Simon Bridges thinks that Simon Bridges is eroding parliamentary democracy

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.