It’s easy to imagine Bill Murray turning on Parliament TV, seeing MPs are debating the same thing as yesterday, and panicking.
I sympathise. Whenever I hear UB40 singing “I got you babe”, I feel a sense of dread and subconsciously watch for Ned Ryerson to leap out at me. “Bing!” If you’re confused you need to update your 1990s movie references.
I digress. The point is, Parliament debates proposed laws over and over again - four separate times (not counting hearings by Select Committees). So, are they gluttons for punishment or is there a method to all the recapitulation?
There is enough method that if MPs are doing it properly you should be able to tell which debate (reading) they are contributing to from listening for a few minutes. Recently the Deputy and Assistant Speakers have been cracking down on MPs, stopping them mid-declamation to point out they are giving the wrong speech for the current stage of debate.
To help you figure out which is which here are the four cracks MPs get at a bill, what they’re for and how those speeches should go.
A bill gets its first outing and the House decides whether to bother considering it further. The discussion here is all very broad and conceptual. The MP in charge explains why it’s necessary and what it proposes to do. The other parties may put their position on record, but often say they will keep their options open, are prepared to engage on it and are looking forward to seeing what evidence is raised in the Select Committee hearing.
Speeches will also often mention reports on the bill, including departmental disclosure statements and the mandatory report from the Ministry of Justice on whether it is consistent with the Bill of Rights.
The question being debated is really “should we send this bill to a select committee for closer inspection?”
The second reading debate is usually more than six months after the first tone. The bill has spent that time at a Select Committee who have heard evidence and should have written a report with suggested improvements. The speeches will centre around the members of the select committee which investigated the bill, and they will discuss the evidence they heard and the suggestions they have made.
Government and opposition MPs may have very different perspectives on what was heard by the Select Committee and what amendments are required.
The first speech in this stage is made by the chairperson of the Select Committee and is meant to be non-political because they are speaking for the committee and not their party. After that everyone can let rip.
The Leader of the House, Chris Hipkins, said about the second reading “we sum up what happened at select committee. People can reflect on where their parties sit on the bill… any changes that have been made by Select Committee can be debated during that stage.”
The question being debated is:
- “Do we agree with the recommendation of the committee about what to do with the bill?” The recommendation might be to accept it, reject it, or amend it.
It’s probably the second reading if:
The first speech is very even handed,
There is lots of discussion of evidence, witnesses and submissions,
There is debate over amendments
MPs say something like ‘we held out hope for this bill and were prepared to support it to Select Committee, but can’t support it any further in the form it has taken.’
The Committee stage is the most different, and doesn’t include a speaker. Instead there is a chairperson at the table, sitting next to the MP in charge who can answer MPs questions on the bill.
The Leader of the House, Chris Hipkins, in his weekly roundup of business in the House gave this summary of the Committee Stage:
“The committee stage debate is where the House goes through line by line, clause by clause… and examines whether the bill does what it says it’s supposed to do. The speeches are five minutes each, although people can do multiple speeches in a row; but they have to be quite specific to the provisions of the bill being debated.”
During the committee stage MPs debate and vote on proposed amendments (SOPs). These amendments are because the committee stage is the last chance to fix a bill. Nothing changes after this.
The questions being debated are:
"Should we include this amendment?"
"Should the sections of the bill be included in it (should the part stand part)?"
Note: There is no option to defeat a bill in committee, only change it.
It’s the committee stage if:
An MP speaks more than once.
MPs leap to their feet vying to speak next.
There is a minister at the table responding to speeches.
MPs are discussion proposed amendments they have tabled.
MPs say things like “clause 4 says…” (this stage is very nitty gritty)
Government whips periodically request that “the question be now put” (which translates as ‘enough already, let’s vote and move on’).
The bill is set in stone at this point and so this stage is a take-it-or-leave-it situation. The speeches will kick off with the bill’s sponsor and be very big picture. At this stage speeches often involve histories, stories and emotions. They may reach back to consider the process and progress of the bill, but overall will likely be either paeans for its triumph and impact, or jeremiads on its implications.
It’s probably the third reading if:
People sing or cheer afterwards
Half the house looks triumphant and the other half dejected
Speeches proclaim coming impacts
Speeches decry coming impacts