Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Some facts on urgency

Over on Kiwiblog, DPF is spinning frantically, trying to defend the government's indefensible and undemocratic use of urgency. His key argument boils down to "Labour did it too", and he makes much of Labour's use of urgency in its first term, trying to equate this with National's abuses. Having just spent the afternoon trawling Hansard, I think its time for some facts.

Firstly, DPF is correct on the numbers: Labour used urgency 22 times in its first term. But this disguises very real differences in how it was used. National, you may recall, hit the ground running, immediately using urgency to ram through key election promises, many of them without the scrutiny of a select committee. Since then, it has regularly called urgency to introduce major legislation without scrutiny and then advance it without public debate. It's a classic example of the Roger Douglas blitzkrieg principles: moving quickly to pre-empt opposition and present the public with a legislative fait accompli.

Labour's pattern was very different. They did not "hit the ground running" and use urgency to ram through their promises. Instead, these were advanced through the normal Parliamentary process. Only four times was urgency used to advance policy (twice for the ERA, once for income-related rents, and once for ACC renationalisation) - and each time it was to speed the committee stage. Urgency was not used to introduce "policy bills" - things the government wanted to do - at the last minute without debate as National has done.

(In both cases I am ignoring the "normal" uses of urgency, for the Budget, urgent "patch-up" legislation (e.g. in response to drafting errors or court cases), and pre-holiday rush. Those are perfectly legitimate uses of urgency; it is when governments go beyond that and use urgency to push their agenda that democracy suffers).

Another measure of abuse of urgency is the number and type of bills passed through urgency without select committee hearings. So far, in less than a year, National has passed the following without select committee scrutiny (thanks to Phil Lyth for excavating this list):

  • Crown Retail Deposit Guarantee Scheme Bill
  • Education (National Standards) Amendment Bill
  • Electoral Amendment Bill
  • Electricity (Renewable Preference) Repeal Bill
  • Employment Relations Amendment Bill
  • Energy (Fuels, Levies, and References) Biofuel Obligation Repeal Bill
  • Local Government (Tamaki Makaurau Reorganisation) Bill
  • Parole (Extended Supervision Orders) Amendment Bill
  • Sentencing (Offences Against Children) Amendment Bill

From grepping Hansard, Labour in its entire first term passed just three:

  • Local Government (Prohibition of Liquor in Public Places) Amendment Bill
  • Local Government (Rodney District Council) Amendment Bill
  • Tariff (Zero Duty Removal) Amendment Bill

(In both cases I have excluded budget bills to do with taxes etc as these do not normally go to select committee. Labour's tariff bill arguably falls into that category, but I'll be charitable to National here and leave it in).

There's an obvious difference between the two lists (apart from one being much smaller than the other): National's list deals with core policy. Labour's is a pair of urgent patches (the local government and tariff bills) and one knee-jerk reaction.

These are very different patterns of use of urgency, and DPF is being duplicitous to equate the two. But then, that is what they pay him for, isn't it?