Work found for idle MPs
By Richard Harman (author)
Parliament’s frequent breaks and the absence from Wellington of most MPs during them have now started to come under the scrutiny of the Standing Orders Select Committee.
The Committee has been a parade of complaints about the Committees which are supposed to act as an independent check on the Government’s legislation.
But in fact, most meet briefly, and Labour says National is using its majority on them to have them act only with the relevant Minister’s approval.
Parliament’s Clerk, David Wilson, told the Committee yesterday that there generally seemed to be a reluctance on the part of Committees to meet outside House sitting weeks.
Only backbenchers sit on Committees, so they have no other Parliamentary obligations when the House is not sitting.
The House has sat on nine of the 69 days of this year so far.
In effect, the backbenchers have been on leave for 60 of those days.
The Leader of The House interrupted Wilson and said that Committee sitting dates were often set by the clerks.
“That’s not so,” said Wilson.
“We will service any Committee any time it wants to meet.”
The Speaker, David Carter, who chairs the Committee appeared to agree with Wilson.
“Select Committees aren’t using the recesses the way they used to,” he said.
This appeared to jog other memories round the table and Labour MP, Trevor Mallard, said that when New Zealand had the three-term school year there were only two weeks of the year when Select Committees did not meet.
The question of how much work the Committees get through (or don’t) has already been discussed at the review committee’s meetings with the former Prime Minister, Sir Geoffrey Palmer, complaining that submitters got too little time at most committees.
Often submitters will get only five or ten minutes; rarely do they get more than half an hour.
Mallard said that the longer sitting periods meant that Committees properly scrutinised business “not at five minutes at a time”.
The Committee’s discussion on the Select Committees comes on top of complaints from Labour MP, David Parker, that Government members on Select Committees have simply become agents of the Cabinet when they are supposed to be independent.
Maori Party co-leader Marama Fox said that the Maori Affairs Select Committee did meet regularly during recess weeks.
“It does a much better job than most committees do,” said Mallard.
“You can see that when the Bills come back, that members actually understand them in a way that most members who sit on Select Committees don’t.”
One of the most important roles of the Committees is to scrutinise the Budget Estimates of Expenditure of each Government department and entity.
This includes what should be a grilling of the relevant Minister.
But Wilson said that this scrutiny was often limited by the time available.
“It always falls around the time of the July adjournment, for example,” he said.
(In July to coincide with the school holidays Parliament usually takes three weeks off.)
“Ministerial availability is the other big issue for committees looking at estimates.”
Wilson and Carter recently travelled to Australia and were impressed with the practice in Canberra of having "Estimates Week" where the House did not sit, but all the Committees considered their estimates.
And so Wilson suggested that during theJune recess starting on June 12, the House wouldn’t sit but Committees would meet and Ministers would be expected to be available.
“They would have longer sittings to get through the estimates in that time."
Perhaps to the Clerk’s surprise, the Leader of The House, Gerry Brownlee, who had earlier told him he disagreed with virtually all his other recommendations, said he would be happy to see this idea tried.
Labour’s Whip Chris Hipkins objected, saying there wasn’t enough time to organise things this year, particularly for members who had international travel planned.
Brownlee disagreed and said it was two and a half months away.
In another submission, the Committee heard from Samantha Lassen who conducted research for her MA degree on Parliament’s opening prayer.
She said the prayer promoted bias favouring Christian members of New Zealand and actively alienated those of non-Christian faith.
She cited the well-known Victoria University Political Science Professor, Steven Levine, a Jew, who said that he is so personally offended by the prayer “that he no longer subjects himself to listening to it. ‘
“This means that he cannot enter the public gallery of the House before the prayer is read, nor can he listen to it when played on Parliament TV," she said.
And Catholic MP and former Seminarian, Simon O’Connor told her that “I don’t believe we would have done a great disservice to God should the House vote to get rid of it.
“I know some colleagues take it seriously, but I do admit; my mind wanders during the prayer."
The Speaker did try two years ago to reword the prayer, but that got killed because of its reference to the local iwi, Te Ati Awa, and no others.
He told Ms Lassen that change was a long road.
And in a moment of light relief another submitter, Karen Monk, extolled the entertainment value of Question Time on Parliamentary TV.
She said she had it on a large screen on in her home every day Parliament sat.
But though Brownlee objected to having Parliament regarded as entertainment, her serious proposal that Question Time include a special session for the Prime Minister has already drawn some support from MPs across the House.
That may or may not happen --- but having Select Committees sit more often during recesses now looks a distinct possibility.