3 Sep 2023

New Parliament, new rules

From The House , 4:00 pm on 3 September 2023

The final thing Parliament did before it adjourned for the election was agree some alterations to Parliament’s rules that will apply to the next Parliament. These are changes that the parties and the clerks have been working on since last year. 

They even asked for ideas from the public, and while many suggestions don’t come to fruition, there are some quite big shifts – especially around how Parliament keeps an eye on governments.

For some insight into the new rules, I sat down with David Wilson, Clerk of The House of Representatives, (who runs Parliament’s Secretariat), and Gabor Hellyer, Principal Committee Clerk, (who administered the special committee that sweated over the new rules).

The Clerk of the House of Representatives, David Wilson, gives evidence to Parliament's Standing Orders Committee about ideas for the 2023 Review of Standing Orders.

The Clerk of the House, David Wilson makes his submission to the Standing Orders Committee. Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

A regular rejig 

New Zealand’s Parliament considers which of its rules (Standing Orders) could be improved at the end of each three-year term of Parliament. Any changes it agrees apply to the following parliament. David Wilson says that while New Zealand is not the only Parliament that changes its rules, we do it more regularly than many.

“Some do it only when there's a crisis or some obvious problem that needs fixing. Ours is kind of baked into our cycle and it always happens. And it doesn't necessarily indicate anything's wrong, but it is really part of the culture now that they will always be reviewed, and I guess a feeling that can always be improved.”

Parliament even asks the public for feedback on its rules. To get some first-hand experience on submitting to a select committee, I made a submission to the standing orders committee. It was surprisingly easy, unexpectedly enjoyable, and actually resulted in some change. 

My suggestions were small fry though. Most ideas come from folk with a much better finger on the pulse. The most substantial list of proposed improvements tends to come from the Clerk of the House, whose staff see how things work at the closest quarters (administering the committees, the House and the process of legislation). The various political parties often make submissions, as well as MPs, and Select Committees (which are themselves cross-party groups). Also knowledgeable insiders (e.g. the Parliamentary Counsel’s Office), knowledgeable outsiders (e.g. The Law Commission, law professors or retired MPs like Geoffrey Palmer). And of course John Q. Public.

Journalist Phil Smith, from RNZ's The House makes a submission to Parliament's Standing Orders Committee.

Journalist Phil Smith, from RNZ's The House makes a submission to Parliament's Standing Orders Committee. Photo: VNP / Johnny Blades

The changes

The committee’s report back to the House explains all the changes. Some of them are tidy-ups (e.g. including Matariki in Parliament’s holiday schedule), some are fixes (clearing up what property ownership needs to be reported by MPs), and some try to pre-empt potential problems before they arise. A few more cement temporary rules that were adopted during the current Parliament (things like an adjustment to sitting hours). 

But the bulk of them are attempts to improve the way Parliament performs its core functions: providing a government, passing legislation, and providing scrutiny over that government.

Review and scrutiny 

The focus this time is on improving scrutiny of the Executive. It is a difficult task for Parliament, especially because the Executive is huge while Parliament is actually very small with just a few dozen MPs (and very few resources) focused on that task.

“It is tricky,” says Gabor Hellyer. “We do have quite a small Parliament, and we're unicameral – so we don't have an upper house, we don't have a House of Lords or some equivalent to that. …And so there's a lot of parliamentary work to do, and a limited number of members to do it.”

Question Time is where the public notices scrutiny happening, but that is more theatre than inquiry. Select committees are where the real grunt work can happen, but Select Committees are also tasked with running inquiries into the hundreds of new laws Parliament considers. Scrutinising government performance and spending gets squeezed. 

The Standing Orders Committee Report included tables of just little time the various committees have devoted to reviews (Appendix C). It wasn’t encouraging. So that is where the changes have been focused.

“It's been difficult to find time to do it,” says Wilson. “With a heavy legislative workload it is often the thing that goes by the wayside. So there's always been some [scrutiny], but I think there was a feeling on the Committee that it could have been better; and that was certainly, I think, the sense everybody got from the submissions to the Standing Orders Committee as well.”

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The Select Committee's compiled Annual Reviews make surprisingly fascinating reading with information about hundreds of agencies and programs you may not be aware of.  Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

David Wilson notes that this increased desire for scrutiny is not the result of any recent events or crisis. 

“It's actually been an ongoing issue.” He says scrutiny improved with the reforms in 1985 led by Sir Geoffrey Palmer, but “it really hasn't ever reached the potential that was envisaged at that time.”

The new rules aim to help (or even force) committees to be more systematic in their approach to scrutiny. Each year, each committee will need to plan ahead which agencies they plan to focus on. 

“They'll spend more time examining and hearing from big agencies that are either large in terms of personnel or budget, or perform some crucial function that really deserves the ongoing attention of Parliament. And there's going to be more time for it.”

Making time is a crucial factor. Each year Parliament meets for 30 weeks. Each committee meets on just one morning of those 30 weeks (different committees on different mornings because with few MPs they need to serve on multiple committees).

In future two of those 30 weeks will have no meetings of the House and no legislation. The committees will be able to meet all day and focus entirely on scrutiny. David Wilson outlined how that will work.

“One week, we'll be focused on the Estimates [the budget], …looking at spending plans and performance plans for agencies. And the other will be an Annual Review Week looking at performance over the last financial year. …And they'll really be able to focus on those agencies they've planned to spend time with, and they will spend more time with them.”

And with everyone planning well in advance, the Ministers and State Sector Chief Executives won’t be able to declare themselves unavailable for anything but brief meetings with committees.

The report even outlines how those meetings should run, including not allowing ministers to waste time with lengthy introductions.  

“I think that's something that has been a source of frustration for some time,” says Hellyer. “So there is some pretty strong guidance in there to keep those comments really short to really keep the focus on the opportunity for [MPs] to ask probing questions.”

To free up more time for in-depth hearings, committees will be meeting smaller agencies at other times of the year for briefings.

Parliament's Standing Orders Committee hears evidence from a submitter, the former Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer for the 2023 Review of Standing Orders.

The Standing Orders Committee hearing a submission from Sir Geoffrey Palmer. On the right you can see the clerks who run the committee including David Wilson  (near end), and Gabor Hellyer (far end).  Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

Entrenchment, debates and language

There are many, many other changes to the rules. Here are three:

The new rules also tighten up the process whereby Parliament can entrench laws (making them harder to overturn). For more on that significant change see this article.

Also, in order to free up those two new weeks for scrutiny, the duration of legislative and urgent debates have shifted slightly. Urgent debates and the first readings of government bills will now be shorter.

“The first reading,” says Wilson, “is really the introductory one, where members and parties can set out their position on bills, generally, before they then go to a select committee. They've decided they'll shorten those, make the speeches shorter and make it easier for the whole debate to be shorter [allowing MPs to skip speeches]. In order to create the additional couple of weeks of time, they're going to need to dedicate to scrutiny.”

That isn’t really a huge loss. First reading debates tend to feature a lot of almost identical speeches because MP’s opinions on new bills haven’t developed any complexity yet.

And finally, language. The MPs have decided to update a few of the most antiquated terms they use in the House. Gabor Hellyer outlined the shift. “One of them is quite a technical one about what's called a closure motion, which is how members move for a debate to conclude.”

In future rather than using the rather quaint phrase 'I move that the question be now put', when they want to ask the Speaker to end a debate and call a vote, MPs will ask 'that debate on this question now close'. Yes, these are small things but they are also confusing and can make Parliament seem very foreign to the public. 

And two inquiries for the road

Last week, outgoing MP and longtime Standing Orders Committee member Michael Woodhouse (National) described Parliament’s approach to improvement as “make haste slowly”. Changes are only agreed with strong support from across Parliament so there is always a lot of compromise, and no-one gets everything they want.

On the upside though, it is an on-going process. For example the review highlighted two further inquiries it wants committees to undertake during the next parliament. One into financial reporting:

“We recommend to the House that an inquiry be held into performance reporting and the provision of information by the Government through which it is held accountable by the House. This proposed inquiry follows from concerns raised in recent reports to the House by the Auditor-General and the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment about performance reporting and accountability.”

And a second one into how international treaties are handled.

“The international treaty examination process has been in place for 25 years, and has largely remained unchanged during that time. In our view, it is time for a review of how the procedure is working. An inquiry by the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee into international treaty processes, including both how treaties are made and the parliamentary procedure for examining them, would be the best parliamentary mechanism for such a review.”

There is always something else to look into. And that is before a new parliament discovers or creates entirely new issues that need to be fixed or improved on.

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