20 Jun 2019

An escalation of concord

From The House , 6:55 pm on 20 June 2019

Does it surprise you to hear that MPs sometimes disagree with each other? Or that sometimes they trade quite sharp barbs across the trenches? Probably not.

The Business Committee, which has cross party membership, meets in the Speaker's office every sitting week.

The Business Committee, which has cross party membership, meets in the Speaker's office every sitting week. Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

It’s something they acknowledge themselves. Yesterday when Gerry Brownlee complained that Shane Jones had gone too far in taking a swipe at John Key, the Speaker Trevor Mallard replied:

“It didn’t go nearly as far as many comments I’ve heard from both sides of the House about political opponents and former political opponents.”

What might surprise you though is just how often the combatants cooperate. Most MPs aren’t automatically oppositional on all things. And though their views and even world-views may be extremely divergent, they often still find things they can agree on and even campaign on together.

Jo Hayes, Tracey Martin, Louisa Wall, Maureen Pugh

MPs working together: From left to right: National MP Jo Hayes, NZ First MP Tracey Martin, Labour MP Louisa Wall and National MP Maureen Pugh present the submission of Commonwealth Women Parliamentarians on the Family and Whanau Violence Legislation Bill. Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

And sometimes everyone agrees on both the end and the means and when they do there’s a committee just for that.

The little mentioned business committee is a cross party group of senior MPs that meet every Tuesday afternoon to agree how things will be done. It works on agreement by near unanimity so at least both major parties have to be on board with every call.

Those decisions (called determinations) include extensions to select committee report deadlines, changes to committee memberships and agreements to bend the rules for how the house runs.

So, for example, this week the Veterans Support Amendment Bill was read for a second time in the House and then a third.

It was a ‘debate’ of widespread comity. Compliments flowed across the house, people told stories. Ruth Dyson revealed she was an army brat. A nice time was had by all.

It wasn’t a complicated bill and there wasn’t much to debate. It fixed an error in 2014 legislation which left some injured veterans ineligible for support. Everyone agreed it should be fixed.

But once the second reading was voted on and made, the House launched straight into the third reading. This is a no-no.

There’s a rule that except under urgency you can’t progress a bill more than one stage each sitting day. But this bill passed right on by, with two readings back to back. And the third reading wasn’t even debated.

What had happened was the Business Committee on Tuesday had met and agreed that with general agreement on the bill and a desire to get the fix made quickly, there was little point in standing on ceremony. So, they agreed (determined) there would be a second reading debate, and then an immediate third reading without debate. Wham bam! Bill passed.

The basic tenet is… the House that maketh the rule can also bendeth the rule.

And this is exactly what happens to general agreement in the business committee more often than you might think - a sudden outbreak of concord.