Monday, March 09, 2020

Select committees, listening, and the policy process

RNZ has an interesting piece on the select committee process, and on whether select committees really listen to submitters. In a trivial sense, its obvious that they do: the MPs read the submissions, and sit in a room and actually hear what submitters are saying. That trivial sense is important: it makes submitters feel heard. But there's a non-trivial sense of "listening" as well: is what submitters are saying seriously considered on its merits? Does it affect the outcome? And on that, its a different story.

I've submitted on a number of bills, usually by sending something in (Parliament makes this really easy, and I encourage everyone to do it where its a useful expenditure of their time), and less frequently by appearing in person (less frequently because it scares the living shit out of me no matter how many times I've done it). My experience is that if you are seeking a technical amendment or pointing out a flaw in a bill that needs to be fixed, then your arguments will be considered and it is possible to affect the legislation. But most of us, when we submit on a bill, aren't doing that. Instead, we're seeking policy change: for the bill to be substantially different, or to be dumped entirely. And on that front, submitting is mostly a waste of our time. The mere fact that there is a bill and it has been voted to select committee means that you have missed the boat. The government has already made up its mind on those things, and all it is interested in is the implementation details. If you wanted to affect the shape of the policy, you needed to be a lobbyist or a stakeholder a year before the bill even hit the House. Us dirty peasants need not apply.

(And on anything involving national security, it is even more of a waste of time, because the MPs on the committee have their marching orders from the Ninth Floor, or from Pipitea St, and usually are not even given enough time to read the submissions anyway. Such processes are a democratic fraud, and people should boycott them rather than legitimise them by participating)

Its a different story for Member's Bills, of course: the government hasn't made up its mind on them, and so there's a real chance for policy change or a recommendation that a bill not pass. But I'm not aware of any government bill which has seen a recommendation to not pass after public opposition at select committee, and there are very few which have seen substantial policy change (as opposed to minor tweaks here and there).

The problem here is that legislation is the end of the policy process, and there's a year or two of decision-making that has gone into them before they hit the House. "Stakeholders" are usually a part of that process, but that term almost always excludes the general public, and often us dirty peasants are deliberately kept in the dark about what is going on by government secrecy (protected by the "confidential advice" clause in the OIA, which is explicitly there to enable Ministers to make decisions without having to listen to us annoying plebs). Which means that if we want to change policy outcomes, the best way we can do it is by changing governments - a very unsubtle lever.

So what are select committees for? Scrutiny and minor improvements, sure, and this undoubtedly gives us better legislation. But also, there's that trivial listening, letting people know they've been heard. Living in a democracy means not always getting your own way, and a sense of having been heard can help with that. But that's a long way from the democratic input people think they're getting, and that gap is increasingly undermining the legitimacy of Parliament and the committee process.

But that isn't actually Parliament's fault: the problem lies with the executive and its secretive process, not with the MPs who have to formally decide whether the tick the final boxes. And the way to solve it is for the executive to open that process to greater public scrutiny and participation. Perhaps Parliament would like to protect its legitimacy by looking at that sometime?