Monday, August 31, 2009

Some interesting rulings on select committees

Currently, the report of the Emissions Trading Review Committee is being suppressed by the government to enable its negotiations. On Thursday, Labour attempted to get the Speaker to intervene to force the release of the report. He declined, claiming that it was not a matter of the Order of the House. However, going through past Speaker's Rulings shows that he was simply wrong. Here's Speaker Statham, in 1935 (SR 88/3):

As soon as the chairperson of a committee is directed to make a report to the House it should be made with the least possible delay. If there is delay, the only course open to the House is to make an order calling upon the chairperson to present the report. The report should be presented to the House with all possible dispatch, unless there is some special reason for withholding it.
(Emphasis added).

So, the Speaker has jurisdiction, and the House can intervene to force publication. So, what counts as "all possible dispatch"? Here's Speaker Tapsell, in 1995 (SR 88/6):

A chairperson of a select committee must report to the House within a reasonable time of being directed to do so. This does not mean at once, or even at the first opportunity. Indeed, it is desirable to hold back a report for a few days so that the necessary preparations can be made to reprint the bill. A delay of about one week in reporting to the House is quite acceptable.
That seems to let the Committee off the hook - except that it was in 1995, when computers and software were nowhere near as advanced as they were today. With modern technology, committees should be reporting sooner, not later.

Finally, can the Committee chair (Peter Dunne) change the report to exclude the Maori Party's minority report? Here's Speaker Statham in 1934 (SR 89/1):

The chairperson of a select committee may not report to the House in any way other than that in which the chairperson is directed by the committee. If doubts arise as to what the chairperson was directed to report, the report should be deferred for the committee to meet again and clarify the position.
The committee agreed to publish minority reports submitted before a certain deadline. The Maori Party submitted their report before the deadline. It must therefore be published.

Unfortunately, the House is in recess, so there is no way of doing anything about this. But it seems clear that the Speaker should have ordered the publication of the report, and if the chairman refuses, he should be held in contempt.

Update: A reader has run some numbers on recent committee reports. Nowdays, almost all present their report on the first or second working day following the meeting at which it is agreed. So, Dunne is well outside the bounds of normal practice and acceptability in withholding this report.