This week an early morning bust-up between Labour Party MPs and National MPs meant some of the public missed out on participating in a parliamentary process.
In a nutshell, the Finance and Expenditure Select Committee was scheduled to meet at 8am on Wednesday to begin hearing submissions on the Budget Policy Statement 2019 and end at 2pm after discussing a taxation bill.
But one of the Labour MPs called in sick and their replacement didn’t make it to the meeting in time for it to go ahead without needing National MPs to make up the numbers (in an unusual move the National MPs stayed outside the committee room).
The entire days worth of meetings had to be cancelled and submitters who had turned up to speak (some travelling from outside Wellington) weren’t able to.
So whose fault is it?
Select committees are like a mini version of the House. Each committee (there are 12 subject committees and five specialist ones) has a mix of MPs roughly equal to the number of seats each party has in the House. For example, National being the biggest would have more people from its party on a committee than Labour. But Labour has more friends in the House (being partnered with New Zealand First and the Green Party) so it’s unlikely to be outvoted on the important stuff. There are some committees where membership is split evenly.
The Finance and Expenditure Committee has six Labour MPs, one NZ First, one ACT, and five National MPs.
Committees can do a range of things including examining bills, international treaties and petitions, asking for briefings from officials so they can educate themselves, conducting inquiries and also review government departments.
As far as accessing Parliament goes, Select Committees are a main point of contact for people to come and speak directly to MPs; perhaps to speak on a bill or a petition. It’s rare to get a group of cross-party MPs in a room to listen to you otherwise.
Once a committee has reviewed submissions, advice, and evidence it writes a report which it sends back to the House. For a bill, the report might summarise views from parties and submitters and also suggest amendments (which are usually adopted).
Compared to the combative nature of question time, select committees are a nice part of Parliament. MPs are generally collaborative, bringing ideas to the table in their role as Members of Parliament instead of members of parties.
None of this can happen if people don’t turn up to the table though and that’s where things went sour this week.
Select Committees can’t start their meeting unless half of the committee members are there (called a quorum) and within ten minutes of the start time.
The Finance and Expenditure Committee has 13 members so seven were needed for it to go ahead. There’s no specification on which party those members must be from.
Where the blame lie depends on whether MPs should be parliamentarians or politicians first.
Parliament and government are intertwined but different and in many instances an MP’s job is to make sure the Government is acting responsibly and to kick them into gear if they’re not (in formal terms this is called ‘holding the Government to account’).
Shambles in Finance & Expenditure Committee this morning. Due to start at 8.00am, @NZNationalParty members were there but Government MPs weren’t. No quorum and meeting collapsed meaning no FEC at all today.— Andrew Falloon MP (@andrewfalloon) February 12, 2019
Labour has agreements with New Zealand First and the Greens to govern together but that doesn’t mean every MP in those parties is part of the Government. Only those with ministerial positions are.
Everyone else, whether in a governing party or in opposition, has the job of keeping the Government in check and scrutinising legislation; part of which includes the select committee process meaning both sides of the House are responsible for making a committee work.
But sometimes the blood of a party is thicker than that of a select committee and the alternative view is that parties who say they’re good enough to govern a country should have members who are able to organise themselves properly.
Most of the time they are organised enough to be in the right room at the right time to hear people speak.
The type of people speaking to a committee vary from top bosses who are used to fronting the media and spieling off performance reports, like Ministry of Health or defence force bosses - to others who’ve taken time off work, paid for travel, and spent weeks preparing a speech on an issue that’s often personal (like euthanasia or medicinal cannabis).
The setting of a Select Committee can be unfamiliar and intimidating with MPs, officials, other members of the public, and media fixing their gaze on a submitter so the meetings are largely treated with respect.
That said, it doesn’t mean the voices of those submitters will not be heard at all. Submissions to a Select Committee are made in writing first with an option for the submitter to say they’d like to speak in person. The committee reads all the submissions and invites some submitters to meet with them in person for further discussion.
Submitters have also spoken to the committee via teleconference or video-call and over the past year some sessions have been live-streamed on Parliament’s Facebook page.
Among those who missed submitting on Wednesday was the Minister of Finance Grant Robertson, Chief Executive of the Pike River Recovery Agency Dave Gawn, and ActionStation director Laura O'Connell Rapira who was appearing "on behalf of around 8000 New Zealanders" calling for full funding for sexual violence support and prevention agencies.
Some Committee members met informally with submitters to hear their views and its chair Michael Wood wrote a letter of apology to those who missed out.
My last word here on the pathetic National Party closedown of the select committee this morning. I've written to the submitters who turned up to apologise for their wasted time, assure them that their submissions are heard, and invite them contact me if they wish to talk more. pic.twitter.com/9uEj80jpjN— Michael Wood (@michaelwoodnz) February 12, 2019
Public submissions made to committees can be found here.
Bills and petitions that you can submit on can be found here.
A full list of all the select committees can be found here.