1 Sep 2023

The rule untravelled: changes MPs wanted but didn’t get

From The House , 5:55 pm on 1 September 2023

Before Parliament adjourned for the election, MPs' final order of business was agreeing to rule changes for the next Parliament. The new rules have been developed over the last year by a committee of senior MPs from every party.

Some of those MPs spoke about the changes, and interestingly about what changes they did not achieve. On Sunday here at The House we will go through the new rules with the Clerk of The House David Wilson and Principal Committee Clerk Gabor Hellyer, but for now let’s focus on how MPs imagine Parliament could be.

Possibly most honest were the two departing MPs from the rules committee, Jan Logie (Green) and Michael Woodhouse (National).

National Party MP Michael Woodhouse speaks during debate on the report of the Standing Orders Committee, 31 August 2023, his final speech in Parliament.

National Party MP Michael Woodhouse speaks during debate on the report of the Standing Orders Committee, 31 August 2023, his final speech in Parliament. Photo: Johnny Blades

Michael Woodhouse - National 

Michael Woodhouse referred to himself as one of Parliament’s “rules guys”, those MPs who take a particular interest in how it works, and how it should and could work. He’s taken part in three rules Standing Orders Reviews (rules rewrites), and has come to acknowledge that change does not happen fast. Instead, the approach is “make haste slowly”. 

He particularly acknowledged the people who always do the lions share of the effort – the clerks. “I think David Wilson and his team, David Bagnall and Gabor Hellyer particularly, have done a gargantuan job of distilling the very, very good submissions that we had, listening carefully to the arguments on both sides of any change, and then coming up with things that I think in their hearts they would agree could've been so much better.”

The clerks’ team always make a hefty submission themselves to what needs can change, and what needs to. And as always, no-one got everything they desired.

Change is tricky, partly because no party wants to make life too hard for themselves. Woodhouse observed that who might be the next government was never clear during the process, which makes for an unusual dynamic.

“I've been party to conversations not just with my own colleagues but with others where the conversation will go something like this: ‘Well, that's great when you're in opposition, but once you get to government you wouldn't like that Standing Order.’ I thought, with a 50/50 chance when we started this that either side of the House could lead government, we may have made more progress than we actually have.

“I'm a little disappointed that we haven't, but that is not due in any way, I think, to the efforts of the Standing Orders Committee, who I agree with Mr McAnulty have done a very good and collaborative job; the amazing work of the clerks; and I want to also acknowledge my own researcher, Carlos Webster, who helped me distill a number of those complex issues down.”


“I just want to touch on two really important things that I think we could have done much more on. The first one is the scrutiny of the executive. We all agree — and I have Mr Hipkins' words ringing in my ears, who was a member of this committee before his elevation to the Prime Minister role — that the scrutiny of the executive, particularly in Estimates reviews, is very poor, and I'm not sure we've made as sufficient an improvement in this Standing Orders review and recommendations as we could.

“My retort to that, though, is that Opposition members particularly become quite frustrated by the lack of meaningful inquiry and answer in a very, very short period of time. One of the hopes that I had was that we would extend the time for executive review, scrutiny of the executive, through Estimates and annual reviews, and we weren't able to do that. I remain hopeful that that can happen in the future.”

Commentary: The new rules should actually greatly increase the capacity of committees to focus on scrutiny, including two weeks of normal debate canceled in order to do nothing but grill ministers. Woodhouse is also right that it could be much better again. However adding real extra capacity to review the executive would probably require both more MPs in Parliament and a better resourced Parliament. A clever idea of twinned committees (a government MP chairing for Legislation and an opposition MP chairing for scrutiny), as some MPs suggested having seen it work in the Australian Senate) would also have given teeth, but it wasn’t agreed.

Family friendly Hours

“The second is in the hours of this place, where I had hoped that we would get to fewer weeks and longer weeks, because that's family friendlier, I think, for those who travel from out of Wellington to be here, and also that the carbon footprint would be reduced. We have made some changes at the edges and they will work, but I think we can, and I think future Standing Orders Committees should, continue to review that, particularly given the trend that we've seen on the use of extended hours…

“We had an opportunity in this review to have fewer weeks but more hours in a year so that the government could get through its legislative programme in a more orderly fashion, and we haven't quite got to that, but, nevertheless, there are improvements in this.”

Commentary: Green MP Jan Logie also touched on this point (see below). MPs, especially regional MPs do have brutal jobs that are very unfriendly to family life. It’s rare for an MP to retire without their final speech apologising to family for missed birthdays and well, missed life. Parliament does need to keep working to ameliorate the travel and long-hour demands of the job. 

Green Party MP Jan Logie speaks during debate on the report of the Standing Orders Committee, 31 August 2023, her last speech in Parliament.

Green Party MP Jan Logie speaks during debate on the report of the Standing Orders Committee, 31 August 2023, her last speech in Parliament. Photo: Johnny Blades

Jan Logie - Green Party

Jan Logie is retiring as an MP, which gave her a free rein to dream. 

“The rules of Parliament— it sounds like it's something abstract and in-house that's not relevant to the general public. But, actually, how we make laws, how we hold and test the effectiveness of government, and how we enable the community to participate in our processes are central to a thriving democracy. We got to have weeks and weeks of very long —enjoyable, actually— conversations about how we could make things better for the public and deliver what I think we all come into this place wanting to do and participate in.”

The number of MPs

“I'm going to start off by also acknowledging the submitters, and talking to one of the points—several of the points that were raised that were not progressed through the process. One of them was not within the ambit of the committee, and that was that we should be increasing the number of parliamentarians, which came from Sir Geoffrey Palmer and another submitter. I want to start with that point because a lot of the discussion we had about increasing scrutiny was in an acknowledgement that we're not being very effective in doing that at the moment.

“Sir Geoffrey's point was that, actually, outside of the 62 Labour Party members of Parliament and the two Green Party ministers, we're only left with 56 MPs who have a distance from that legislation to really drive scrutiny. What we see in the behaviour mostly of government members — and I've been here and seen both sides of government — is that it's a different level of engagement from government backbenchers in that process of scrutiny. So we're only left with 56 people and 261, I think, pieces of legislation that came through this House in this term, and the interrogation of the many, many, many agencies and all of the Budget.

“People are stretched too thin to be able to do it effectively. That's an unpopular concept —I get it— but I also, as I leave, stand up here and say, actually, if we treasure our democracy and we want to make sure that we are doing the best possible job for the people of this country, we need to ensure that people have the capacity to be able to do that job effectively. I agree with Sir Geoffrey Palmer that we need to look at the numbers of members of Parliament as a core part of that discussion. We are doing what we can around the edges through these discussions if we're not looking at that.”

Commentary: More MPs would solve many of Parliament’s difficulties, including around effective oversight of government, the enormous workloads, the terrible hours, etc. 

Work-life Balance

“It also goes to the point from a rare cross-party proposal that came in from the Hon Jacqui Dean and the Hon Jenny Salesa looking for more family-friendly hours in this Parliament in recognition that there is a problem around work-life balance for many people here, and that, actually, the less we are able to be connected to our outside lives and our families, the more detached we are, and that that actually has an impact on the quality of our work in this place as well. 

“We were not able to accommodate those because, actually, there is too much work to do; there was an absolute acknowledgment around that table that we do not have the capacity to be here less, and people need to be in their communities. That was a trade-off around people wanting to be here for longer periods of time but fewer weeks; for those who had family back at home, that was too much, so that was seen as not being family friendly. When we don't have enough people to be doing the work and we're pressuring the work, things just don't actually add up, and I believe that we do need to look at that.”

Other Ideas… and the Money Problem

“Other points that were raised about people wanting to be broadcasting and hosting select committee on Parliament TV; for there to be bilingual proceedings and more New Zealand Sign Language interpretation; for there to be a contestable fund to support NGOs to be able to put in really considered submissions on bills where they don't have the resourcing at the moment to be able to do that; for there to be more use of citizens assemblies or digital engagement through the select committee process; to be able to release written submissions more quickly; and to have independent advisers to select committees as a normal part of process, recognising that departmental advisers are often very much invested in the legislation and are not able to have the intellectual or emotional distance to provide independent advice to the committees.

“But all of those things are not in our report because all of those things would require money, and, actually, this Parliament is also at a point where we are seeing in several services around the place that the money is so stretched. We're not at a point to even be able to consider how we improve the democracy, the functioning of the democracy, and the people's ability to engage when it costs money.

“We are at a point where it is generally acknowledged, and a huge amount of evidence backing it up, that democracy around the world is almost on a point of crisis. We are seeing democracies undermined all over the place. We are seeing disinformation increase in our own communities at a higher rate than even in the US. In this moment in time, it is the Green Party's view that we need to be actively doing more to resource our Parliament and strengthen our democracy. It is not enough to keep working around the edges.”

Commentary: Skimping on effective democracy and government scrutiny is just plain dumb.

ACT MP Brooke van Velden speaks on Parliament's Standing Orders Committee as they consider the 2023 Review of Standing Orders.

ACT MP Brooke van Velden speaks on Parliament's Standing Orders Committee as they consider the 2023 Review of Standing Orders. Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

Brooke van Velden (ACT)

‘Leader’ of the Opposition

“There were a few areas that ACT would have liked to see changes, but we didn't have consensus of the full committee. One was the removal of the title "Leader of the Opposition." I think this title is outdated, and I know an increasing number of people and members of the public have believed that David Seymour is the Leader of the Opposition. I don't believe it is actually right that under MMP, where we have multiple parties in Opposition, there is an official ‘Leader of the Opposition’, because people vote for different leaders of different political parties, and they see those political parties as quite separate.”

Commentary: This suggestion was discussed in the committee’s report. One thing that makes changing it difficult is that the position is referred to and used in various rules and legislation. 

Sitting weeks

“We'd also have been in favour of reducing the number of sitting weeks and increasing the amount of hours that we have per sitting week so that we can reduce our emissions—as a party and as a Parliament. We'd also like to have seen the select committees be led by opposition, to increase the scrutiny function of laws as they are going through select committee, because the Standing Orders Committee did note that scrutiny is not always optimal when we have scrutiny of government legislation.”

Commentary: During the review, National’s Michael Woodhouse made a strong argument against committee’s being opposition-dominated for legislation. The problem he saw was that legislation would routinely return to the House so different from he government’s intention that it would then need to be returned to it’s earlier First Reading state in amendments at the Committee of the Whole stage. But that would mean it could miss receiving the necessary improvements and fixes that typically are achieved in committee. Instead the committee process would become more political and less useful. This problem is why (see above) it was suggested that the power balance in committees should shift depending on what business committees were undertaking.