18 Nov 2021

Froth on top, accord below: the different MP modes

From The House , 6:55 pm on 18 November 2021

Looking in from the outside Parliament’s political parties might seem intractably opposed - at permanent loggerheads and often less than polite about it.

Watching MPs niggle and debate might even lead you to think New Zealand is heading the way of our cousins in America - where politicians used to settle their arguments with duelling pistols, and where it sometimes seems it may have gone downhill since. 

However, despite appearances, New Zealand MPs are not constantly in aggressive debating mode. 

National MP Michael Woodhouse appealing to the Speaker during Question Time

  National MP and Shadow Leader of the House, Michael Woodhouse gestures an appeal to the Speaker. (file image) Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

The mood switch

The New Zealand model of MP usually comes equiped with variable settings - they can flick a switch to range from vituperative to amicable, from antagonistic to harmonious. 

The different modes are all useful to their role, but not all equally obvious. The philippics are usually in public, while a lot of the amicable collaboration happens behind closed doors.  What we see is more often the quibble and query. 

Take this last week. The House began on Thursday with 12 minutes of to-and-fro over whether or not the rules had been followed exactly correctly during voting the previous sitting. That may seem fractious, but that’s the public setting.

The very same MPs who were having that argument were also responsible for an example of grand cooperation that had played out the previous day when the House set aside more than four hours “for consideration of current issues and priorities, in a special debate.”

The opposition spent those four hours grilling four different Ministers for roughly on the topics of Housing, Transport, Oranga Tamariki, and Social Development and Employment. 

Grilling ministers might not sound very cooperative but it was actually the result of MPs playing together nicely for the best interests of both Parliament and country. Here’s the backstory… 

Budget v Covid

Each year the government announces a budget and then Parliament spends months scrutinising it with a nit-comb, looking for anything weird (or politically useful). That involves dozens of hearings by a dozen different committees and two very long debates.

Eventually, at the end of an eleven-hour grilling of ministers (the Estimates Debate), the budget is finally voted on and passed.  But there is something of a deadline for that end result because you can’t just keep trundling through a financial year with no agreed spending plan.

This year Parliament still had four hours and fifteen minutes of grilling left to go and the deadline looming when Covid got uncooperative and it looked like it might prevent that final vote. So the parties agreed to cut the debate short and jump to vote on whether to pass the budget. 

Take that in for a moment. By comparison, imagine the American Congress doing that.

The Business Committee, which has cross party membership, meets in the Speaker's office every sitting week.

The Business Committee, which has cross party membership, meets in the Speaker's office every sitting week. Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

Behind closed doors

You probably didn’t even notice that had occurred. No party went to the media and grizzled. No-one said “what a shambles”, or “this is undemocratic”, or “we aren’t going to agree to this”, or any other grandstanding.

The parties knew the process had been progressing perfectly but... Covid was a bugger.  So they had a chat together and agreed a compromise that worked for them all and the country. 

In reality the Government could have passed a motion in the House to skip the remaining time and get to the vote, but it might not have been a good look, and no-one forced them to do so.  

New Zealand governments are seldom forced to use brute force like that, because while oppositions might argue and complain about their governance but they don’t try to prevent them from actually governing. Oppositions know that they will also be in government in the future and they need the political version of a ‘social contract’ to continue. So they tend towards ‘do unto others as you have them do unto you’. Not always but often.

These kinds of agreements come from a group called the Business Committee. It is a meeting where the Speaker meets with senior MPs from every party - usually the senior whips, the Leader of the House and the shadow Leader of the House.

Getting agreement from that meeting is not easy - there can be no agreement without at least the two major parties in accord. Which, watching the TV you might think was impossible but it happens often enough to be remarkable.

The common good

In this case they agreed to skip to the end of the budget process - and to catch up on the lost time from the Estimates Debate during a special debate later in the year, when things were a bit more normal.  

Apparently things are now more normal - it’s relative - so that special debate happened this week ; and it was just like the Estimates Debate would have been, involving the grilling of ministers.

MPs do that a lot. Working collaboratively for the common good happens all the time in Select Committees, where once the public jostling over the evidence stops, MPs go into private session and work collaboratively to improve a bill - even if they don’t like what it will do.

So yes, in public many MPs can be combative, even bellicose at times; but behind closed doors most of them cooperate unusually well; especially if you compare them to their American equivalents who would either be appalled at - or could only dream of such a thing.