4 Dec 2019

From sloth to cheetah in one easy motion: urgency at Parliament

From The House , 6:55 pm on 4 December 2019

Brace yourself for a shock. Parliament can be slow.

Yes, Parliament can be dull but it can also be emotionally powerful. MPs sometimes get very honest about their own histories in genuinely moving speeches. It's sometimes enthralling or entertaining and is often intentionally funny. General Debates on Wednesdays are the best place to see MPs audition for a career in stand-up. 

But usually the business of considering legislation is, shall we say, methodical.  

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Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

A typical bill, moving efficiently, takes two to three weeks of close attention in the House; plus four to six months of consideration by a select committee - plus a fair bit of time waiting around in the queue for its turn.

Some bills spend years busily making no progress whatsoever.

Basically, the system is designed to be slow. This is partly because in our unicameral Parliament the representative, deliberative, scrutiny, and review functions are all carried out by the same MPs. There’s no upper house to check their work, so it pays to be careful. 

And for many bills public consultation is valuable, even crucial and helps prevents mistakes; but it takes months.

But just occasionally Parliament takes off the lead weights and sours into the sky at a brisk walking pace. 

It did so last March in response to the Christchurch shooting, when new gun laws were enacted quick-smart.

But that wasn’t a one-off. Parliament often turns on the afterburners after the budget is announced to get tax changes enacted and policy changes underway.  

The shift of gears requires setting aside a few Parliamentary rules in a move called ‘urgency’. 

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Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

There is nothing inherently shocking or dodgy about the procedure. There are rules to expressly enable it. Governments of all stripes employ it for different reasons at different times, though National Party administrations have had a tendency to employ it more often

In some recent Parliaments around 30 percent of the House’s sitting hours were under urgency (in the 43rd, 45th and 49th Parliaments under Prime Ministers Bolger, Shipley and Key respectively). This level of use has reduced since 2011 with the addition of the concept of 'extended sitting hours' being added to the rule book. 

Please sir, can we speed up?

Urgency can only be done with the permission of Parliament. Basically the government asks the Parliament for permission to move quickly on specific business for specific reasons. The house votes and if permission is granted the House immediately pushes the jet-pack ignition button.

The permission can request different levels of haste. 

A short committee 

At the slower end of haste is a quick committee. Frequently the House allows a bill to return from Select Committee quickly (faster than the standard 4-6 months). If it does this it also tends to allow the committee to extend the times it’s allowed to sit. This permission isn’t part of ‘urgency’ but it saves a lot of time.


The next level of haste includes skipping the select committee process entirely. This tends to draw protests from oppositions, even if (as was the case this week) they ultimately support the bill being debated.

And then there's changes to the House processes. 

Usually only one debating stage can be done each day. So if you complete the second reading, you can’t immediately move on to the committee stage for the same bill. That has to wait until the next sitting day. This allows updated version to be printed and gives MPs a chance to take in any changes that have occurred.

And usually there is a three day stand-down between introducing a new bill (making it available for MPs to read) and being able to start debating it - again to allow printing and reading time. Typically bills get introduced on a Monday, formally tabled on Tuesday and can get a first reading on Thursday.

But under urgency you don’t have to wait. You can introduce a bill and finalise it as law all on the same day. The House just keeps sitting until it's finished, although there are still meal breaks and the sitting is suspended at midnight (if not earlier) and restarts at 9am the next morning (and until urgency finishes the date doesn’t change).

While that speeds things up all the actual debates are the same length so it still takes quite a while.

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Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

Extraordinary Urgency

This is the fastest speed. It means the House doesn’t have to stop at midnight but can just keep on debating through the night. It’s pretty rare these days and is intended for bills that need to come into effect immediately. So, for example a hefty increase in the excise on cigarettes or alcohol might be enacted quickly before everyone stocks up.

Again the actual debates are the standard length.

'Hand me a ministerial pillow'

All-night sittings were common in the early days of Parliament. The House staff actually had supplies of blankets available for MPs to nap in the chamber during interminable sittings (ministers got special grey ones).

Under urgency this week the Government passed the now Electoral Amendment Act (No 2) through all stages. The Bill seeks to further tighten the ban on foreign funding of political parties - and also extends the ban on anonymous election advertising to any medium - seeking to preventing the possibility of a wild west online for the 2020 election. Urgency began before the tea break on Tuesday and the Bill successfully completed its third reading after noon one Wednesday with only the ACT party voting against it.

From start to finish it took a little over seven hours in the House from whoa to go. For Parliament that is greased lightning.