Parliamentary transparency is something that New Zealanders say they are concerned about. The concept of a Parliament that has the confidence of the electors, is fundamental to democracy in all countries with a Parliamentary form of governance. New Zealand has a Westminister style of Parliament, which uses a Mixed Member Proportional system (M.M.P.)to elect its members every three years. All have to take an Oath of Allegiance. But what happens to transparency and accountability after the Members of Parliament are sworn in, and conducting the business of the House of Representatives?
New Zealand, according to Transparency International is one of the most transparent nations on the planet. True, but when one considers that the incumbent National-led Government has used the urgency clause in the Parliamentary rules to bypass House debates and pass legislation at speed more times in it’s 4 1/3 years in office than the previous Labour-led Government did in 9 years, is there not a problem?
Well, not if one were to believe the Government. But the Government is only one part of the House and whilst it might be the majority part, that is by no means convincing and it ignores the circumstances in which the urgency clause was exercised. So, let us have a look at the uses of “urgency” to pass legislation in the House of Representatives.
In April 2011, Labour M.P. Grant Robertson and a National-leaning blogger named David Farrar, both agreed to publish figures pointing to National’s use of “urgency” in the House to pass legislation. They found that National had used “urgency” or “extraordinary urgency” 17 times in its first 2 years in office. The following month, Chen & Palmer, a legal firm widely recognised as one of the most powerful in New Zealand comprising constitutional lawyer Mai Chen and former Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer, blasted the Government saying it was having a “love affair with fast law making”.
Since then there have been further reports of the incumbent Government using the urgency clauses excessively. In November 2011, the National Business Review found that Parliament’s urgency clauses had been abused significantly by both National and Labour-led Governments at one point or another. The N.B.R. found that there was – and most probably still is – not anything to stop urgency being used to bypass Select Committees, which could apply a critical examination of the legislation in question.
This does not excuse prior Governments regardless of stripe. In 2007 Labour was accused of stifling debate when it pushed the Electoral Finance Act through the House of Representatives at speed regarding electoral finance reform. The Terrorism Suppression Act 2002, which was in response to the 11 September 2011 terrorist attacks and aimed at preventing New Zealanders from financing or otherwise supporting acts of terrorism was another attempt at passing controversial legislation through under urgency.
However, a paper by Sascha Mueller points to decreasing use of urgency until about 2008, when there began a significant increase in the use of urgency that plateaued in 2010 and began to decrease later the same year. Still, whilst showing that waves of urgency come and go in Governments, that fails to address the causes of the individual instances. In the case of urgency, one might expect the clause to be exercised when the Government has a fiscal deadline to meet or the Supreme Court has made a ruling that has required that a law change to something like tax that need to be in place before the end of the financial year. In the case of extraordinary urgency, such as a war, large scale medical emergency or major natural disaster one might suppose it acceptable to pass something whilst bypassing the normal democratic processes of government in New Zealand.
New Zealand needs to address these fluctuations in the use of urgency to pass legislation in this country. The democratic principles on which this country was founded and its participation in wars that were primarily fought to ensure the freedom of millions from tyranny, plus the fact that people around the world still view New Zealand as a beacon of democracy, means the country needs to protect its Parliamentary processes. They are as important as the right to vote, the right to have a say on legislation. Subverting this will do New Zealand no favours whatsoever.