Politics

House hostility ahead in 2018?

The Government is set to celebrate the end of its 100-day plan, but what comes next is another matter. Sam Sachdeva reports on the procedural manoeuvrings that could take place over the parliamentary term.

After the sprint comes the slog.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her Government will this week mark the completion of their “100-day plan”, an increasingly popular way for politicians to get off the starting blocks quickly and show the public they mean business.

Yet ticking off the laundry list of policies is just the beginning of a longer battle to pass legislation and shape New Zealand in its own image — a battle with a motivated opposition standing on the other side and a leader who declared it was “not our job to make this place run”.

So what challenges could Ardern and her ministers face as they try to move ahead with their agenda, and what plans do they have to overcome them?

Otago University law professor Andrew Geddis warns against making too much of National’s boast of being “the largest opposition party New Zealand has ever seen”.

As he points out, the fundamental arithmetic is largely unchanged from National’s time in power: it and its coalition partners held 63 seats to the opposition’s 58, compared with the current government’s 63 and the opposition’s 57.

However, he notes that the government parties look “more split, possibly fragmented” than in the past, while the Opposition this term appears fare more cohesive.

National’s shadow leader of the House Simon Bridges is quick to play up that aspect, contrasting a “unified opposition” against a three-headed government.

However, Leader of the House Chris Hipkins says he hasn’t encountered any dramas or delays to date when it comes to finding common ground.

“The Cabinet process is running really well, we’ve had constructive engagement and I haven’t found it very difficult at all to get all three of the government parties on the same page on the vast bulk of legislation.”

Select committee scrap

One of the potential procedural wrinkles for the Government comes from an early and embarrassing scrap.

After National claimed to have “assumed the majority” ahead of a vote to install Labour’s Trevor Mallard as Speaker, due to absent government MPs, Hipkins agreed to increase the number of select committee seats for the current term from 96 to 109 (he and Ardern claimed they knew they had a majority but wanted an uncontested vote).

National’s large bloc, coupled with a recommendation from the last term to make select committee composition more proportionate, means the Government controls only five of 13 committees, with the other eight tied.

That’s a sharp change from the last parliamentary term, when the National government controlled 11 committees and had only three tied.

That could present some issues when it comes to committees making recommendations: as the Office of the Clerk’s guide to effective select committee membership notes, tied votes are lost with no casting vote available to the chair.

As Geddis points out, that cuts both ways: while the Opposition can prevent the Government from recommending amendments to legislation, the Government will itself be able to stop the Opposition from “making too much mischief” through select committee inquiries.

“That would really put at risk our select committee process, which is one part of our legislative process that actually works well.”

National’s ability to block amendments does have some benefits. The Government will still be able to amend bills, but it would need to take place later, during the committee of the House stage — potentially gumming up the works and slowing down the passage of legislation.

However, Geddis says National would need to tread carefully if using select committees to “get in the way of government business” and upset the legislative process.

“That would really put at risk our select committee process, which is one part of our legislative process that actually works well.”

Bridges appears to be on the same page, saying National’s goal is to make select committees “relevant and robust” rather than engaging in US-style obstructionism.

“We’ll take a pretty simple view: on bills we support, we’ll work constructively, and on ones we oppose we’ll make it clear why.”

He is keen for select committees here to hew more closely to the UK model, with greater independence from the government of the day.

“I can tell you having spent nine years on the other side, I don’t mind the idea that the select committee process will be beefed up a bit and the Government will have to raise its game."

While that goal may be stymied by deadlock, Bridges says National will still possess some advantages: the “bully pulpit” held by increased numbers of opposition chairs and deputies, and the possibility of peeling off votes from the various government parties.

“If New Zealand First agrees, the inquiry will get up, if the Greens agree, an inquiry will get up.”

Hipkins professes to be unconcerned about the select committee situation, saying the Government has the numbers where it really matters, in the House.

In fact, he supports a more robust select committee process, saying more powerful committees would strengthen the parliamentary system and help the Opposition to hold the Government to account.

“I can tell you having spent nine years on the other side, I don’t mind the idea that the select committee process will be beefed up a bit and the Government will have to raise its game — I thought the previous government paid lip service, and not even that in some cases, to select committee processes.”

Written questions war eases

Another flashpoint from the Government’s first few months was a battle over written questions.

National submitted more than 6000 written questions to ministers in the month since Parliament resumed: Labour accused the Opposition of producing parliamentary spam mail, while National argued the flood of queries was a natural consequence of the Government’s failure to answer more basic and reasonable queries.

Mallard put both sides on notice following the spat, and Bridges says he is hopeful “we’ve reached an accommodation” that suits both the Government and Opposition.

“We’re asking considerably fewer questions in return for answers — it shows our strategy of asking a lot of questions worked, as it has made things more reasonable.”

While there are still isolated cases of failure on both sides, Bridges says the process is “by and large” an improvement.

Hipkins agrees the situation has improved but is less inclined to credit National’s torrent of questions.

“They started asking fewer questions and they started getting better answers.”

There is an incentive for both sides to move on: as Geddis points out, there was no real winner from the argument last year, while Kiwis would quickly tire of any tactics used “to annoy and irritate”.

"Unevenness" on the order paper

Then there is the issue of the actual legislation for select committees and Parliament to consider.

Geddis says the Government will have to ensure it has enough legislation on the order paper to avoid a repeat of last year, when it was forced to essentially filibuster its own bills to fill up time in the House.

“They’re going to have to get their policy turned into a bill for the House to consider, and given there are three parties who have to negotiate, it could be a bit challenging.”

Bridges suggests the debating chamber will be “a hard road for Government to hoe”, arguing there appears to be little legislation in the pipeline other than “splashes of controversy” provided by social or conscience bills on topics like medicinal marijuana and industrial relations.

“We’ll have to wait and see: I might be proven wrong with a tranche of significant bills, but I haven’t seen any foreshadowing of that.”

Hipkins acknowledges there was some “unevenness” during the first few weeks of the new parliamentary term as the Government amended some bills introduced by its predecessor and removed those it disagreed with, leaving a shortage of legislation made obvious by National’s tactical decision to spend little time debating what remained.

“I suspect that’ll change pretty rapidly when we start introducing more of our own legislation into the House — I suspect they’ll have a lot more to say.”

“I’d prefer to take the time to develop the bills properly, even if that means it takes a little longer to get them into the House.”

He says the Government has “a reasonable amount coming through”, although is quick to note the process may again be bumpy.

New bills receiving their first reading will take up relatively little time in the first half of the year, before clogging up the order paper when they come back from select committee — a problem he says is “just part of the electoral cycle”.

One thing Hipkins says the Government won’t do is “rush stuff through” in order to fill the gaps.

“If you look at the number of bills the National Party rushed through the House then had to go back and amend, it was quite a high number.

“I’d prefer to take the time to develop the bills properly, even if that means it takes a little longer to get them into the House.”

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