Another reason to lose faith in democracy

10:10 pm on 15 February 2019

By Ryan Jones

Opinion - At a time when many people are losing faith in the democratic process around the world, playing games with our democracy is the last thing New Zealand needs.

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Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

How can people have trust in their representatives when they are walking off the job to make a political point instead of hearing from those who had come from around the country to kōrero with them. This kind of politics breeds disillusionment and disengagement.

On the second day of parliament for the year, democracy was stopped in its tracks by a group of rebellious members of parliament.

The Finance and Expenditure Committee, arguably Parliament's most powerful select committee (the group of MPs responsible for overseeing the public purse) was adjourned for the day due to a failure to have a sufficient number of members present for the meeting to commence.

Several government MPs were not present at the beginning of the meeting, the committee still had enough members to proceed, until the opposition decided to leave the room.

The opposition's standing orders guru David Carter (former speaker of the house) knew that if a quorum could not be met within 10 minutes of the meeting's beginning, it would collapse.

On one hand, it is a matter of etiquette. The government should have had its members present (according to the committee chairman Michael Wood, they had their members present within 10 minutes and 30 seconds). On the other hand, it is a matter of democratic responsibility; the meeting could have proceeded if opposition MPs had remained.

The parliamentary process is long and complicated, however select committees are the place where anyone can come to parliament to express their views. They are at the heart of the democratic process where people get the chance to shape the laws of the land.

These committees are unique for two reasons: Firstly, they are more often than not bipartisan; Secondly, MPs get to hear a variety of views from outside the parliamentary silo.

As community board member, I know the benefits of hearing from submitters all too well. We have submitters compile lengthy and detailed submissions and applications to our board before they speak at the beginning of our meeting.

While an element of politics is always present in such a forum, it is typically put aside in the interests of getting things done. If members of a community board were to behave in the same way, it is fair to predict that those members would be ostracised by their community. This kind of behaviour in other workplace would be totally unacceptable.

At the very least David Carter and his opposition colleagues on the Finance and Expenditure Committee owe the submitters an apology for wasting the time of the 15 submitters who took hours, if not days, to prepare for this meeting. Whether or not this is the new approach to holding the government to account is yet to be seen. I hope not.

* Ryan Jones is a master of politics' student at the University of Otago. He is also the youngest elected representative in New Zealand and a member of the West Harbour Community Board and the New Zealand Community Board Executive Committee.