Select Committees are where the Parliament intersects with the public.
They are where both work-a-day people and experts give feedback on proposed legislation, give evidence to inquiries, respond to petitions and generally tell MPs what they should be doing better and differently.
How that exchange occurs tends to depend on who is submitting. Professional lobbyists expect a rigorous round of questions, and are proficient in responding.
At the other end of the scale school students and first-time submitters are treated with gentle care.
In fact submitters are usually listened to with respect and attention. The questions they are asked are more about elucidation than confrontation, with the focus on the submission, not the MP. Usually.
The whole idea after all is that MPs are getting as much information as possible towards perfecting their report back to the wider parliament.
But occasionally the temperature in a committee room rises a little as MPs from one party or another find themselves in conflict with an idea, submission or submitter. As you would expect this is more likely on the hot button issues: things like industrial relations, taxation, crime and punishment, or gun control.
A bill on gangs and guns
The Justice Committee has been considering submissions recently on a members bill from National Party MP Simeon Brown.
The Arms (Firearms Prohibition Orders) Amendment Bill (No 2), would enable the police to serve firearms prohibition orders on gang members (from some gangs) who had been found guilty of some violence offences, or if the police felt it was in the public interest to do so.
Firearms Prohibition Orders would prevent those people from possessing guns or from residing anywhere where anyone else had a gun or ammunition.
The Bill passed a first reading during the previous parliament with support from National, ACT and New Zealand First. Labour and the Greens were opposed so it seems unlikely to become law.
The committee has previously had quite a few submissions on the bill, but this week it heard from a less usual submitter.
An uncommon reader
The submitter was Louise Hutchinson, speaking on behalf of the Mongrel-Mob Kingdom, a Waikato-based gang that withdrew from the National affiliation of Mongrel Mobs a couple of years ago.
Its leader Sonny Fatupaito has gained attention for moves to change the model and image of his own chapter.
Louise Hutchinson’s read submission outlined issues with the bill and talked about the model that the Mongrel-Mob Kingdom was attempting to create through Mr Fatupaito’s example.
Her key message though was that the suggested (and current) approaches to dealing with gangs and crime were not likely to succeed.
“The Kingdom believes that what is driving gun violence, together with the illegal drug trade in New Zealand is poverty.”
The most effective way to tackle gun crime, she said, was to tackle poverty, not to build prisons.
“Realistically the only way to successfully tackle the problem of gun crime is to bring about fundamental change in the attitudes of those who commit the crimes. This is through addressing generational trauma, it’s through education, through housing, through equitable healthcare, through equitable education, through equitable employment. This is the journey that the Mongrel Mob Kingdom has been undertaking since 2013.”
Louise Hutchinson said that the Bill under consideration was a racist, political stunt from the National Party coming up to the 2020 election.
The National MPs in attendance (Simon Bridges, Nick Smith, and the Bill’s sponsor, Simeon Brown) all took some issue with these claims and with her wider submission.
Simeon Brown said he considered her attendance to be more a PR exercise than a submission.
“Do your members still have illegal guns, and when are they going to hand them in?”
Ms Hutchinson in turn invited Mr Brown to visit the Mongrel-Mob Kingdom and understand that there were different gangs and different chapters and hers had changed. Simeon Brown did not appear to accept the invitation.
“Until you stop selling meth to the community across New Zealand and hand in your guns I’m not going to believe it,” he said.
It all got a bit heated after a few questions.
The Committee Chair, Labour’s Ginny Andersen, reminded members more than once to be respectful, and also of the committee rule that stops MPs from inquiring into allegations of crime by individuals.
“We’re straying into an area where you are heading towards that point and I would like to warn members not to go further down that path.”
The rule she was referring to is Standing Order 202 which says:
“Without the express authority of the House, a select committee may not inquire into, or make findings in respect of, allegations of crime by persons who are named or otherwise identifiable.”
This rule aims to help avoid a situation where evidence is requested or presented that could get submitters or others into legal trouble, or where MPs accuse or ask individuals about criminal activity.
Yes, select committees cover a very wide variety of subject, experience and behaviour.
They are frequently fascinating, they are usually a place where a surprising amount of light can be shed on an issue. Where a gentle interrogative helps the public illuminate how best to legislate (and how not to).
Sometimes though there’s a fair bit of heat.
- Select committees are smaller groups of MPs from different parties that focus on legislation, petitions, and inquiries into particular subject areas. They are also the main point of contact with members of the public who submit their views to Parliament.
- Submitters (when making written submissions) can indicate if they would also like to appear before a committee either in person or via video/telephone conference.
- Written submissions are published online and can be read here. A schedule of who is appearing can be found here.