Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Guest column: The usual channels

By Phil Lyth

At Parliament, some of the most important roles are filled by the MPs who preside in the debating chamber and who chair select committees. These roles are not for the hot-headed, and require people who are sticklers for proper process, and who can accept responsibility if they make a mistake. Today, we saw that National's Tau Henare, chairing the Maori Affairs Select Committee made not one, but five mistakes this week before, during, and after the committee meeting today. Followers were alerted when he petulantly tweeted:

Greens deny leave to progress 5 treaty Settlement bills from Maori Affairs select committee.
followed by several more tweets including "No Metiria, and I wont give leave for anything the Greens want."

So what happened? What went wrong?

The chair of a select committee has the responsibility for setting the agenda, and instructing the committee clerk to circulate the notice of meeting. At a meeting, the committee can only conduct the business set out on the notice, unless leave is given. Not all business before a committee is dealt with at every meeting. It is a long-established principle that notice has to be given the day before, including notice of any deliberation. This allows all members of a committee to prepare for the meeting.

The first mistake, on Monday, was to have a notice of meeting circulated that said the five Treaty Settlement bills would be "considered" (discussed), when it should have said "deliberated" (decided, by voting if necessary). At least one MP queried that. Tau could have fixed things by circulating an updated or amended notice of meeting on Tuesday. The second mistake was to fail to do that.

But remember, the committee can do things by leave? (That is, everyone agreeing - it only takes one objection to block leave.) You'll hear whips in Parliament sometimes talk about things which "have been discussed through the usual channels". They mean that there has been discussion beforehand, in the lobby or by phone, to get agreement where possible. And there are times when agreement is not found, so leave is not sought. Sometimes leave is sought without going through the usual channels, when an MP wants to make a point knowing that leave will be denied.

Tau's third mistake was to fail to talk to members of the committee before the meeting to see if leave would be forthcoming to deliberate on the bills this morning. His fourth was to charge ahead at the meeting, seeking leave as if it was his by right. He was brought up short when Metiria Turei rightly decided he needed an education, and denied leave. (After the event and in response to Tau's one of subsequent tweets, she replied:

next time Mr Chair, do your job and tell me first. Don't abuse process and complain later when you are snapped.
And Tau's fifth mistake was to attempt to blame another MP, in this case Metiria Turei, for his shortcomings as chairperson.

Is this a big deal? In some ways no. It won't stop Maori Affairs reporting the bills, nor will it delay eventual passage of the five bills. But it is an object lesson in how a chairperson should not conduct themselves. Lockwood Smith is big enough to apologise when he makes a mistake. Tau Henare would be wise to reflect on what happened this week and learn to do a better job in future.