Changes to parliamentary procedure that Simon Bridges helped craft and then explicitly championed while in Government now appear to be bad for National in opposition. So Simon Bridges thinks that they are the worst attack on democratic rights we have ever seen.

In today's NZ Herald, National's shadow leader of the House was frantically sounding out a tocsin to warn of the danger of looming dictatorship: 

"It's a really alarming erosion of the Opposition's democratic rights in our Parliament like we have never seen before. It is an unprecedented situation."

ZMOG! An "unprecedented" "erosion of the Opposition's democratic rights"!! Normally it takes a new Government months to act in ways that attract this sort of public-law-academic-level of alarmist rhetoric!!!

So what exactly is the heinous offence to democratic norms that the new Government is accused of planning to foist upon the nation?

Well, it's going to put into effect changes to how Parliament functions that Simon Bridges expressly commended to the House of Representatives in July of this year. Yes, you read that right ... the claimed "alarming erosion of the Opposition's democratic rights in our Parliament like we have never seen before" are measures that Simon Bridges himself moved "be adopted, with effect from the day after the dissolution or expiration of the present Parliament."

If this all sounds very, very weird, here's the background. Every three years the House of Representatives reviews its "Standing Orders". These are the rules that govern how the House conducts its business ... note that they aren't rules that the Government imposes on it, but rather the rules that the House chooses to apply to itself by unanimous (or near-unanimous) agreement. 

So in July of 2017 the Standing Orders Committee (consisting of representatives from every political party except ACT) produced a unanimous report containing some proposed amendments to Standing Orders. One of those proposed changes was to reorganise select committees slightly and to cut the overall number of select committee members from 120 down to 96.

Here's why it did so:

"We believe there would be some merit in decreasing the overall number of select committee seats while retaining the proportionality requirement. Committees are generally larger than is necessary for them to be effective, and some members have too many committee commitments. With a decrease in the number of subject committees from 13 to 12, committees would become even larger if the overall membership remained around 120." 

The Standing Orders Committee then went on to say:

"We do not favour specifying the number of seats in the Standing Orders. The Business Committee should retain the ability to determine the size of each committee. We propose instead that the Business Committee adopt a target of 96 seats across the 12 subject select committees. We considered models based on 108 committee seats, which would have little impact given the decrease in the number of committees, and 84 committee seats, which would leave too many members without permanent committee seats—a matter considered below. A total of 96 seats will result in most committees having seven, eight, or nine members."

This report was put before the House as a whole - moved and commended, I remind you, by Simon Bridges himself - which unanimously agreed to adopt it and so make the recommended changes for the start of the next Parliamentary term (i.e. now). Whereupon Simon Bridges leaps up and starts accusing the Government of carrying out an unprecedented attack on the opposition's rights.

Let's put aside the obviously cynical nature of Bridges' faux-outrage and see if he could nevertheless have some possible point to make. Why is cutting the number of places on select committees now claimed to be so bad?

Well, it won't affect the overall makeup of such committees. Membership still will be distributed between the parties on a proportional basis, so National still is entitled to around half of the places on each Committee. 

Consequently, with 96 select committee places, National will be entitled to 45 of them. However, National has 56 MPs in its caucus. So, 11 of its MPs won't be able to  have a permanent spot on a select committee. 

In contrast, once you take out those MPs holding Ministerial posts, all remaining backbench Labour/Green/NZ First MPs likely will have a place on some Committee.

But ... so what? Isn't this exactly the sort of outcome Bridges signed National up to when he moved that the House accept the proposed changes he was a part of crafting? Well, in the Herald piece, Bridges tries to claim that things have changed since July of this year:

"We were a Government [in July] ... trying to accommodate the Opposition who wanted that. But now the Opposition doesn't want it. Because back then, it is such a disadvantage to us."

But this simply isn't what the Standing Orders Committee Report says:

A decrease in committee seats would provide more flexibility for parties to manage committee attendance and absences. This flexibility would also allow members to attend committee meetings according to their interests, expertise, and availability. Government backbench members would not be expected to be on more than two committees each, allowing them to be more focused in their committee work. There could also be greater scope to arrange extended sittings at the same time as committee meetings, as fewer members would be required to attend those meetings. 

So the change to Committee numbers actually was intended to take the weight off backbench Government MPs, who (because there are fewer of them, due to their Ministerial colleagues not sitting on select committees) were having to cover too much ground. It was a change that, at that point in time, helped out National more than it did the opposition parties.

And what about the fact that the reduced number of committee seats now leaves National with fewer places than they have bodies to fill them? Well, again this was something that Bridge's Standing Orders Committee recognised and addressed:

"The proportional allocation of 96 committee seats will leave some members without permanent committee seats on subject select committees. As described above, fewer seats will give parties and members more flexibility in managing their committee work. Moreover, the Business Committee can currently appoint permanent non-voting members to committees, and this could be done more frequently in future to ensure all members can have regular involvement in committee work. Parties could also effectively split a seat between two or more members on an ongoing basis, under the current provisions for temporary changes to membership, so particular members are able to specialise in portfolios within select committee subject areas."

So I have no hesitation at all in saying that Simon Bridges claim of "a really alarming erosion of the Opposition's democratic rights in our Parliament like we have never seen before" is complete and utter bullshit. It's a change National readily agreed to. It's a change that, at the time it was made, looked likely to benefit National's MPs more than those from other parties. But now that National (probably unexpectedly) find themselves is in opposition, they have a bad case of buyers remorse over the issue.

Tough.

Comments (15)

by Graeme Edgeler on November 06, 2017
Graeme Edgeler

Yes, you read that right ... the claimed "alarming erosion of the Opposition's democratic rights in our Parliament like we have never seen before" are measures that Simon Bridges himself moved "be adopted, with effect from the day after the dissolution or expiration of the present Parliament."

The motion that Bridges moved did not include the recommendation that the overall membership of subject select committees be set at 96. The motion he moved was about the amendments to standing orders that the Standing Orders Committee recommended, which did not include this.

by Andrew Geddis on November 06, 2017
Andrew Geddis

That was the wording of the formal motion, as a vote is required to amend Standing Orders in the way recommended by the Committee in its report. However, if you read the full debate in Hansard, you will see that:

(1) In his speech, Bridges makes reference to matters not included in the formal changes to Standing Orders: i.e., "I welcome the Clerk's intention to produce a Business Committee handbook, to help both committee members and members generally to make the most of the Business Committee's powers to innovate." So Bridges isn't just restricting his positive comments on the report's contents to the formal amendments it proposes to Standing Orders.

(2) Bridge's final words are "[w]ith those comments, I commend the report to the House." Not, you notice, "I commend the recommended changes to Standing Orders contained in the report to the House", but "the report".

(3) If you then read the other participants in the debate, it is clear that the House is discussing the Standing Order Committee's Report as a whole, not just the amendments to Standing Orders that they formally are voting on. 

So, I'm happy to let the post stand as it is. It's disingenuous in the extreme for Bridges to now somehow claim that National didn't really agree to the "96 MPs on Select Committees" change ... they did.

Also, I think your Public Address post misrepresents the Standing Orders Committee Report a little when you say "[i]t 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." The Standing Orders Committee actually said this:

The Business Committee should retain the ability to determine the size of each committee. We propose instead that the Business Committee adopt a target of 96 seats across the 12 subject select committees.  

In other words, the Business Committee should decide how many MPs each select committee should have on it ... but that it only should distribute seats to a total of 96 MPs over the 12. That figure was adopted after the Standing Orders Committee expressly considered alternative numbers of 108 and 84.

So, as of July, the status quo ante became that this Parliament ought to have 96 MPs over its select committees. It's now incumbent on National to show why its agreement to adopt that status quo should be revisited. And given that the result of the status quo - some MPs will miss out on select committee places - was known and accepted by all parties (National included) as recently as July, it's difficult to see any reason to do so.

by Liam Hehir on November 07, 2017
Liam Hehir

IDK but if it takes a 400-word follow-up comment to explain why you can infer an implied endorsement of a specific measure then you might be reaching a little bit.

by Andrew Geddis on November 07, 2017
Andrew Geddis

I find that when engaging with Graeme, it is better to be prolix and cover as many bases as possible. 

But, sure, if you really want to think Bridges wasn't endorsing/commending the full Report, then no amount of words will change your mind.

by Liam Hehir on November 07, 2017
Liam Hehir

. I said IDK didn't I?

But Bridges says that the reduction in the overall membership of subject select committees to 96 was an accommodation to the then opposition.He now decries the lack of reciprocity. You say this is invalid because the reductions "are measures that Simon Bridges himself moved for adoption. Except the motion moved by Bridges did not include the reduction, as Graeme points out.

In response, you offer as evidence the following: 

Bridge's final words are "[w]ith those comments, I commend the report to the House." Not, you notice, "I commend the recommended changes to Standing Orders contained in the report to the House", but "the report".

If you consult your School Certificate English, the thing being commended is "the recommended changes to the Standing Orders," not, "the report." The recommended changes to Standing Orders did not, as far as I know, include a reduction in the overall membership of select committees.

The other evidence offered includes, 1) comments made by Bridges on other aspects of the report (but not, it seems, on the number of places generally) and, 2) that we should interpret Bridges comments by reference to the comments of other participants in the debate

So, yeah, seems like a bit of a stretch to me. I'm certainly not persuaded that Bridges gave some sort of speech prescribing that 96 positions be set in stone with no heed paid to the desires of the party holding a relative majority in the house.

 

by william blake on November 07, 2017
william blake

Hi Liam, love the straight edge bunny avatar. Erm, you just followed up a one sentence statement with a five paragraph missive, which seems to undermine your criticism of the blogger and your naieve IDK position, go you bunny.

by Liam Hehir on November 07, 2017
Liam Hehir

I don't know whether Simon Bridges' complaining is justified. I do know that his comments in Parliament aren't the slam dunk they're made out to be.

by Andrew Geddis on November 07, 2017
Andrew Geddis

@Liam,

"But Bridges says that the reduction in the overall membership of subject select committees to 96 was an accommodation to the then opposition."

And Peter Dunne recalls that it was National that raised the issue. Given that it benefits the Government the most (by reducing the burden on their backbenchers, of which there are fewer than in the opposition), that sounds more likely.

If you consult your School Certificate English, the thing being commended is "the recommended changes to the Standing Orders," not, "the report."

No, Liam, that simply is not an accurate claim. Here is the paragraph in question:

"However, I recognise that the review of the Standing Orders is also a balancing act requiring give and take between Government and non-Government parties. In this vein, can I once again thank all members of not only the Business Committee but the Standing Orders Committee for their diligence and time throughout this process. With those comments, I commend the report to the House."

You see at the outset of it Bridges references "the review of the Standing Orders" and recognises that this involves compromise on a range of issues. That review process resulted in a report, only a part of which involved recommended formal changes to Standing Orders. In his final sentence, Bridges commended  that "report" to the House without qualification, a report which flowed from "the review" process referred to at the start of the final paragraph. My interpretation is the better one. Sorry about that.

by Andrew Geddis on November 07, 2017
Andrew Geddis

But before this goes any further down a rabbit hole of pointless argumentation, news!

"English has confirmed the deal struck with Hipkins is 108 MPs on select committee and 5 chairs and deputies."

Democracy has been saved.

by Liam Hehir on November 07, 2017
Liam Hehir

I have no view about whether the substance of the complaint has merit or not. But in that speech, he is clearly and plainly referring to the amendments to Standing Orders and, to the extent that he refers to the report, he does so in relation to amendments to Standing Orders it recommends.

Those recommendations on overall membership were, as far as I know, that it be left to the Business Committee. That is part of the report which he "commended" too. If the amendments to the Standing Orders themselves entailed any kind of permanent reduction in numbers, I would concede he is clearly in the wrong.

Bridges argument appears to be that the situation has now changed. He says that it is unusual for the party with a relative majority to be outside of government (which it is since it hasn't happened since the 1920s). He says this merits more select committee positions which the government should accommodate. I have no idea on the merits of that argument.

But it's not at all inconsistent with his speech to Parliament, no matter what the quotations confess under torture.

by Liam Hehir on November 07, 2017
Liam Hehir

@AG


But before this goes any further down a rabbit hole of pointless argumentation, news!

"English has confirmed the deal struck with Hipkins is 108 MPs on select committee and 5 chairs and deputies."

Democracy has been saved.

You don't think the furious argument and parsing of the gospel of Simon Bridges contributed in some small way to the breaking of the impasse?

by Andrew Geddis on November 07, 2017
Andrew Geddis

@Liam,

I am generally of the view that it is my actions that shape the world, yes. Isn't that clear from the context?

by Liam Hehir on November 07, 2017
Liam Hehir

Now if the deal just struck by Simon Bridges was made a result of a common mistake as to numbers, do you think the deal is voidable or void ab initio?

by Andrew Geddis on November 07, 2017
Andrew Geddis

My murky memory of contract law is that a unilateral mistake isn't a basis for setting a contract aside ... .

by Graeme Edgeler on November 07, 2017
Graeme Edgeler

I am happy to hang my statement on the words "We propose instead that the Business Committee adopt a target of 96 seats across the 12 subject select committees." which you have so helpfully provided :-)

Post new comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.