Out of the biscuit tin, into the House

It's a quirky part of our lawmaking processes that important legislative developments may depend upon the right token getting pulled out of a biscuit tin. Today it was the turn of Euthanasia/Aid in Dying and Medicinal Marijuana to come out.

I commence with a quick civics lesson, for anyone who needs it.

New Zealand's Parliament consists of two things - the House of Representatives (where all the MPs sit and do their business) and the Sovereign of New Zealand (as represented by her Governor General). This Parliament exists for one reason and one reason only; to make law (in the form of parliamentary enactments).

The House debates and votes on legislative proposals. If the House passes them, the Sovereign then signs them into law. Put the two things together and you have an Act of the New Zealand Parliament.

Those enactments enter into the House of Representatives - where they then get debated and voted on - as bills. And those bills can be in four forms:

  • Government bills (which the Government drafts and introduces);
  • Members bills (which any MP who is not a Minister may draft and introduce);
  • Local bills (which the MP for the local area affected usually introduces);
  • Private bills (which any MP can introduce on behalf of the individual person affected).

l'm going to focus here on the second of these - members bills. They offer a way for MPs who aren't in the executive branch (and thus can't bring a Government bill before the House) to propose changes to New Zealand's statute books. For many MPs who never make it into ministerial office, it will be the only chance they get to do so.

But because any MP who is not a Minister can propose a members bill, there will be far more of them put forward at any particular time than can be accomodated on the House's order paper. Meaning there needs to be some way to decide which of the various proposed members bills actually will come before the House for a substantive debate (and a chance to become law).

One solution to this might be to have the House vote on the members bills it wants to consider. But you can see the problem with this - the opposition MPs would have no chance of getting their proposals up for consideration, as the governing majority would prefer their MP's proposals.

So instead, New Zealand has chosen to leave the issue to sheer chance. And, in a tradition I hope will never die, we do so in a beautifully simple manner

When an MP proposes a members bill, it is given a number. When it comes time to decide which members bill(s) will go on the order paper for (eventual) debate, numbered tokens are placed in a biscuit tin ... yes, a literal biscuit tin. Some random parliamentary employee then puts in their hand, draws out a token, and the bill that matches the number on the token is then placed on the House's order paper.

For non-ministerial MPs, this must be both thrilling and frustrating. If your token comes out, then you have the chance to do something you may well never get to do otherwise in your parliamentary career - make a change to New Zealand's laws. But if your token doesn't, then you have to sit and wait until the next ballot. And then the next. And then the next.

Which means that such noteable legislative developments as fully criminalising the smacking of children, removing voting rights from prisoners and permitting same-sex marriages all occurred because the right token happened to be pulled out of a biscuit tin at the opportune moment. Had fate decreed otherwise, our law might not look like it does today.

Of course, this solution has encouraged gaming behaviour of its own. As recounted ad nauseum in posts collected here, the current Government appears to have encouraged its MPs to stuff the members ballot with spam bills primarily designed to prevent anything challenging or embarrasing for it entering into the House. 

But all that this behaviour can do is dilute the odds, not stop such outcomes altogether. And given enough iterations, even diluted odds can produce quite extraordinary outcomes.

So is the case with today's members bill ballot. At it, random chance deposited two hot button social issues into the laps of parliamentarians just a little over three months out from September's general election. While the measures may seem to come from opposite ends of the political spectrum, in fact they share a socially liberal vision.

The first is David Seymour's "End of Life Choice Bill", which would permit "people with a terminal illness or a grievous and irremediable medical condition the option of requesting assisted dying." For proponents, this is about aid in dying. For opponents, it would legalise euthanasia and assisted suicide.

The second is Julie Anne Genter's "Misuse of Drugs (Medicinal Cannabis and Other Matters) Amendment Bill", designed "to make a specific exemption [in the he Misuse of Drugs Act] for any person with a qualifying medical condition to cultivate, possess or use the cannabis plant and/or cannabis products for therapeutic purposes, provided they have the support of a registered medical practitioner." For proponents, this is about allowing sick people access to a substance that can ease suffering. For opponents, it would be a massive loophole allowing the recreational use of dak.

Phew - those are some pretty meaty topics right there, custom made to spark emotive debate and heated rows from people who can never compromise on the issues at hand. And chances are very good that at some point prior to September, our MPs will have to debate and take part in a first reading vote on these two issues - most probably on a conscience basis. That means they won't have the security of just doing what their party tells them to do on the legislation. They'll actually have to make up their own minds on the issues and vote accordingly.

[Update: Phil Lyth suggests my "chances are very good" prediction is overcooked ... it may not be until after September/early 2018 that the matters get considered.]

What is more, depending on how the parliamentary timetable runs, they may have to do so for both issues on the very same Wednesday. Which means that the phone lines and email inboxes at MPs offices are going to be pretty chock full for the next few weeks as they get lobbied intensively by all sides of the debates.

Oh - and then having decided what to do on these issues (thereby pissing off one side of the debate or the other), those MPs will have to go out and get themselves reelected. Who said the life of a representative of the people was a quiet and easy one?