On Wednesday in Parliament - snuggled in between Question Time and the General Debate was an extra debate. Five 10-minute speeches on human rights in China. One speech from each party.
All the speakers agreed that Chinese treatment of the Uyghur people (and others) in Xinjiang was contrary to human rights expectations.
The strength of language they used ranged from full condemnation (ACT and the Green Party) to the more carefully diplomatic "speak to each other with mutual respect and reciprocity" and from National.
That they were debating at all showed Parliament’s capacity for compromise. But how do they achieve that?
This debate wasn’t planned. The idea for it was proposed by the ACT Party - suggesting that it would to be put forward as a motion - with a proposed wording urging the government to act to stop the genocide against the Uyghur people in Xinjiang.
Any MP can propose a debate via a motion in the House. But doing so if it’s not already listed on Parliament’s order paper (or agenda) is against the rules. So such a motion can be defeated by any single MP denying leave (by calling out ‘no’ when the Speaker asks whether ‘leave is given’).
Alternatively, if everyone agrees, the rules can be set aside and the motion debated. But that motion and its genocide wording didn’t happen. At least not like that.
This debate was a compromise solution agreed by the Business Committee and added to the Order Paper. So no leave was necessary - it having been already "determined" by representatives of all the parties.
The eventual motion was:
“That this House is gravely concerned about the severe human rights abuses taking place against Uyghurs and other ethnic and religious minorities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, and that it call on the Government to work with the United Nations, international partners, and to work with all relevant instruments of international law to bring these abuses to an end.”
The Business Committee which reached that compromise is an unusual beast and worth explaining a little.
Back in 2017, the then Leader of the House Simon Bridges described it as “becoming an increasingly important committee for bartering, effectively. Finding out what’s important for each party and trying to get consensus - or in the words of Parliament - a ‘near unanimity’ on issues.”
The Business Committee is where representatives of all the parties sit down weekly, chaired by the Speaker to agree all sorts of things that might otherwise need motions voted on in the House. They determine the membership of select committees, extra sittings for things like Waitangi settlement bills, the timings for particular debates, and how debates will be organised, e.g. how the debating time is doled out between the parties. They also permit changes to the deadlines for select committee reports.
It’s all evidence that - against all appearances - MPs do sometimes agree; or at least compromise. There’s reportedly a fair bit of tit-for-tat involved in that.
It was this committee that wrangled a solution to the Xinjiang motion with a compromise Human Rights motion.
But to illustrate that not all compromises last very long, ACT’s Brooke van Velden suggested during her speech on that motion that the House change the motion back to her original genocide wording.
“That this House believe that Uyghurs and other ethnic and religious minorities in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region are suffering crimes against humanity and genocide, and call on the government to act to fulfil its obligations under the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide and all relevant instruments of international law to bring it to an end.”
The rules don’t allow an MP to move to amend their own motion - so van Velden requested someone else do so. Green Party MP Golriz Ghahraman did exactly that.
Depending on the issue, Parliament often sees bed-fellows the public might imagine unlikely. But not always.
Speaking for Te Paati Māori, Debbie Ngarewa-Packer wondered why a human rights motion had come from ACT in the first place.
Te Paati Māori have been perturbed this week by both ACT and National’s question lines around a proposed Māori Health Authority, foreshore and seabed ownership, and issues arising from the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
“In this House, we continue to hear words like segregation, separatism, apartheid—those denying partnerships of Te Tiriti. One would hope that they extend this new moral position to their own country and let the tangata whenua enjoy the same support that they are proposing for everyone else.”