Thursday, February 19, 2009

Another misuse of urgency

Before the holidays, the government abused urgency to ram through controversial legislation without the benefit of a select committee hearing. Today, they did something worse: calling for urgency for government business on a member's day - meaning that members were not given a chance to conduct their business. This displays utter contempt for the house, for their fellow MPs, and for the role of Parliament as a legislature. And it is virtually unprecedented. I've spent the last hour trawling Hansard all the way back to 1987 looking for a previous example of this sort of abuse. And it simply hasn't happened. Urgency has only been moved on a member's day on three previous occasions. And all differ significantly from the current abuse:

  • On 25 July 2001 Labour moved urgency on a Member's Day for the committee stages of the Bay of Plenty Regional Council (Maori Constituency Empowering) Bill and Electricity Industry Bill. The first of these was a local bill which was already top of the order paper and which had already eaten the previous member's day; the government seems to have been keen to clear it out of the way so MPs could conduct some of their own business. As for the second, they were in the middle of an electricity crisis. The House sat until Thursday night, and from the Hansard record it does not look as if the urgency interfered significantly with member's time (instead being used to make everyone start early the next day). IMHO it should still have been moved at 21:59, just before the House rose.
  • In June and September 1998, the Shipley government moved urgency on a member's day twice. On both occasions it was after a significant amount of member's business had been conducted.
So, we have one case of using urgency to push on with local business, and two of the government giving member's a fair shake first before moving it late in the evening. But on no previous occasion has a government simply usurped a member's day by moving urgency for government business. Eaten Wednesday, so member's day is delayed a week, yes - but take it over wholesale, no.

This is a gross abuse of the government's majority, and a clear sign of an arrogant, authoritarian government which sees Parliament simply as a rubber stamp. Again its worth pointing out that in 2005 the then-opposition made the House ungovernable after the government collapsed quorum during a member's day. The present opposition should take a similarly strong line.