22 Feb 2017

Always such a rush

From The House, 10:17 am on 22 February 2017

House sits under urgency” is a headline familiar to anyone who follows politics. But what does it mean, and why can’t it wait? 

Parliament sat for 90 days in 2016.

The House sometimes goes into “urgency” to make progress on business additional to what would be possible under the normal rules for sitting hours and progress of business. Photo: Supplied / The Office of the Clerk

In 1991, Parliament sat from sat for 67 1/2 hours - from 2pm on Tuesday, July 30 till 11.30pm the following Saturday evening. It was sitting under extraordinary urgency to pass legislation related to the “mother of all budgets”. Because Parliament never sits on Sunday, the House resumed debating on the following Monday. 

Polly Higbee, co-author of ‘What’s the Hurry’, a book that looks at the use of urgency in New Zealand’s parliament, says many people remember 1991 as the high-water mark of the use of urgency. 

Urgency is a way for Parliament to extend the hours that it sits. It is also used to speed up the progress of legislation through the House. Between the different stages of a bill (like its first and second reading, where it goes to Select Committee) there are pauses. If the House goes into urgency it can eliminate those pauses. 

To put the house into urgency, the minister responsible for the bill moves a motion and Parliament takes a vote. Because it’s a tool to speed up legislation, most likely the Government will have the numbers - but the Opposition will often make a lot of noise about it.

By 2011, there was some public concern about the Government’s use of urgency - especially where it was used to bypass Select Committee. (That's the bit where the public gets its say on legislation.) 

LISTEN: A Radio New Zealand documentary on urgency

Higbee says in the time between the 2008 election and the end of the year, there were seven bills passed without going to select committee, which is a high amount of that kind of urgency. But before the introduction of MMP in 1996, it was much more common. 

While urgency could be used to pass legislation on one day, there are times in the year, where it will always be used, like to pass the Budget. Sometimes urgency is used at the end of the year, to clean up the order paper (the list of things Parliament needs to deal with) before the Christmas break.

And sometimes it is used to give the house more time. “You could just say ‘we’re going to have urgency and just do a bit more on the second reading of this bill’, so it’s really just using it to get a bit more time for the house,” Higbee says.

There are some instances of bills going through all in one sitting, with cross-parliament support. in 2013, it was realised that a number of police officers had been incorrectly sworn in, so legislation was passed under urgency to retroactively fix the mistake.

Oddly, unlike most things in our system, urgency isn’t a legacy of the British parliamentary system. “Urgency is kind of a weird New Zealand thing,” Higbee says. “It’s been used for most the 21st century, but most of the 20th century as well.”

A cartoon from 1958 featuring then Prime Minister Walter Nash.

A cartoon from 1958 featuring then Prime Minister Walter Nash. Photo: Illustration: Nevile Sidney Lodge/Alexander Turnbull Library

In an effort to make urgency less confusing, in 2012, Parliament adopted extended sitting hours. Parliament can sit longer - as it has done to progress Treaty settlement bills, for example - without having to go into urgency. 

“Because there’s so many different uses of urgency,” Polly Higbee says, “it can be quite difficult for public or media to pinpoint if this is a use of urgency we should be concerned about or not. Or one that we should pay particular attention to.”

Megan is a former senior producer for The Wireless. She has worked in Radio New Zealand News, Sport, and Radio New Zealand International, has an extensive library of animated gifs, and spends too much time on the internet.

This content was originally published on The Wireless with funding from Parliament.