Towards the end of every parliament MPs peruse their rule book looking for innovations to make parliaments more effective and efficient. The changes apply to the next parliament (post election).
Changes to the Standing Orders have often been reasonably conservative but this time the changes are many and significant; some are whoppers. Arguably it’s the biggest shake-up since the beginning of MMP.
We discussed some of the changes with the people in charge: Trevor Mallard, Parliament’s Speaker and the leader of Parliament’s secretariat, David Wilson, Clerk of the House of Representatives.
Keep the questions coming
Some of the changes have been trialed already, including a huge change to the way the committee stage works, giving MPs unlimited speeches to ask questions of the minister.
“The questioning of ministers at the committee stages of bills, the removal of the limit on the number of calls, so people can focus on detailed questioning, back-and-forth; a proper conversation around the detail of a bill is something that we have been trialing and it’s worked really well.” - Trevor Mallard
He’s right, it has. So much so that the Q&A concept is being extended to Ministerial Statements which are currently a series of somewhat predictable speeches.
“One of the focusses in this review of standing orders was having more dialogue with ministers, both in the House and in Select Committee. …Ministerial statements, rather than being a series of five minute speeches, the Speaker will have the discretion to allow questioning of the Minister who has made the statement.” - David Wilson
'Tell us what you really think'
A related change is a move to have ministers ‘table’ the factual statements about bills that make for a traditional first debate speech and instead “speak from their hearts”.
“I think it’s also part of what I hope will be a growing practice of interaction in the House… Ministers, rather than mumbling their way through a departmentally prepared speech will talk ‘to it’, and again, show that they’re across the principles at a higher level.” - Trevor Mallard
The Speaker believes that these and related moves will make MPs prepare better for both committees and the House, and potentially show up weaknesses.
“This is a bit of a test for ministers… I think [the committee stage change] is going to be good, both for opposition members and ministers who are across the detail of the bills, and if they are not it will show.” - Trevor Mallard
Covid as catalyst
While some changes were trialed on purpose, other changes got an impromptu trial as a response to the Covid-19 lockdown. When Parliament was shuttered the Clerk’s team quickly found digital solutions for running (and broadcasting) virtual Select Committees.
“It had to be put into place because the House couldn’t meet and committees couldn’t meet in person. But there was a desire not to lock everything up and just go home at a time when the Government was exercising extraordinary powers.” - David Wilson
That allowance for virtual committee meetings has now become permanent. Select committees will be able to work partially or entirely remotely which will help MPs to continue with committee work during Parliament’s off-weeks without having to fly back to the capital.
This will also help some committees to keep on top of their massive workloads.
A petitions committee
Also helping with workloads will be a new, specialist committee, created to deal with petitions which have doubled in number since they became e-friendly.
“We’ve decided to create a specialist committee that will focus on the petitions, it will receive them, triage them, decide whether to deal with them itself, to send them to other committees, or to send them to ministers directly, which is a completely new initiative. If that’s really where the answers to the petitioner’s questions are then why not send it directly to the minister?” - David Wilson
There are also changes to the rules for shooting video of Parliament’s debating chamber. The current rules are very prescriptive and specific. The new rules much less so.
“The rules have been loosened up to allow for a much wider variety of shots. Really to let the news media decide what they want to focus on. And there are times when things happening in the House other than the member speaking might be of interest.” - David Wilson.
The new rules outline what can’t be filmed rather than what can. There will still be no footage of protests in the galleries or close-ups of MP’s papers.
But you are much more likely to see ‘reaction shots’ or cutaways of MPs other than the MP currently speaking. MPs interjecting or trying to shout down other MPs might be on TV for example - it will be interesting to see whether this alters MP behaviour.
Early closing Thursday
Another change is to Parliament’s sitting hours. Thursdays will be shorter, Tuesdays and Wednesdays longer. The Business Committee will have more power to alter the parliamentary calendar and add extra sittings.
“There’s been quite a lot of work that the Speaker has led to make the Parliament more family-friendly, and one of the things that came up was around sitting hours of the House and particularly the time that the House finishes on a Thursday. Its usual 6pm finish time really means that a lot of members struggle to get home that night, to be doing their constituency work the next day.
“So we’re finishing an hour early. More of them are going to be able to get their flights. And that extra hour of time has been cribbed back from the 1½ hour dinner break that we used to have which will now go down to an hour on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.” - David Wilson
This is likely to be the favourite change for MPs from regional areas without regular flights. Think electorates like Southland, Invercargill, East Coast, West Coast-Tasman, Waitaki, Taupō, Taranaki-King Country, Whanganui...
'We need to talk about…'
There will be more non-legislative topic debates which have some specific time allotted (taken from the very long Budget Debate). Among the possible topics are the results of Select Committee inquiries, issues raised by petitions, and a new series of triennial, independent ‘trend briefings’ from ministries.
Another rule change will make more time available for further topic debates via extra, morning sittings.
“We think we can get as much legislation through but also do some other things which are more to do with [MP’s] role as representatives rather than legislators.” - Trevor Mallard
Another rule change also makes this possible. An ability to agree to relax the proxy-vote limit means the House can operate with fewer MPs ‘available’. That change was also trialed during the lockdown to let Parliament sit while many MPs were still at home.
‘Let me explain...’
The changes will also encourage ministers to appear more regularly before Select Committees. Especially to brief them on a bill that has come before the committee. At the moment ministers usually appear only to defend their aspects of the budget.
“I certainly want ministers to be more available to explain their reasoning behind a bill,” says Trevor Mallard. But he wants the relationship to go further than that.
“I also think it would be useful, after evidence has been heard [by a committee], and when there’s a list of suggested changes [to a bill], to get a minister back in and have a discussion with the minister about what they support and what they don’t support.”
Select Committees are the creation of Parliament, which is separate from government, responsible for overseeing it and has the ultimate authority over the executive.
The Speaker wants both opposition and governing party MPs in committees to exercise their independence from government and not acquiesce to senior colleagues.
“The other thing that I’d like to see happen a bit more often than it does is for committees to make decisions to change bills when ministers don’t want them changed...
“If the committee’s heard the evidence, they’ve got a firm view, I think that they should make the change. And then, if the government really doesn’t like it then the government would have the majority in the House later on to take it back again, but that would be quite a deliberate step. I think that would enhance the power of the Parliament and of the committee and I think it would be useful.”
But can't I just hide in the back?
One change this time was actually made in the previous review but rolled back after the new Parliament began when the National Party objected to it after-the-fact.
That change moves towards smaller select committees - down to seven MPs. The largest (Finance and Expenditure) currently has 13 though eight or nine is more usual.
Along with this change is another giving smaller parties the right to attend a committee they aren’t a member of and participate. They won’t be able to vote (if they’re not a member), but they will be able to submit a minority report on business they attend.
The Speaker hopes smaller committees mean MPs won’t be able to glide through without effort.
“You get the sense [some MPs] were occupying a seat in case there was a vote, rather than being intimately involved in the business before the committee. I think if [the committee size] comes down to seven that will become more obvious and the pressure will go on members to prepare better for committees.” - Trevor Mallard
Think outside the horseshoe
There is also a reminder to committees that they can get creative in their approach to business.
The Epidemic Response Committee demonstrated that new approaches can be effective. It brought in experts to give running feedback and suggest avenues of inquiry, and it grilled ministers on their decisions and their departments’ actions.
Select Committees are both powerful and independent and have the ability to determine their own agendas. The Clerk points out that there are not a lot of rules forcing a shape on committees. They can determine their own agenda and approach.
“One of the things that we’re trying to encourage through the review of standing orders is for committees to do more of the inquiry work that used to be a significant part of their workload, where they can independently choose matters to look at and hold the government to account, to examine a policy issue of interest to them. We see it occasionally but not nearly enough.” - David Wilson
To help all of that happen there is to be training for all Committee Chairs. This will be valuable to many chairs as their role is not easy and its holders are sometimes quite junior MPs.
Less luck for members' bills
One further change that might alter what bills get debated is a move to allow MPs to bypass the famous ‘biscuit tin ballot’ for the introduction of members’ bills.
The current system is a luck-of-the-draw ballot and while some MPs (e.g. Louisa Wall) have an amazing hit rate some long serving MPs (including Trevor Mallard) have not had a single bill picked from the ballot.
Proposed members' bills can languish for years despite enjoying wide agreement among MPs. So a new rule will allow members bills to circumvent the ballot if they can gain the support of a majority of non-executive members, (MPs that aren’t ministers).
That would mean getting support from a bit more than two thirds of back benchers. Cabinets often number about 30 of the 120 MPs.
“It’s a real incentive for members to work behind the scenes, build up support for their bill and they can get it into the House. So there could be some important legislation introduced that way.” - David Wilson.
And to help with the lobbying MPs will now be able to attach multiple sponsor’s names to a members’ bill - such as was done for the very first time recently with a multi-member bill to expand the definition of female genital mutilation.