30 Aug 2021

A parliament smaller than a select committee

From The House , 5:22 pm on 30 August 2021

Parliament’s House of Representatives will sit on Tuesday during a level four lockdown for the first time, bringing together various bubbles from across the country, including Auckland (where Judith Collins is travelling from under special dispensation).

But it won’t be the House we are used to. For a start on Tuesday there will only be three parties present, the Greens and Te Paati Maori are staying away under level 4. 

We few, we hardly any 

To keep numbers down and proportionality correct the Speaker has determined how many MPs each party is allowed on the floor of the chamber.

National will get to have three MPs present. Labour will get five, ACT one. Add to that the Speaker (as chair), and there will be ten MPs active in the room.

Interestingly, that’s fewer than attended some of the eight, hour-long select committee hearings that stood in for Parliament last week.

By comparison when the Finance and Expenditure Committee grilled Grant Robertson about the economic response to Covid-19 there were 13 MPs plus two extra officials to grill.

It’s not just in MP numbers that the opposition will lose out on Tuesday. 

Because they will be back in the House the usual rules will apply (plus extras). The opposition will revert to their usual percentage of primary oral questions. Typically ACT gets a single primary question each day and National gets four. 

As a proportion of the nominal total this gives them about 40% of the allowed questions. That will take about thirty minutes, tops. Whether Labour will use any of their own allotment of questions on Tuesday is unknown.

On Wednesday (and level 3) Te Paati Maori and the Greens will be back and things will be fractionally more normal. That adds at least one more question a day. 

Another difference on Tuesday will be mandatory masks for any MP not speaking. And no-one will be bringing them water or messages, as far as possible the Clerk's people will be staying out of danger.

Scathing burns and witty interjections are likely to be missed from the official record as well because Hansard reporters won't be present in the chamber (where they hear things that can't be made out on the broadcast).

Tuesday will not be normal. You can read the Speaker’s full rules for the House sitting under level 4 via Marja Lubeck’s tweet below.


Giving up the whip hand

Last week’s Select Committees were very different and arguably much more generous to the opposition than the House will be. In those eight hearings the opposition enjoyed the vast majority of the questions. 

Dr Dean Knight, from Victoria university of Wellington’s law school, helpfully ran a stopwatch over the committees and came up with some timings (with help from Research Assistant Maisy Bentley).

So, for example, from the very first committee that met (Health):

Following that tweet will take to the other timings if you want them all. In brief though, there were seven other committees with similar breakdowns.

Labour MPs used about 10% off the available question time; the rest was a mix of opposition, support and cross bench parties (but overwhelmingly opposition). 

The Greens have support ministers outside cabinet but they don’t treat the government to patsy questions in these kinds of committees; Te Paati Maori are neither government, nor opposition.

So tactically this return to Parliament will actually give the opposition fewer opportunities and less airtime than they had last week.

And less time overall. With little other business likely beyond Question Time (and possibly a ministerial statement and/or general debate) the House is likely to cumulatively last about half as long as last week’s committee hearings.

So make that a half of a half of what they had last week. 

So what’s in it for the opposition?

Being back in the house doesn’t give the opposition much but it does give a few things.

There will likely be a ministerial statement on Tuesday (there have been for other level changes), which gives a further (though short) opportunity for questions. 

And there may be a general debate on Wednesday (by which time it will be level 3 in Wellington and presumably there will even be enough MPs in the chamber to actually hold a general debate (12 MPs give five minute speeches). National usually get three or four of those speeches. ACT get one or two. So a half hour of unmoderated public address. 

But the key decider may be a parliamentary tradition we wrote about recently - that the leader of the opposition doesn’t attend any sitting that the Prime Minister isn’t present at.

To know exactly why you’d have to ask a former Leader of the Opposition but presumably it’s about not wanting to appear less important.

When you add a second tradition (that Prime Ministers traditionally don’t attend select committees) you find yourself in a ‘give me something I can turn up to’ situation for the Leader of the Opposition.

Yes, Simon Bridges did front the Epidemic Response Committee last year (though the Prime Minister didn’t appear), but it’s possible the current Leader of the Opposition doesn’t deem that to have been a win.