Parliament has a charming tendency to gift people with very odd job titles: Black Rod, Serjeant-at-Arms, Herald of Arms Extraordinary to the Queen. You get the idea.
These fun titles are also often misleading. The person titled Black Rod is not a stick (surely no surprise), the Serjeant-at-Arms is not a sergeant and is not armed. The Leader of the House is not the person in charge of parliament (that is the Speaker, who mostly listens).
Also confusingly, parliament’s job titles often throw linguistic shade on opposition MPs by prefixing their jobs with the word “shadow”, adding an ominous air to them. Senior opposition MPs are known as the Shadow Cabinet (very Edgar Allan Poe).
Among their number is Michael Woodhouse whose job is Shadow Leader of the House.
Shadow Leader of the House
On the radio version of The House we regularly talk with the Leader of the House (LOTH), which is currently Grant Robertson.
The LOTH is the government minister with the job of managing the executive’s legislative agenda, they chair the Cabinet Legislation Committee (approving new bills), they write the Order Paper determining what government bills will be debated and when, they really do have significant sway on what happens inside the house.
So what does their opposite number, their ‘shadow’ do? Michael Woodhouse can clear up one potential misunderstanding immediately.
“Shadowing somebody means to sort of follow them around I suppose, which is not a very good descriptor of the role either.”
That was not likely to be anyone's conclusion though. It is difficult to imagine Woodhouse meekly wandering around after Robertson like a dazed intern.
The short answer is he represents the National Party (but not the wider opposition) on all the sorts of things that the LOTH looks after. That involves quite a few things.
“Behind the apparent smooth running of parliament is, of course, a pretty big machine that requires quite a bit of organisation and cooperation, and the role of Leader of the House is a really important one.”
One key aspect is the cooperation Woodhouse alludes to. Parliament has many rules for how things should work, but MPs regularly agree to disregard them in order to be more efficient, fairer, or more open. Woodhouse describes it as pragmatic.
“But that can only be done by a broad consensus, or what's known as ‘near unanimity’ of a committee called the Business Committee.”
It is usually done in a pretty productive and relatively friendly way. It does not all happen in the room though. It works best if the various whips, the LOTH and the Shadow LOTH chat regularly and trust each other.
I asked Woodhouse how they stay in touch. My timing was perfect as it turned out.
“I just got off the phone with the Leader of the House, to talk about a quite important matter for this week. …Grant [Robertson] has demonstrated a willingness to collaborate. And I've really appreciated that.
"We're not going to agree on all things, and ultimately, the government has the prerogative to set the order of what happens. But he has involved me, and I think the house will work better for it. So I really appreciate that dialogue.”
The headline you will never see
If MPs' actions mirrored their acolytes’ social media posts, they would mostly hurl excrement at each other across the debating chamber. In reality MPs may shout at each other a lot, but they do still manage to maintain a professional capacity to negotiate and cooperate.
Woodhouse points out that political parties actually agree more than the public realise.
“In legislation that happens more often than not, …[opposition parties] might say something like ‘they're not going far enough or fast enough’, or that they wouldn't do certain elements of what's in a bill. But overall, the broad direction can be supported.”
“But those don't make good headlines. ‘Opposition agrees with Government’ is never going to be splashed across the front page of the dailies or reported breathlessly on your news-on-the-hour. But it happens much more than people realise.”
Woodhouse points out that this is most clearly illustrated when a new government arrives and yet keeps progressing legislation left unfinished by the previous government.
When Labour took over from National some bills were dropped, others were amended, but some needed little change to continue through the chamber. Woodhouse notes that that goes both ways.
“If there was a change of government in the future that will be the same in reverse.”
I ask Woodhouse if the shadow leader of the house is involved in decisions about tactical and strategic decisions for action in the house: what policies and bills to oppose, what debating lines to champion, what lines of questioning to follow?
“Yeah, there is a …team of tacticians, of which the Shadow Leader and my deputy are part. The whips are also involved in that, but their role probably is more in carrying out that broad direction.”
The party whips are a bit like NCOs [non-commissioned officers] managing a party's troop of MPs day-to-day. This is most noticeable in the debating chamber where they are always managing their party's action, including rostering their colleagues and making the on-the-spot calls during debates.
Appealing to the Speaker
If you did not know it was part of their job you might think the leader and shadow leader of the house (and the whips) were pushy, difficult people. They regularly interrupt proceedings to appeal to the speaker for things to go their way. This is just part of the job. Woodhouse explains:
“There is a set of rules for debate, known as the Standing Orders, and the speaker over many, many years has issued rulings on that. So there's another big thick book called Speaker's Rulings. I guess I'm a bit of a geek when it comes to the rules of the house, and so I've got a good working knowledge of that.
“The leader or shadow leader and the respective whips of parties are delegated the task of pulling up potential breaches of Standing Orders, or highlighting areas where the speaker might want to take a closer look at the way in which for example, Question Time would be going. It's not a rule, but it is a convention that those sorts of contributions are left to the house leader and the whip.”
Anticipating action in the house
“We will try and anticipate debates," says Woodhouse. Obviously it helps enormously if the other parties have advance warning of what is likely to be debated during the following week. There are various ways they divine this. Most obviously they are formally told the broader strokes.
"The leader of the house has a set-piece at two o'clock every Thursday advising the house of the likely business in the following sitting week. Now that looks like a bit of a superficial set-piece. Actually, it's very helpful for us, so that I can spend the next couple of days with the whips, anticipating what will be needed for that, where the big debates will take place and preparing for the week. So you know, that's quite important."
That set-piece on Thursdays is called the Business Statement. It is not the only source of information. The weekly Business Committee meetings include planning for upcoming events like special debates or the various set-pieces that scatter across the parliamentary year.
There is also the Order Paper which outlines the order of business for the day, but that can change radically with only a few hours warning, so is best not relied upon.
The relationship with whips and especially the leader of the house (Robertson) is crucial, especially when things are coming up last-minute. For example a few days before we spoke, Woodhouse had been alerted that a bill relating to cyclone recovery was being hastily prepared and would be introduced under urgency in the coming week. (The debates had not happened yet when we spoke).
“Now, the bill that will be debated on Tuesday afternoon, didn't exist …when [the LOTH] indicated that it would be coming up. So I worked with Grant Robertson to make sure that we could get a draft of that as soon as it was in its final draft stage. I could get that out to the relevant spokespeople, so that they could get a sense of whether or not the bill can be supported [by National]. And then I worked with both them and the Whip's Office, to highlight when they may have been needing to be present in the house, where we might expedite a shorter process, and so on; all of that takes quite a bit of time and effort.”
As it transpired, that is exactly what happened. The various parties even agreed a deal to get the bill passed in a single week without urgency required for anything (except its introduction), which allowed for a very brief select committee process to happen as well. None of that would be possible without trust, cooperation and those relationships.
As well as (unseen by anyone) an utterly exhausting week for the Committee Clerks (cramming a months-long process into 24 hours), and the legal drafters at the Parliamentary Counsel Office who pulled off all-nighters to get it across the line.
As Woodhouse noted early in the interview, below the surface of the apparently smooth running of parliament there are a lot of hamsters sprinting like Usain Bolt, out to make it all happen.