6 Jun 2017

Parliament’s quiet decider

From The House, 10:35 pm on 6 June 2017

Normally a bill cannot go through more than one stage each sitting day but Parliament has managed to push a two billion dollar settlement bill through its first reading, a select committee and up to its second reading in less than two weeks. Phil Smith takes a look at who’s bending the rules and why.


The Business Committee, which has cross party membership, meets in the Speaker's office every sitting week.

The Business Committee, which has cross party membership, meets in the Speaker's office every sitting week. Photo: VNP / Phil Smith


Every Tuesday afternoon, once Parliament is safely underway for the week, a small group of party elders convene in the Speaker’s office to plan.


Seated around a glossy oval table they determine the business of the House for the following week. What will happen, when it will happen, how long will it take and whether they need to bend the rules to get things done.


“Every political party is represented at the Business Committee,” says the Speaker of the House, David Carter.


“My job as speaker is to chair that Business Committee and to bring consensus around decision making.”


The extraordinary thing is that even though all parties are represented the committee does not vote; instead it reaches decisions by unanimous (or near unanimous) agreement.  


Surely not! Don’t politicians fight about everything?


Robert Muldoon

Robert Muldoon Photo: Wikicommons

They certainly used to. During Robert Muldoon’s bellicose reign, when the Prime Minister was also Leader of the House, he ran Parliament to his own whim. Legislation was regularly passed under urgency through the night, avoiding full consideration; and what was up for debate would suddenly change to catch the opposition unprepared.


Arguably this period was a lesson on how not to behave and informed the rules that Parliament that wrote for itself afterwards - these days Parliament is significantly less hostile.


As former Leader of the House Sir Michael Cullen told The House in April, politicians only appear to disagree about everything because they spend time focussing on the things they disagree on.


That focus is possible because “a great deal of legislation goes through with a minimum of debate.”  


Sir Michael argued that effective government relies on the parties playing together nicely.


“The Government needs the co-operation of the opposition to get through non-controversial legislation quickly, so there is time to deal with the more controversial parts of the Government’s programme.”


The formalisation of this co-operation as the Business Committee is only as recent as the introduction of MMP, when the complexity of arranging debates and committees around multiple parties demanded a forum to negotiate and organise the way the House runs.  


Since then, the Business Committee has become more powerful. Its list of functions and powers is lengthy but includes drawing up each year’s sitting schedule, deciding the size of Select Committees and appointing their membership, and deciding the order and duration of business in the House.


It can also agree to set aside standard procedure to fast-track a bill like the Care and Support Worker (Pay Equity) Settlement Bill.


National MP and leader of the House Simon Bridges.

National MP and leader of the House Simon Bridges. Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox


“Ordinarily we wouldn’t be able to do, under the rules of Parliament, what we’re doing, which is bringing it back after only a week at select committee and literally getting into it,” says the Leader of the House, and Business Committee member Simon Bridges.


“I think it only finishes at select committee about midday today and it will be [debated] in the House ...later this evening.”


The settlement will give care and support workers pay rises of about 15 to 49 percent from July 1.


It was introduced and had its first reading under urgency, but unlike most bills under urgency was still referred to Select Committee.


“The Business Committee readily saw the advantages in allowing it to go to the select committee only for a short time,” Mr Carter says.  


“It does at least give a chance for submitters to iron out any inconsistencies or poor wording of the legislation so it’s gone to the select committee for about 12 days in total.”


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The Speaker of the House David Carter. Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox


On this occasion changes included:

  • The Select Committee was allowed to break the usual rules about when it could meet (e.g. when the House is sitting, but not during Question Time).
  • It was agreed that the brief select committee time would not be debated in the House.
  • The bill was not bound by the usual three-day stand down between reporting and its second debate.


“Standing orders rules can be put aside by the Business Committee and increasingly we’re finding that this Parliament, and hopefully future parliaments, will use that Business Committee process to adjust the rules to get the best possible outcome” says Mr Carter.


“In other words, using a bit of discretion and common sense,” he adds.


So why bend the rules for this bill? Two reasons are:

  • The care workers bill needs to pass into law before the end of June if the Care Workers’ pay rises are to begin with the new financial year (from July 1st).  
  •  The parties are in general agreement that the settlement with care workers is a good thing.

Part of the ethos of the Business Committee is that the parties barter and negotiate to reach these conclusions.

In order to get agreement for its plan, the Government may agree to deals with opposition parties so everyone gets something from the negotiation.