Monday, 23 November 2020

Free Press, 23 November 2020


The Most Technical And Worthwhile Free Press Ever

This week, Parliament resumes and select committees are set up. Free Press delves into a subtle change to Parliament’s rules that could seriously improve the culture of our politics, and quality of MPs and lawmaking. It takes some explaining, so if you’d rather not wade through it, we understand. We’ll be back with juicy goss next week.

The Short Version

Select committees are a rubber stamp because the Government has a majority on most of them. Instead, their membership should be made proportional to non-executive MPs (i.e. those MPs who aren’t Ministers) so the Opposition has a majority on most committees. Select committees would then be worth submitting to because they could actually change legislation. The Government could still change it back in the main Parliament where it would still have a majority. But the possibility of real change would make select committees a place of real policy debate. The Government has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to use its large majority to make this change at little cost to itself.

Fastest Lawmakers In The West

We’ve been called an ‘elected dictatorship,’ and our society suffers from rushed, poor-quality lawmaking. Just ask the oil and gas industry or the licensed firearms community. If we could do one thing for the next generation of New Zealanders, it would be to move the country from being a backwater with anaemic institutions to a sober, consultative, thoughtful lawmaker.

Independent Select Committees

This week, select committee memberships are decided. The Government (and Greens’) stonking 75-45 majority presents an opportunity for constitutional reform. They could restrain future governments while putting few restraints on themselves this term. Will the Government take this rare opportunity to do good policy at low political cost?

What Are Select Committees Supposed To Do?

Most pieces of legislation (except rushed ones) go to a select committee of (usually seven to 13 MPs) for six months. The MPs hear public submissions on the legislation, get expert advice, and recommend changes to the legislation. The committees also examine the Budget and annual reviews of government departments as well as interrogate officials such as the Reserve Bank Governor.

What’s The Problem?

The committees are a rubber stamp. People who call them the ‘engine room’ of Parliament don’t know what they’re talking about. The problem? Select committee membership is proportional to Parliament as a whole. The government parties have a majority on most if not all committees, which just do what the Minister wants. The chair is usually a member of the governing party, who directs business in a way friendly to the government.

Sorry

If you have diligently worked up submissions to select committee and flown to Wellington to present it, we are sorry. The truth is the die is cast before the legislation is sent to the committee. If the committee is a tie, then few useful changes will be agreed. More likely it is a government majority committee, so your efforts are best directed at the office of the Minister in charge of the bill. Better still, influence them before they draft the legislation.

Rare Exceptions

Some select committees are different. The Abortion Legislation Bill had a special committee formed with members of all parties. Because it was a conscience issue, it was actually prepared to listen to submissions and make changes. The Epidemic Response Committee was chaired by the Leader of the Opposition. The majority of its members were from the opposition. People were fascinated by the ERC, and not just because they were locked inside with nothing else to do. It felt like a committee of Parliament really could stick it to the Government.

How We’d Fix It

The fix is devastatingly simple. Just make select committee membership proportional to non-Executive membership. This way, most select committees most of the time will be dominated by the opposition. Every committee would operate like the Epidemic Response Committee.

How The Numbers Look

In the previous Parliament, the Government had a 63-57 majority in Parliament. Taking out the Executive (30 Ministers), the Opposition actually had a 57-33 majority. If select committees were proportional to the non-Executive members, then they would be dominated by the Opposition. In the current Parliament, the Government has a 75-45 majority. Taking out 28 Ministers, it will still have a 47-45 majority, meaning select committees will either be Government-majority or tied.

The Effects

The big change is that a select committee, if it hears a good idea from the public, could actually change the legislation before it. This responsibility means select committees would have to work a lot harder. Government MPs, who currently just do what their Minister says, would have to actually defend the Government’s position. Opposition MPs, who currently just watch the Government MPs carry out their masters’ bidding, would have the power to rewrite legislation.

And Then

If the Government doesn’t like what a select committee did to its legislation, they could still vote to change it back in the House. But they’re going to have to debate it again. Altogether, this small change to how select committees are made up would lead to slower, more thoughtful lawmaking and harder-working MPs more focused on policy than politics. It is a small change with a big impact, and the Labour-Green parties actually have an opportunity to do it at little cost to themselves. It’s a good test of whether they’re here to make New Zealand a better place.