It was a tumultuous week at Parliament. A now former-minister was discovered to have broken cabinet collective responsibility; and before that commanded all the attention there was a brief sortie into America’s culture wars.
With all the scene stealing and scenery chewing from those stories, even people paying attention might have failed to notice the huge work-load happening beyond the headlines.
This week MPs spent nearly three days working under urgency; debating bills in extra morning sessions and (on Wednesday), until midnight.
Partly it was to catch up on lost time, and partly to prime the debate-pump for the remaining five months of this parliament. The catch-up included third and final readings for ten new laws.
But this article focuses on the brand new bills – the new ideas for laws – offered up for public comment after a first reading. There were eight bills, seven are now before committees, six are open for broad public feedback. In case you want to stick your own oar in here is a brief taster.
The Quick and the Dry
The Severe Weather Emergency Recovery Legislation Bill allows the Governor General to sign off localised alterations (as Orders in Council) to specific existing laws (as suggested by the relevant minister), that would ease reconstruction efforts after the recent storms. Whew.
This approach is a mix of the approaches seen after the Christchurch and Kaikoura earthquakes, with the extra parliamentary checks added for Covid Orders.
The legislation is considered urgent and so the select committee process was highly truncated with only experts and stake-holders invited to contribute. The bill is expected to be passed by Parliament by the end of next week with general agreement from most parties.
Despite that, the Bill isn’t being considered 'under urgency'. That would eliminate a select committee process entirely. Instead there was an agreement from most parties to hasten its progress without official urgency.
The dry half of the equation is the Appropriation (2021/22 Confirmation and Validation) Bill. This is an annual accounting set-piece. It is crucial but financial rather than policy. Briefly it is the butt-end of the lengthy budget process, where Parliament signs off the Government’s final account of its spending from two budgets ago. The accounts are treated like a bill but skip some aspects of the process (e.g. no debates on the first and second readings).
The education two-step
The next two new bills both focus on education. Neither is earth-shattering but they do have elements of interest.
The Education and Training Amendment Bill (No 3) adjusts a bunch of reasonably minor education rules and processes including governance frameworks for wananga, police vetting of non-teaching staff, and school board eligibility criteria.
That last one is related to the kerfuffle during the most recent school board elections when some 'interesting characters' put their names forward to be involved in school governance. A review subsequently found that the rules needed changing to better protect students.
The Regulatory Systems (Education) Amendment Bill deals with police vetting for a sub-category of childcare centres and with aspects of running specific Maori and Pasifika educational scholarships.
In case you are wondering why there are two separate education bills rather than one – this is required by parliament’s rules. A bill must be about just one thing, or at least flow from a unified policy objective. So you can’t just collect every policy plan vaguely related to a sector into a mega bill, unless it has a unifying objective. The clerks check new bills against the rules and if one goes too wide the Speaker will reject the bill and send it back to be split up. Yes, the Speaker really is the boss of Parliament.
This also prevents the utterly bonkers American practice of politicians attaching completely unrelated legislative measures (riders) to bills, usually as a price for their support; e.g. "I will vote for your childcare bill if I can add in this clause creating tax breaks for farmers".
New Zealand bills have a determined scope and nothing outside that scope is up for inclusion or debate. Also anything inconsistent with a bill’s principles or objectives (for more, see the section on Inadmissible Amendments in this chapter of Parliamentary Practice).
I have seen the Immigration (Mass Arrivals) Amendment Bill mis-portrayed as a new power to crack down on New Zealand’s non-existent boat people by allowing the detention of mass arrival asylum seekers. Close but… actually not really close at all. That power was already added to the Immigration Act 2009 way back in 2013.
This bill would adjust three specific aspects of that law. Particularly of note is this one, outlined by the Minister sponsoring the bill, Michael Wood.
“Immigration New Zealand and the courts currently have only 96 hours from the point at which an immigration officer makes a decision on an application for entry permission and a visa both to apply for a group warrant of commitment and for the application to be decided. In the Government's view, this is not enough time for migrants to receive legal advice or to be meaningfully represented in court, particularly if we deal with a large event. A large event, for example, could be similar to the one that Canada experienced in 2010, in which close on 500 people arrived in a single event. It is very difficult to imagine our legal process being able to mobilise in a 96-hour period to ensure that those people had appropriate legal representation through a very significant legal process.”
Most legislation has some political detractors. Each political party would likely tackle each issue slightly differently depending on their own political bent. But much legislation is not actually controversial regardless of whether party B, C or D might have taken a slightly different approach to specific aspects.
In election years the tendency towards disagreement is amplified, and party’s and MPs are much more likely to take the term ‘opposition’ as an order rather than a description. Some might just get downright ornery.
Given that caveat the legislation described thus far in this article was not particularly controversial.
The next bill though is. The Land Transport Management (Regulation of Public Transport) Amendment Bill rewrites the underlying principles for local government's governance of public transport.
It replaces a framework instituted by a National-led government called the Public Transport Operating Model (PTOM), with a new set of rules called the Sustainable Public Transport Framework (SPTF). Yay, acronyms.
SPTF is a quite different approach but the aspect opposition MPs seemed most opposed to was that the new rules will allow councils to decide to run a public transport operation themselves (rather than having to run a tender process and have an external company run it for them). The SPTF appears to give councils a lot more freedom to determine how and by whom things are run. They would even be able to decide to have on-demand options.
As a result the the debate was loud and tetchy. But one particular cross-party exchange in the debate stood out. First, from National MP Matt Doocey, in full flight and aghast at the change:
“But they can't help themselves, because for this Government, it is always ideological. It is always ideology that's driving them.”
To which Green MP Chloe Swarbrick responded a little later in an unusually frank and meta approach for parliament.
“We are all ideological. That's the point. We all have ideologies and values that underpin the policies that we put forward because everything that we do in this place is about trade-offs, and about whose side we stand on and about the kinds of outcomes that we want for society. They're the same things that we'll take to the hustings through to October. So, again, all political parties, all politicians, are ideological.”
A percentage on visual art
The penultimate bill is the Resale Rights for Visual Artists Bill. It is an attempt to even out the lack of opportunity that visual artists get to capitalise on a growing reputation (unlike musicians or writers who retain rights and gain from increased sales or plays of their back catalogue).
This bill is based on something done a lot overseas and something required by our newly agreed Free Trade Agreements with the UK and EU. Everyone but ACT was in support. Carmel Sepuloni is the minister in charge and outlined the idea:
“The Bill will establish an artist resale royalty scheme in New Zealand, providing eligible visual artists with a resale right to benefit from their work. In contrast to copyright, the resale right is unable to be waived or transferred away from the artist while they are living, and so the right remains with the artist for their whole life. The resale right means a 5 percent royalty payment will be collected each time an artist's eligible work is resold. Beyond the monetary acknowledgment of the royalty payment.”
And end to the parent tax
The final bill newly proposed by the Government for consideration is a change to the way that child support payments are treated if they are for the benefit of someone who happens to be on a sole-parent benefit. The result will be increased cash for those parents.
The Child Support (Pass On) Acts Amendment Bill is a policy change that has apparently been waiting to happen for 87 years! So it is not overturning the idea of anyone recently. It passed a first reading on a voice vote.
So those were the first readings – it’s always worth knowing what bills are plodding up the road in case you feel inclined to offer some comment, expertise or even experience to help a select committee polish them up into something useful.