Thursday, June 23, 2011

Making Parliament more democratic

Via DPF, I learn that the Human Rights Commission has published a discussion paper on Strengthening Parliamentary Democracy [PDF] as part of its submission on the triennial review of Standing orders. The key recommendations are:

  1. A minimum 12 week period for submissions to select committees
  2. Establishing a dedicated Human Rights Select Committee
  3. All international reports and recommendations on human rights be tabled in Parliament and referred to this select committee
  4. Standing Orders to forbid major legislative provisions by way of Supplementary Order Paper
  5. Amend Standing Order 246 to make it a right for dissenting members to publish a minority report
Like DPF, I think these are all good ideas, though I can see exceptions to (1) for the (very few) occasions when real urgency is justified, and (4) will be difficult owing to disagreement over what constitutes a "major change" (still, establishing a culture that refers significant changes back to select committee for proper consideration is highly desirable). Unfortunately, the HRC is up against the natural desire of politicians to behave undemocratically to advance themselves politically - to ram bills through under urgency, or spring major and controversial changes by surprise via SOP in order to limit debate and political damage. Our democracy isn't just a matter of good rules - though they help enormously - but of what we let our politicians get away with. And fundamentally, if we want a better democracy, we need to vote for it, by turfing out those who consistently abuse it (I'm thinking of you, Gerry Brownlee and Steven Joyce), and making it clear to the survivors that they will face the same fate if they step out of line.

DPF also suggests extending the Attorney-General's responsibility under the Bill of Rights Act to report on inconsistent bills to apply at all stages of Parliamentary debate (so human rights violations cannot be introduced without review in later legislative stages). I support this measure. As for the HRC, while its a bit beyond the scope of a review of Standing Orders, they suggest broadening the responsibility, so that the Attorney-General must report on any prima facie inconsistency, so that their judgement on whether it is justified or not can be properly scrutinised and debated. This wouldn't require any legislative change - the law requires them to report on any provision that "appears to be inconsistent", which could easily be interpreted to require reporting on justified limitations - and it would not violate legal privilege. The government already publishes this information; this would simply ensure that MPs have it in time to inform their debate.