12 Sep 2018

At home to Mr Cockup

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

Parliament is usually a pretty well-oiled machine, but occasionally - as Blackadder would put it - the House is very much "at home to Mr Cock-up".

You might know that Parliament’s daily schedule is kind of a double-shift operation. In the mornings MPs regularly sit on Select Committees to consider legislation and petitions and to carry out inquiries. Then, after lunch, they switch roles and meet as a group in the debating chamber for Oral Questions, and for debates on bills and issues.


But sometimes Parliament gives itself permission to do both things at once so it can get more done. For example on Tuesday, the Government made a typical schedule-bending request of the House. They wanted an extended sitting on Tuesday - which would actually take place on Wednesday morning - because it's always 'the day before' in the House until 2pm when the calendar ticks over as the House meets for Oral Questions.

Parliament's Mace sits on The Table next to a tray of water for MPs

Parliament has some brutally long sessions, and MPs try to stay awake and alert on that powerful beverage - water. Photo: VNP / Phil Smith


So yes, morning sessions are attached to the night before. It often trips up MPs making speeches who say yesterday meaning today (House time) and today meaning tomorrow (House time).


This whole calendar thing is probably an overhang from when MPs would sit through the night, except these days the session is wisely interrupted by a kip. After all it's easier if they sleep at home rather than in the chamber - which is what they used to do.


During all-nighters in the 19th Century the parliamentary attendants would distribute rugs to MPs (grey for members, red for Ministers) and the MPs would actually sleep in their chairs. So speeches took place to the background of multiple snores. On occasion even the Speaker would doze off, leaving who-ever was currently giving an endless filibustering speech as the only MP awake.


Anyway - thankfully that's all history.

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Parliament's hi-tech calendars are manually ticked over before each new day begins at 2pm. Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox


Permission for an extended sitting requires a list of which bills would be debated, because extended sittings and urgency must have a specific purpose.

So, with the extended sitting granted MPs returned to the chamber Wednesday morning to continue Tuesday night - because inside the house the it was still Tuesday.

An hour and a half into the morning session they had already powered through two bills and were onto the third of the day.

Jenny Salesa (as the minister in charge of the bill), led off the debate on the First reading of the Building Amendment Bill, which changes the rules for what can be done after natural disasters. She commended it to the House and sat down.

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  Minister Salesa got her bill through its first reading in barely ten minutes. Photo: VNP / Phil Smith


That first speech is actually just a long argument for a motion to the Parliament - arguing that the Bill in question should be read a first time. Which is why they begin their speech by saying "I move that the...bill, be now read a first time." 


What usually happens at the conclusion of their speech is that the Speaker "puts the question" to the House (whether the Bill first reading should happen now) but before a vote can take place on that question, someone from the opposition leaps up to disagree with the motion, and so begins the debate, which will involve 11 more speeches of ten minutes each before he vote is finally taken.

Except that that didn't happen. The House is, as I said, a well-oiled machine and it relies on everyone being ready to jump to their feet to speak, to raise a point of order… and well to participate.

But one National MP missed their cue and before they'd woken and thrown off their metaphorical blanket, the Parliamentary machine had rolled on and begun the vote. And once a vote has begun, nothing can interrupt it.


So the door open wide to Mr. Cock-up, he wandered on in.

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Lobby doors are seldom used for voting anymore. If no-one objects votes are decided on a 'voice vote'. Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox


The vote was done in a jiffy, no-one contested it or asked for a party vote. And before Mr. Cock-up had even taken a comfortable sat among the National MPs the Clerk was reading the bill’s title.


By the way - that brief reading of the title of the bill is what "first reading" actually refers to. The rest of the debate’s just an argument over whether that announcement should occur. Once upon a time they might have read the bill in full, but bills only used to be a few lines long.

Deputy Clerk of the House Rafael Gonzalez-Montero and A Clerk at the Table James Picker.

The Clerks at the Table (two of which are pictured) are the people who actually 'read' a bill. Everything before they read a bill's title is just an argument over whether they should. Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox


And so, with just one of the twelve speeches given the Housing Amendment Bill was done, and on to the next one.


But it had all happened very quickly (nearly two hours early) and the Government suddenly discovered that Mr Cock-up is an equal opportunity visitor - because Labour’s first speaker on the next bill wasn’t anywhere nearby and no-one was ready to speak.


So Mr. Cock-up arose from his opposition bench, folded his blanket and crossed the floor to make himself at home on the Government side.


If no-one opposes a bill you jump straight to a vote the same happens if no-one proposes a bill; it just languishes unread on The Table.


Without a minister to lead off the debate on a first reading, an item of business is discharged so that bill will now need to be re-introduced for another crack.


At that point the list of bills for the extended sitting was exhausted - and therefore so was the extended sitting.


And it finally got to be Wednesday - ten hours late and two hours early. Dr Who would be impressed.