12 Dec 2018

Listening to citizens: the finance and expenditure committee

From The House, 6:55 pm on 12 December 2018

Select committees do a lot of the grunt-work at Parliament, most of which goes unnoticed. Daniela Maoate-Cox asks some of the committee chairs to share their highlights from the year.

Select Committee Room

A select committee room at Parliament. Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

Preventing offshore investors buying New Zealand property, keeping an eye on Government spending, and asking whether NZ Banks have misbehaved like their Australian counterparts makes the the Finance and Expenditure Committee a "wide ranging" one says its chair Michael Wood.

Select committees are groups of MPs which meet regularly to look at proposed legislation, hear from the public, hold inquiries, or receive briefings but are also a main part of the Parliamentary machinery that holds the Executive (a.k.a the government) to account.

Mr Wood is the Labour MP for Mt Roskill and Under-secretary for Ethnic Communities and said the Overseas Investment Amendment Bill (colloquially referred to as 'banning foreign buyers') was one of the more controversial bills to come before the committee. 

"It was hotly contested by different people in different parts of society and also on the committee,"

The bill put residential land into the category of “sensitive land” in the Overseas Investment Act which means people who do not usually live in New Zealand will generally not be allowed to buy residential homes or other land classed as residential.

Labour MP Michael Wood in committee

Labour MP Michael Wood is chair of the Finance and Expenditure Committee and also Under-secretary for Ethnic Communities. Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

After a bill's first reading it is usually referred to a select committee which will consider the details of the bill, listen to members of the public, interested groups, or officials on whether the bill is good or bad. This usually takes about six months after which the committee writes a report for the House on whether the bill is good to go or needs work.

Mr Wood said the committee "made quite a lot of changes" to the way the Overseas Investment Amendment Bill works.

"It was a good example of the that way our select committee system in New Zealand will take a piece of legislation, listen to submissions from the public and then make changes which make it a better bill at the end than it was at the beginning and I could go and point to specific things in that bill that identify that."

Committees also have the power to hold inquiries or call in officials to brief it on an issue which is what the Finance and Expenditure Committee did following reports of misconduct by banks in Australia.

"We opened up briefings into the conduct and culture issues around banks," he said.

"We've had people like the Bankers Association, First Union, the banking Ombudsman, and Consumer New Zealand in front of us to talk about their experience and their issues and we've also had a briefing into the well-being framework which is going to be a major piece of how we put our budgets together in the future."

Treasury which is the Government’s lead economic and financial advisor, has been working on the Living Standards Framework, which will add information like how people experience life into Treasury's budget advice for the Government.

"It's going to be a major piece of how we put our budgets together in the future so as a select committee we've informed ourselves by getting people from civil society in front of us to tell us what they think about how that can work so we've tried to be quite a proactive committee, not just responding to legislation but delving into issues that are relevant too."

Select committees are a main point of contact between the public and MPs and this committee gets a range of people fronting up including legal and accounting firms but also people with more personal issues.

Mr Wood said one of the submissions that stands out for him was from Tim Fairhall who has Down syndrome.

"He's a guy the same age as me who has Down syndrome and he came in with his mother to submit around KiwiSaver to say in their view their should be provisions for people like Tim, whose life might be shorter than someone who doesn't have that condition, to withdraw from KiwiSaver earlier, to be able to enjoy their savings," he said.

"We haven't resolved that issue yet but they were able to sit before us as a select committee, tell Tim's story and try and effect a change to legislation to deal with that issue and again that's coming back to why we have this system to be able to listen to citizens."

Mr Wood said select committees are key parts of Parliament's machinery and the idea that Parliament is adversarial isn't quite true.

"For the most part, select committees, or certainly the best one are actually often quite collaborative and quite useful," he said.

Past and future business for the committee including submissions from the public can be viewed online here at Parliament's website.