12 Jul 2020

The busy, busy Parliament

From The House , 7:35 am on 12 July 2020

The 52nd Parliament has only three sitting weeks left to run. The MPs will vanish on 6 August and the Parliament itself will dissolve the following week. Yes, dissolve.

Parliament will sit for a period after the election (coalition negotiations dependent), but as a new creature - the 53rd Parliament. 

The Parliament we have is on its last legs. As it wanders off-stage we should look back and see what and how much it has done. 

The Table in Parliament where the mace sits and documents and amendments are lodged

Just how much work can a parliament of MPs get through? And just how many words does an MP read? The mind boggles. Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

For a start, the numbers. How many laws were enacted? 

This takes a bit of guesswork because there are still three weeks to go, with extended sittings and urgency added in for good measure. I asked the Leader of the House, Chris Hipkins (whose job is to organise these things). His office estimates they will hit 185-190 bills enacted, which is more than the three previous Parliaments (the next largest was the 49th parliament with 172).

A graph showing the bills enacted across four parliaments

The bills enacted across four parliaments. In each Parliament the most efficient year is the second. The production line of bills takes time to establish (year one) and the third year is shortened by an election. (2020 is estimated). Photo: VNP

So quite a few then.

A note though about counting laws. We are counting the bills debated not the acts that are produced as they become law, because one bill can potentially become many acts. They always used to divide up, but do less often now.

As an example, in May Parliament passed a Covid related omnibus bill that made changes to 45 different laws - everything from freedom camping to fisheries. Until recently that would have been split into 45 different acts or laws but it was only debated as a single bill. So we count it as '1', and do the same for similar previous legislation that was divided up.

A Flintlock Blunderbuss in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

If you aim well you can hit a lot of laws with one shot. Like with this Flintlock Blunderbuss (from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art). Photo: Creative Commons

Obviously the current Kiwi Parliament has been a busy legislator. But how do we compare internationally?

Comparisons aren’t that easy. For example, Australia appears to pass more laws than we do, but when you look closer they just count them differently. Still, they appear similar. 

On the other hand we far surpass two other more famous legislatures.

Last year (2019), New Zealand passed 75 bills. Westminster in the UK managed just 31, fewer than half our total, and four of them were on behalf of Northern Ireland. A fair few more were supply bills.

And yes, that was a typical year.  

The United States congress appears to churn out laws; a boggling 137 last year. But even a quick look reveals that most of them aren’t worth counting.

Twenty of them simply continued existing laws, five mandated things like commemorative coins (really), and seven were bogglingly local.

At least 15 would barely count as regulations in New Zealand. For example, one was to clarify the pay scale for military podiatrists. They even have acts of congress to approve military officers' promotions (so even that becomes political). 

I found three laws that were actually press releases (e.g. 'tell us which quaint, historical bridges should be considered special'). An impressive 24 acts of congress did nothing but name things - mostly post offices. Like the newly renamed Marilyn Monroe Post Office in Van Nuys California. Whoopee! 

The Marilyn Monroe Post Office, Van Nuys California

The Marilyn Monroe Post Office in Van Nuys, California. Definitely worth an entire act of congress. right? Photo: public domain

When you skip the space fillers and the very many supply bills there are just 16 credible laws left. Sixteen, and that was in a non-election year.

So yes, by comparison New Zealand’s Parliament enacts a lot of legislation - regardless of who is in government. 

So what were some of the notable bills passed this Parliament? And what makes a law notable? Impact? Controversiality? Public interest? Quirkiness? It's in the eye of the beholder, but there are a few that stand out.

Chris Hipkins notes that emergencies led to seven different Covid laws and two Arms Acts during this Parliament. Those weapons laws were surely notable, creating a marked shift in gun control - with a wide ban on military style automatics and a register of who owns what. 

Chris Cahill, President of the NZ Police Association making a submission on the arms Legislation Bill

Chris Cahill, President of the NZ Police Association making a submission on the arms Legislation Bill Photo: ©VNP / Phil Smith

The two Arms Acts were somewhat controversial, but even more fraught were two health-related laws that some would call highlights while others saw an affront. First, the Member’s bill from ACT leader David Seymour - The End of Life Choice Act which enables assisted suicide in limited circumstances.

And the Abortion Legislation Bill which moves abortion from crime legislation to health legislation. 

Note that the End of Life Choice Act will only come into force if agreed to in a binding referendum at the September election. The other referendum will be for Cannabis Legalisation; but the cannabis law (while revealed), won’t be debated unless the referendum succeeds, and even then possibly depending on who’s in government.  

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There were many demonstrations at Parliament for and against abortion legislation this term.  Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

There were other health related laws as well. For example it is now illegal to smoke in a vehicle containing children.  

Another group of notable laws from this Parliament affect few people but are crucial to them. Among these are the expungement law which allows people to request having their police records cleaned of charges for historical homosexual ‘offences’. 

The Minors (Court Consent to Relationships) Act aims to prevent forced marriage among young people and was a member’s bill in the name of National MP Jo Hayes (via former National MP Jacki Blue and Labour MP Pryanka Radhakrishnan). 

Also in the ‘huge change for a few people’ category - another member’s Bill, but this time from Green MP Jan Logie. The Domestic Violence Victims Protection Act enables victims of domestic abuse to prepare their escape from a harmful situation while ‘at work’ - as a form of leave. 

Green MP Jan Logie briefing a Select Committee with Labour MP Andrew Little

Green MP Jan Logie briefing a Select Committee with Labour MP Andrew Little Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

And one more member’s bill, this time from Green MP Chloe Swarbrick. The Election Access Fund Act aims to make standing for Parliament a little more possible for those with a disability. 

You will have noticed the demise of single use plastic bags, but many bills receive much less attention on their way to becoming law - and this Parliament has passed all sorts of laws that you might have missed. Like did you know that there are now laws to help prevent loan sharks, and for the centralised management of organ donations by the NZ Blood Service.

Or that convicted criminals can no longer appeal to the Governor General - but that instead there is now a Criminal Cases Review Commission that has that job and can also investigate whole classes of convictions as potentially unfair.

There’s also been a lot of legislation this term that reworks or updates whole areas of law. For example, in Education there have been eight different and significant education bills so far with another one under way. Among many changes: an end to National Standards, a move to cohort starts for new entrants and an enticement away from donations. 

Also keeping MPs busy have been substantial changes in environment, climate change; employment relations, social welfare, housing, infrastructure, child safety and property ownership. 

Even the way that spending is costed has shifted with the embedding of the Wellbeing Framework - something the Treasury had been developing for about a decade

It’s been so busy that three years have positively flown by.

So those are a few notable laws from a busy, busy Parliament. Note that we haven't called any highlights. That would be a value judgement, which is what elections are for. Like the one in two months. So, have an opinion and vote. 

And in the meantime, hunker down for an onslaught of advertising.