7 Sep 2021

Enough debate, show me the money

From The House , 6:55 pm on 7 September 2021

Covid has interrupted many things: weddings, holidays, caffeine addictions. Now it’s playing with Parliament’s budget debate.

This week Parliament is giving up on fitting in the whole Estimates Debate (which admittedly, is usually pretty long), and cutting to the chase.

In doing so it is adding two things to what it attempted last week. Last week the House focused on one function: keeping a gimlet eye firmly fixed on government actions - also called oversight. This week it adds two more core government functions: approving spending plans (passing the budget), and imprest supply, otherwise known as ‘show me the money’. 

Labour MP Chris Hipkins answers a question in the House

Labour MP Chris Hipkins answers a question in the House Photo: ©VNP / Phil Smith

The Estimates Debate is the formal name for the committee stage of the legislation that approves the Government’s 2021-22 budget plans. It’s a chance for the opposition to grill individual ministers in the House on their spending plans (or most anything really).

That committee stage is being truncated this week (by about 4 hours) so that the House can get down to the third reading of the Appropriations (2021/22 Estimates) Bill (the budget).

The opposition aren’t losing out too badly in this. Partly because the various subject select committees have already spent dozens of hours grilling ministers on those same budget plans. 

But also because, as the Business Committee has decreed, the missed hours will be made up with special debates “on current issues and priorities, to be arranged once all of New Zealand returns to COVID-19 alert level 2”. 

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  Does it seem like a very long time since 'Budget Day ' way back in May? Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

The House has been dipping into the estimates debate for an hour or two at a time for a few weeks but has hit two snags that forced this change in plans.

The first snag is that they have run out of ministers to grill. With Parliament meeting in person and with no Auckland-based ministers appearing, there is a limited supply of ministers.

And secondly, this has taken a while now and the government would like to move on and get the thing passed - especially as the third reading of the Estimates gets debated with a second bill piggybacking on it - the second imprest supply bill. 

Imprest supply is the equivalent of Parliament handing its cheque book across the aisle to the Government. The first imprest supply bill is passed at the beginning of the financial year (when Parliament begins considering the budget). The second gets passed a few months later when it finally approves the budget. 

Imprest supply is useful in that it covers things the budget didn’t entirely plan for - like extra lockdowns.

So this week three things are happening:

  1. The Estimates Debate continues for three to four hours on Tuesday and Wednesday to enable the House to quiz the remaining available ministers. 
  2. Parliament then skips to the third reading of the Appropriations (2021/22 Estimates) Bill (the budget). This will spread across Wednesday and Thursday.
  3. Along with the third reading of the budget bill, they also debate the second Imprest Supply Bill (this is usually attached at this stage). 

The Ministers and areas expected on Tuesday are: 

  • Finance  -  Grant Robertson  -  c. 3pm
  • Covid-19  -  Chris Hipkins  -  c. 4pm
  • Education  -  Chris Hipkins  -  c. 4:50pm

The Ministers and areas expected on Wednesday are:

  • Immigration  -  Kris Faafoi  -  c. 4pm or earlier if Question Time is short.
  • Justice  -  Kris Faafoi  -  c. 4:30 - ditto   

Happy parliamenting.