1 May 2019

Filibustering the End of Life Choice

From The House , 4:03 pm on 1 May 2019

Many, many bills pass into law every year. More than you realise. Most of them sail by without ruffling the public’s sails. The End of Life Choice Bill is not one of them. It raises genuine passion and fervour; both of hope and of fear.

For many bills (especially government bills) the opposition is a professional exercise, accepting the inevitability of defeat but working to improve (or ameliorate) the resulting legislation, even while disagreeing with it. The End of Life Choice Bill is not one of those.  

There is no party formally opposing this bill. It’s a conscience issue, so (more or less) every MP decides for themselves. Regardless of that, the opposition to the bill is organised and has MPs as figureheads but it is also often external and led by faith or interest groups. And it's aimed at stopping the bill much more than improving it.  

Protestors at the rally against the End of Life Choice Bill.

Pacifica protesters at a rally against the bill  Photo: RNZ / Ana Tovey

Now that the bill is finally back from Select Committee and on the Order Paper (Parliament’s debating agenda), what can its opponents do about it? There are quite a few tactics. Many of them will work with this bill.

Pocket the bill

A government bill can be quietly put in a bottom drawer never to be seen again. Member’s bills can also be disappeared, but the only person who can kill them is the MP with their name on it, in this case David Seymour.  David Seymour isn’t about to resile from an issue he is passionate about, so that is not a viable tactic.

David Seymour addresses media following the release of the justice committee's report on the End of Life Choice Bill

ACT party leader David Seymour, the only MP with room in his pocket for this bill.   Photo: RNZ / Ana Tovey

Move it down the Order Paper

Government bills move up and down the order paper from day to day according to tactics and requirement. The Leader of the House, Chris Hipkins, controls all government bills’ positions on that list. But this is a member’s bill and Chris Hipkins has no power over it’s place on the order paper.

A member’s bill’s rank on the order paper is automatic, the bill furthest through the Parliamentary process is at the top and the newest bill is at the bottom. For bills at the same stage (this bill is at second reading) it is still on precedence; the first bill selected from the biscuit tin, the first reported back, or the first through the previous reading comes first.

National MPs filibustering during a prior bill's committee stage in an attempt to prevent the Death with Dignity Bill from reaching the floor.

In 2017 National MPs filibustered during a prior bill's committee stage in an attempt to prevent the End of Life Choice Bill from reaching the floor. There are four standing to ask to speak - as a tactical display to convince the Speaker that there is still much to say and many who wish to speak. Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

Filibustering - the basics

Filibustering is slowing down the progress of a bill by using the parliamentary rules to make it’s consideration take as long as possible.

There are a number of ways this can be done and this bill is seeing most of them employed against it. Doing so can be frustrating for a bill’s supporters, but it’s not against the rules. Filibustering is not considered ‘dirty pool’, it’s an accepted part of the tactics of politics. The opposition doesn’t have many tools in its bag so it uses what it does have to their fullest extent.  

Filibuster the select committee

This tactic has been fully used already.

A map showing how many people who had written submissions from each region also asked to be able to also speak with MPs about the End of Life Choice Bill.

A map showing how many people who had written submissions from each region also asked to be able to also speak with MPs about the End of Life Choice Bill. Photo: Parliament

Bills that pass a first reading are referred to a Select Committee for public and expert feedback. That process usually takes five to seven months. Committees call for written  submissions and choose to hear an oral submission from a sample of those who offer one.

The Justice Committee opted to try to hear every submitter who wanted to make an oral submission. While that could be a laudable exercise in democracy it was also clever filibustering. The committee heard 1,350 oral submissions across 14 different cities. The committee process took an impressive 16 months, delaying debate by an entire year.  

Filibuster everything that comes before it

Member’s Bills get roughly 5 ½ hours of debate a fortnight (every other Wednesday when the House is sitting). So if you tactically delay debate by a day you delay it by at least a fortnight.

A debate over the End of Life Choice Bill is inevitable for a coming members’ day. It is (as of May 1st) sixth on the order paper, behind four other member’s bills and a local bill (which are also debated on member’s days).

On a quick day of efficient debate it could be debated on May 1st, but it wont.

Because to delay a bill on a fixed order paper you can also filibuster every bill that comes before it. And two of the bills before it on the order paper are up for committee stage debates (which have no set duration), so there are ample chances to filibuster them to delay it.

Gore locals urged to conserve water

The suddenly fascinating Gore.  Photo: RNZ / YouTube

A sudden fascination with Gore

MPs opposed to End of Life Choice are going to suddenly become very deeply invested in the discussion around the Gore District Council (Otama Rural Water Supply). Gore will be increasingly bewildered as MPs debate the minutiae of a bill they weren’t particularly worried about previously.

Once the House gets past Gore’s rural water supply it will pick up pace for two third reading debates and then slow to a crawl again for the committee stage of Kieran McAnulty’s Employment Relations (Triangular Employment) Amendment Bill.

Note: It can be easier to filibuster non-controversial legislation. Drafters tend to write controversial bills in as few as two ‘parts’ to limit the number of debates in the committee stage. Drafters of non-controversial bills might not see the need and draft them in multiple sections, opening up a fresh debate around each one.  The Gore bill is in three parts, the Employment bill in just two.

The eternal Royal Society

In 2011 a member’s bill to end compulsory student association membership at tertiary institutions was succesfully filibustered for months because the uncontroversial Royal Society of New Zealand bill before it on the order paper was drafted in 23 clauses.

Twenty three clauses means twenty three questions to be debated and each MP allowed up to four speeches on each question.          

Introduce new business

MPs opposed to the bill may also try to stall it by attempting to introduce extra business on alternate Wednesdays. It’s possible we may see a spate of requests for urgent debates which at the Speaker’s discretion so not automatically successful.

It’s less likely, but not impossible, that extra local bills could appear from the ether. But this is unlikely as they come not from MPs but from Councils.  

Simeon Brown’s psychoactive substances member’s bill has reappeared on the Order Paper after being on hold for a month.  He has denied this re-emergence has any filibustering intent, but if it were it wouldn’t be a poor tactic.

National MP Simeon Brown in Select Committee

National MP Simeon Brown in Select Committee Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

Finally, filibuster the bill itself

When all the other delaying tactics are spent the debate begins on the bill itself.

As the End of Life Choice Bill is at the second reading stage there are limited opportunities to filibuster it. Second readings are timed by the number of speeches, usually 12 of 10 minutes each. End of life Choice will have 8 of 10 minutes plus 12 of 5 minutes.

There are still tactics but they won’t gain much time. We may see a sudden spate of Points of Order (complaints to the Speaker over rules), and the speech clock is paused while these are litigated.

But ultimately it will get debated.

If it passes the second reading, it all begins all over again for the impending committee stage debate.