Journalists used to tell of decisions made by old white men in “smoke filled rooms”. Bargains made in a cancerous haze over who would be an MP, or up for president or prime minister.
Today, deals are still struck in back rooms.
In one smoke-free room at Parliament those bargains happen weekly, involve representatives of every party and wield enormous power.
Parliament’s smokeless room
Parliament is “the master of its own destiny” they say, meaning it sets its own rules; and can decide to break them, suspend them, or try out some new ones.
It can do all of those things by a simple majority of MPs in the House.
Did you know it also does pretty much the same every week with just a handful of MPs around a polished oval table in a smokefree room.
That room is the Speaker’s Office and the handful of MPs are called the Business Committee. So what is it?
“It basically organises Parliament,” says Chris Bishop, National MP and Shadow Leader of the House. So that was simple - case closed, our job here is done.
The committee collects together the various party whips (or in the Green’s case musterers) together with the Leader of the House, his deputy and his opposition equivalent (his shadow), under the chairmanship of the Speaker.
“We typically meet after Question Time on a Tuesday,” says Chris Bishop, “and we organise the House for the week and the forthcoming week. Chris Hipkins gives us an update on what’s happening for the rest of the week and typically the next sitting period as well.”
Yes, government gives opposition a ‘heads up’ about their coming plans to help them prepare their opposition. It’s either very co-operative or a bad case of monologuing.
Chris Hipkins (Leader of the House, responsible for getting the Government’s legislative agenda through the House), says this has become increasingly normal since we moved to MMP.
“The Parliament has evolved quite a lot over the last few decades. [The Business Committee] didn’t exist before MMP, …governments would just do what they wanted and the opposition was just left to guess. Over time we’ve seen a trend towards governments being more predictable and more transparent around the way they organise the House.”
The Committee discusses special debates, extra sittings, allows select committees extra time to get their homework in, agrees their membership. It agrees to trialing new debating approaches. It agrees to trial new rules or to set aside current ones. It has a lot of power.
When we talked the committee had just met and agreed to allow a treaty settlement bill to have two readings back-to-back, This would be normally be against the rules but the parties like Treaty legislation to be uncontentious and organised to enable affected iwi to attend.
A read through a few of the Committee’s weekly decisions (called determinations - click on the ‘…Documents’ tab) gives a pretty good idea of the range of decisions.
Breaking news - MPs disagree
Usually the Business Committee works more or less unnoticed but this week they have been in the news for not agreeing on a plan to suspend sittings of the House during Level 4.
Practically, Parliament meeting is not an option because Parliament hasn’t given itself an exemption on gatherings (both a bad look and an impressive vector for transmission). Stuff reported that ACT was against suspending sittings and National wanted the Prime Minister (and not the Business Committee) to take the suspension call.
Without National on board the committee’s hands are tied, because a key aspect of the Committee is that it works by consensus, or what they refer to as “near unanimity”. What that means exactly is determined by the Speaker who chairs the committee.
The Speaker might decide that a minor party disagreeing with a option won’t prevent it, but at the very least National and Labour have to agree on everything (and probably at least one of ACT or Green as well).
And the extraordinary thing is that they do all frequently agree.
Chris Bishop says that so far this Parliament (at least when we talked a couple of weeks ago) the committee hadn’t yet hit a situation where the Speaker had needed to make such a call (on whether Green or ACT could be ignored).
Don’t look now - MPs co-operating
This may all strike you as unexpectedly co-operative but MPs (mostly) work together surprisingly well behind closed doors.
Chris Hipkins points out that that cooperation is useful for the efficient functioning of the House.
“There are a lot of technical procedures in Parliament that aren’t necessarily very political but do require parties to work together. So, around how long a debate’s going to take, around who is going to speak on what. Are there rules of the House that maybe might need to be changed for pragmatic reasons from time to time.”
I asked Green Musterer Jan Logie if the heated intensity of a Tuesday’s Question Time carries over into the meeting that happens just after it, making cooperation harder.
“I think sometimes there’s just a slight residual sense of woundedness for some of the Members around the Table going into the conversation, but to be fair… people manage to maintain the focus of what we’re talking about separate from whatever’s gone on before. You might hear a little bit in the tone, but not generally in the content.”
“I think it’s a really constructive space,” says Jan Logie. She points to one recent decision of the committee that illustrates that the parties aren’t always just considering what is good for themselves.
The Committee agreed to accord Te Paati Maori the debating status of a notified party (one that got 5% in the election) “…to ensure the Maori Party gets a voice in Parliament beyond the proportionality that would suggest they wouldn’t get to speak very often and that was agreed unanimously around the table.”
She points out that agreement isn’t a given though.
Discussion also goes beyond plans for the House or thinking about rules. Jan Logie notes that MPs sometimes also bring problems to resolve.
“Where opposition members haven’t been happy with the answers to written questions they’ve brought that to Business Committee and the Leader of the House has said ‘O.K. I take your point on that and I’ll go back and talk to my colleagues and sort that out.’ And other times where the Leader of the House might say, ‘oh, actually, no I don’t think you’ve got that right. This is how I see it’.”
Why play nice?
So why do the MPs play nice together like this. Chris Hipkins and Chris Bishop both agree that is because they believe the democratic institution is more important than the political moment, an approach that is sometimes described as that of a ‘parliamentarian’.
Labour’s Leader of the House, Chris Hipkins - “As a Parliamentarian you have to recognise that the government of the day governs and the opposition of the day has a role in critiquing that. And you have to recognise that both when you’re in government and when you’re in opposition. As a member of the Government you have to be able to put yourself back in the shoes of the opposition. …what seems like a great idea when you’re in opposition doesn’t always seem like a great idea when you’re in government and vice versa. I think the Business Committee is the place where we get to have those conversations across the room, and actually make sure that in the institution of Parliament still behaves in a way that upholds democracy.”
And National’s Shadow Leader of the House, Chris Bishop - “The point is the institution of Parliament will outlive me and it will outlive Chris and Jan. I very much sincerely hope that. And while we’re here it’s our job to try and make the House run as effectively as we can… You have to bear in mind that governments come and go, and oppositions come and go, while the Parliament endures. It’s about making a contribution on the way through and trying to improve our democracy.”