Politics

Mallard moves to curtail urgency

The practice of Parliament sitting for extended hours to rush through legislation under urgency could be curtailed if the Speaker can muster support for proposed reforms, Thomas Coughlan reports. 

Speaker Trevor Mallard has suggested sweeping changes to the use of Parliamentary urgency, effectively abolishing the practice in all but the most extreme circumstances.

Currently, the Government can put the House into urgency with a simple Parliamentary majority. Mallard’s proposed changes would require a 75 percent majority before the House goes into urgency.

On top of that qualification, the bill under urgency would have to pass each stage of the legislative process with a 75 percent majority. 

This would effectively abolish urgency in all but the most extreme cases, where there was some bipartisan consensus.

Mallard suggested he would like to see the process change in a lecture at Victoria University on Monday. 

Usage and abuse

Parliamentary urgency allows the Government to force legislation through quickly, but it comes at the expense of both Parliamentary and public scrutiny. 

It can be useful for times when Parliament is required to formulate urgent legislation. Mallard gave the example of a law to address a problem with improperly sworn in police officers. 

In 2013, it was discovered that 63 police officers had not been technically sworn in, making some of the actions they had undertaken as officers illegal. Parliament went into urgency to retrospectively validate those officers’ oaths. 

Typically, a bill can only pass through one stage of Parliament at a time, but under urgency it can pass through several stages — one following the other — in a single day. Urgency also allows the Government to skip the lengthy select committee process.

Urgency also allows the house to sit for extended hours: from 9am until midnight. In rare cases of “extreme urgency,” the house can run through the night. 

But the process can become politicised. National has criticised Labour for its use of urgency to pass its controversial regional fuel tax. Shadow Leader of the House Gerry Brownlee accused the Government of stopping further debate and trying to “ram through new laws without proper scrutiny”. 

But National has also been accused of misusing the urgency process. According to RNZ, it put the house into urgency 53 times — 31 times in its first term alone. 

Bipartisan support needed

Any changes will need to pass Parliament's Standing Orders Committee, which is set to review how Parliament functions next year. 

Each Parliamentary term it reviews standing orders (the rules which govern how the house works) and makes necessary changes. Those changes take effect when the next Parliament is sworn in, so any changes made next year will not take effect until 2020. 

Mallard will need support of his Parliamentary colleagues if he wants his reforms to pass. 

This could be difficult. 

“Urgency is a traditional thing, to which most members are quite addicted,” Mallard told Newsroom.

“I think it’s an addiction that could be broken,” he said. 

But Brownlee told Newsroom he would be unlikely to support Mallard's reforms. 

He said he would like to see the final proposals first, but there was already limited time for debating legislation in Parliament and removing Parliamentary urgency would slow the legislative process down.

Carrots and sticks

Mallard said he would look to substitute urgency with a streamlined process allowing relatively uncontroversial bills to be allocated extra time in what is known as “extended sitting”. 

Currently, the house uses extended sitting hours to sit on a Wednesday or a Thursday morning. This extra time is generally used to debate Treaty bills, which are relatively uncontentious and pass through the House unanimously. 

Mallard proposes expanding this provision to incorporate other uncontroversial bills, such as legislation consolidating existing laws, bills that incorporate law made in the courts into Parliamentary legislation, and bills recommended by the Law Commission.

“My suggestion is if you’ve had a good process like a green paper or a white paper or a Law Commission bill or whatever then they should be allowed to go into ‘extra time'” Mallard said.

He also suggested allowing urgency in the first 100 days of a new Government when there was a clear mandate from the electorate for it to pursue its legislative agenda. 

“If legislation is updated regularly you’re less likely to run into the bottlenecks that require urgency,” Mallard said. 

This would free up Parliament’s set sitting hours to give full scrutiny to other legislation. 

But these changes would mean that the Government would lose the ability to put the House into urgency as a way of avoiding a filibuster motion from the Opposition. 

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