Friday, November 21, 2008

A misuse of urgency

And while we're on the topic of the government planning to legislate under urgency to toughen bail laws before Christmas, I should point out that I cannot remember the last time a government has used urgency to ram through this sort of policy decision in all stages with no select committee consideration. In the past two terms, at least, urgency has been rare, and typically given for three reasons: to gain extra sitting hours to pass ordinary legislation (as seen in the case of the ETS, or the regular pre-adjournment urgency motions allowing the government to clear the order paper before a break); to pass significant budget changes (as in the passage of Working For Families, KiwiSaver, or Labour's tax cuts earlier in the year; these are primarily financial bills, and so a select committee seems less important); or to pass urgent patch-up legislation (as in the case of the Appropriation (Parliamentary Expenditure Validation) Bill and Electoral (Vacancies) Amendment Bill, and less controversially, bills relating to biosecurity and immigration where court cases had demanded (in the government's eyes at least) an urgent clarification). Only in the latter two cases were bills introduced and passed in a single sitting; for "normal" urgency, bills were sent to select committee, or passed through their remaining stages after being scrutinised by one. Non-financial policy bills were never passed without a select committee phase and consequent public scrutiny.

In fact, you need to go back a decade, all the way to 1998, to last find a time where actual policy bills were being passed under urgency without select committee scrutiny (and then primarily because the National-led government of the time was deliberately requiring them to come into force very quickly). Even then, the policy was minor. You need to go back even further, to the early 90's, or even the Douglas Blitzkrieg of the 80's, to find significant policy being passed in this way.

Restricting bail is a significant policy with serious human rights implications. It deserves full select committee scrutiny. Ramming it through without that is a gross misuse of urgency - and something National would have been screaming about when in opposition. But its amazing how they change their position after merely changing where they sit in the house. What's bad for the goose, apparently, is not bad for the gander.

At this stage, I should point out that National's agreements with both ACT and United Future require the smaller parties to support "procedural motions" such as urgency. So we could be in for a very different style of Parliament - and one which gives full rein to National's authoritarian, dictatorial, anti-democratic instincts.