers on the finance and expenditure committee should favour the Opposition, but that someone who is not beholden to, or trying to impress, ministers should ensure that the public get a chance to have their say in circumstances that are seen to be professional.
The concept is not original – the public accounts committee, the most powerful in the British parliament, is chaired by Margaret Hodge, a Labour former senior minister.
The suggestion is not Labour Party policy. I have received reasonable reactions from colleagues. If there is public support I will put it into our policy system. If it is going to happen then we must decide before the next general election, and if it works, maybe we will develop a new tradition.