Legal Beagle by Graeme Edgeler

25

Despite Simon Bridges' idiocy, does he have a point on overall (subject) select committee membership?

National’s new shadow leader of the House, Simon Bridges, is in the Herald this morning, expressing concern about select committee assignments for the new Parliament (or rather subject select committee assignments – this is only about the 12 select committees with subject areas that scrutinised legislation etc – it doesn’t cover the other committees).

Bridges’ comments are ridiculously over-the-top – this is in no way any sort of attack on democracy – but I am still somewhat sympathetic to National’s view. The House of Representatives does its job best when the opposition is best able to hold the Government to account. Yes, National agreed with the unanimous recommendation of the Standing Orders Committee, but it was only a recommendation. The new Standing orders approved in August do not specify how many Select Committee spots there should be, only that membership of Select Committees must be proportional to the overall membership of the House.

The Review of Standing Orders could have recommended putting the overall number of spaces in subject select committees into Standing Orders. It didn’t. It recommended that overall membership of subject select committees should be 96 MPs, but left the final decision up to the Business Committee at the start of the new Parliament. It is the decision (or non-decision) of the Business Committee that is up for debate now, not changes to standing orders agreed last term.

The question for the Business Commission should be: what overall level of Select Committee membership will best enable to House to fulfil its multiple roles in the New Zealand political system: scrutinising legislation, holding the government to account, and representing the views of the New Zealanders? The answer may be different depending on the makeup of the government, and of the opposition.

Now, the Standing Orders Committee recognised that its recommendation would mean that some MPs outside Government would not get to sit on select committees, and had further recommendations about how this could be managed, including the possibility of split membership. It may be that there could be more formality around this than anticipated, but the question still to be answered is: what is best for this Parliament?

Now, I had my fun with Simon Bridges of Twitter this morning, pointing out that not only was he on the Standing Orders Committee than made this recommendation, as leader of the House, he actually moved that the House adopt the changes to Standing Orders that it recommended. But he rightly pointed out that only overall membership of subject select committees isn’t actually in Standing Orders.

National, through Simon Bridges’ ridiculous, over-the-top musings have stated their view that overall membership of subject select committee should be 108, with the 12 subject select committees having an average of 9 MPs on them. We are yet to hear from other parties what the overall member they consider will best enable the House to fulfil its constitutional role. It may be that they have good arguments for why, in the present circumstances, the number is 96. This might, for example, be around the number of Government MPs who would have to sit on more than two committees (Cabinet Ministers don’t sit on subject select committees).

There will also be spaces on Parliament’s other committees, filled outside this overall proportional allocation: these include the Standing Orders Committee, the Officers of Parliament Committee, and the Privileges Committee, however these Committees don’t have a regular work programme, and only meet when required. There is also the Security and Intelligence Committee, which is kind of, but also kind of not, a select committee, and the Regulations Review Committee, which does have regular work, but it has a fundamentally different role than the 12 (formerly 13) subject select committees being discusses here.

But National has raised a concern that it thinks it will be better placed to fulfil its role as the opposition (and Parliament its role to hold the government to account) if overall membership of subject select committees would 108 (an average of 9 MPs across the 12 committees). This would still leave National with some MPs who would not get a position on a subject select committee, but not nearly 11.

Of course, we should recognise that if Labour and the Greens were in opposition, the recommendation of the Standing Orders Committee would mean that they would have some MPs who would miss out on spots on Subject Select Committees, but the question for the Business Committee remains: what will best serve this Parliament?

Decisions of the business committee require “near unanimity” to have effect. Naturally, the business committee hasn’t met yet (we don’t even have MPs until tomorrow!), but there have no doubt been informal discussions. National appears to be concerned that the Business Committee will be unable to reach near unanimity, and the Government will instead create membership of select committees by pushing through a motion in the House with a bare majority, over its opposition.

That sometimes happens. The Government has a right to govern, and National is not helping its case by accusing a Government simply following a recommendation that National supported when in Government of seeking to undermine democracy.

But this should not be a question of National only having themselves to blame, or National perhaps foolishly not considering what this would mean to them if they ended up in opposition. The question of the overall membership of subject Select Committees was left to the new Parliament to determine, and the question should be: Will the role of the House, or of the opposition, be diminished if the recommendation is followed?

I do not know the answer, but if the Government wants to assert that things will be fine with 96 places for MPs on subject select committees, it should state its case.

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