All the cool kids are posting their submissions to the triennial review of Standing Orders, so here's mine. If it seems a little rushed, its because it was - I wrote it in an hour, and submitted it literally on the dot of midnight. Sadly, this did not leave enough time to do footnotes, but it looks like Graeme Edgeler has more than made up their absence in his submission.
- I am a private citizen with an interest in Parliamentary procedure.
- My submission covers the following areas of the Standing Orders:
a) Election of the Speaker
b) Urgency and Question Time
c) Government's Financial Veto and Royal Prerogatives of the Crown
d) Opening prayer
- I do not wish to appear before the Committee.
Election of the Speaker
- At present, the Speaker is elected by a personal vote, or a series of roll call votes if there are more than two nominees. These votes are whipped, and always won by the government nominee. This leads to the Speaker being seen as a servant of the government rather than of the House. The Speaker would have more credibility in their role if they were elected in a free vote. The only way to ensure that the votes of MPs are cast freely (as opposed to at the behest of parties) is by secret ballot.
- The principle of MPs being accountable to voters would normally mean that all votes must be open, so MPs can be held to account at the ballot box if necessary. However, in this case, transparency undermines both the credibility and independence of the Speaker. A secret ballot would allow them to seek and receive the mandate of the House, and remove any suggestion that the position is handed out by grace and favour of the government.
- Recommendation: That the Speaker be elected by secret ballot. In the case of multiple nominees, either preferential voting or a series of ballots can be used.
Urgency and Question Time
- The new rules for extended sittings (SO 54) have worked well to limit the abuse of urgency, and I support their retention.
- One problem which remains around Urgency is its potential use to limit Question Time. It is usual where Urgency will last into the next sitting day for the government to seek leave for there to be Question Time as normal. However, this is not always done, and more importantly, need not be done.
- Question Time is an essential mechanism for holding the government to account on a day to day basis, and a vital indicator of democratic legitimacy. It should not depend in any way on the grace and favour of the government, especially when the government is using a controversial mechanism such as Urgency, perhaps to advance controversial legislation without proper democratic scrutiny.
- Recommendation: That Question Time not be suspended by Urgency.
Government's Financial Veto and Royal Prerogatives of the Crown
- Standing Orders 321 - 326 permit the government to veto legislation which "would have more than a minor impact on the Government’s fiscal aggregates if it became law". This power is a relic of archaic British constitutional practices, in which Parliament was the financial rubber stamp of the monarch, used to fund his wars. The British and New Zealand Parliaments have both evolved since that era, we removed statutory restrictions on Parliament appropriating money independently of the Government in 2005. However the Standing Order has persisted.
- This does not fit well with modern constitutional practice. Since MMP, it is Parliament which rules. And if Parliament appropriates money for something, the executive should execute its will. They should not be able to veto a vote which they have lost, like a King who does not want to spend money on non-frivolities.
- Standing order 309, allowing a veto over bills "affecting the rights or prerogatives of the Crown" (which in practice means using Orders in Council as a regulatory mechanism) raises similar constitutional issues. And again, it is Parliament which is sovereign. If it legislates, the Crown should obey. A legitimate, democraticly elected Parliament should not need to seek the permission of the representative of an unelected foreigner in order to legislate on any matter it sees fit.
- Recommendation: Both the Government Financial Veto and Standing Order 309 should be removed.
New Zealand Bill of Rights Act
- This term we have seen controversial provisions with potentially significant human rights implications introduced during the Committee Stage of a bill. Because of their timing, these provisions have not received the usual scrutiny under the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act, and the Attorney-General would not be required to inform the House, whether by statute or Standing orders, of any inconsistency.
- This is inconsistent with the spirit of the BORA, and undermines its protection of human rights. If the practice is permitted to continue, it may also undermine support for Parliamentary Sovereignty over human rights. If Parliament is to be taken seriously as a guardian of our human rights, it must close this loophole.
- Recommendation: Standing order 262 should be amended to require the Attorney-General to report on any apparent inconsistency which arises at the latter stages of the bill.
- Standing Order 60 requires the Speaker to open each sitting by reading a prayer to the House. The form of the prayer is explicitly Christian (and arguably explicitly Anglican), calling upon the Christians’ god to guide MPs to ensure “the maintenance of true religion” [sic] and “the glory of thy holy name”.
- This has no place in the Parliament of a secular, democratic nation which respects the freedom of religion. As noted in many cases in the United States, public official prayer of this nature gives the stamp of state authority to the particular religion, and may be seen as coercive. It is also exclusionary, sending a message that those who do not belong to the particular religion do not belong to the community. At the last census, only 55.6 percent of New Zealanders identified as Christian (and only 14.8% Anglican). The other 44.4 percent of us did not - and that number is likely to increase when the next census results are released in December. Parliament – “our House” – is basically telling half of us every sitting day that we are not real New Zealanders.
- I am not challenging the right of individual MPs to manifest their religious beliefs. That is protected by the Bill of Rights Act. But religious MPs should not be allowed to use Parliament to lend the weight of the state to their chosen religion, or to send an exclusionary message to those who do not share their beliefs. We prohibit formal prayer in primary schools for exactly those reasons.3 We can do no less in our Parliament.
- Recommendation: Standing Order 60 should be amended by omitting the words “the Speaker reads a prayer to the House and”.