Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Reported back

The Standing Orders Committee has reported back [PDF] on its triennial review of Standing Orders. Its recommendations include some fairly significant changes - and a lot of "more of the same".

There are four big changes. On urgency, the Committee is recommending allowing extended sittings. This would basically extend the hours of the House, without any changes in internal procedure or allowing the government to introduce bills out of the blue. Extended sittings would be set by the Business Committee (requiring "near unaniminity"), rather than a vote in the House. This should remove one of the drivers of urgency, which is good - but the core problem remains.

Secondly, BORA scrutiny is being tightened, with a new requirement for the Attorney-General to report on BORA implications of substantive amendments. Human rights concerns will also be given prominence in explanatory notes, and in select committee reports. Its a good first step, but given some of the abuses we've seen, I don't think its really enough for Parliament to claim in good faith that it is properly discharging its obligations under the Act.

Thirdly, Parliament will be publishing all Member's Bills put in the ballot. Score one for transparency.

Finally, there's a recommendation to tighten up on the affirmation of office, to prevent the common practice now of stating allegiance to the Treaty of Waitangi and/or the people of New Zealand before giving the correct legal form. This is predicated on a claim that

The Speaker or the Clerk in administering the oath or affirmation can permit no form of words other than those set out under the Oaths and Declarations Act 1957
Which is true as far as the affirmation itself goes. But no-one is trying to pretend that those preliminary statements are the affirmation or have any legal effect, and everyone goes on to jump through the legal hoop and give their affirmation "properly". And by being anal about not being able to say anything else other than the affirmation when called up, Lockwood Smith is making a rod for his own back. To point out the obvious, this matters significantly to people. And there are far more disruptive ways that MPs can signify their opposition to our current constitutional arrangements than the current way of making a quick statement before being sworn in. Smith is inviting MPs to use those methods, and in the process, to turn the next state opening of Parliament into a nationally televised farce. And I hope they do exactly that - because by doing so they will be serving both our democracy and the people they represent.

On the "no change" front, the Committee's other response to the systematic abuse of urgency was to require the Minister moving it to "inform the House with some particularity of the circumstances that warrant the claim for urgency". That's not really any different from the current requirement to inform the House why the motion is being moved, which in the hands of Gerry Brownlee is little more than a bad joke.

There's no change on the discriminatory prayer, of course. Parliament will continue to open each day by affirming its allegiance to an imaginary entity, in the process excluding the majority of New Zealanders who no longer believe in such a thing.

Finally, they consider the perennial question of the OIA. But while mouthing some sentiments about transparency and openness, they refuse to allow it. They make some comments about a Standing Orders-based regime for Parliamentary transparency, but make no recommendation. And then they wonder why the public thinks they're scum. Again, MPs earn their reputation - and they've earned a little more of it today.