Parliament rule changes follow study on Urgency
RESEARCH TEAM: CLAUDIA GEIRINGER, POLLY HIGBEE AND ELIZABETH McLEAY OF THE VICTORIA UNIVERSITY OF WELLINGTON CENTRE FOR PUBLIC LAW
A Law Foundation-backed study has led to changes in the way Urgency is used in Parliament. Following the study findings, the House can now decide to use extended time to pass a bill through a single stage, rather than the Government having to resort to using Urgency to achieve this.
This means Urgency is more likely to be confined to situations where there is genuine need to quickly progress specific legislation.
MPs also picked up a recommendation to require Ministers to inform the House “with some particularity” the circumstances that warrant a claim for Urgency.
The study, by Claudia Geiringer, Polly Higbee and Elizabeth McLeay of the Victoria University Centre for Public Law, examined the use of Urgency from 1987 to 2010, enabling comparisons before and after the first MMP election in 1996.
The authors made several recommendations for change to Parliament’s Standing Orders Committee, some of which were adopted.
The authors hope the changes will help promote better public understanding of the use of Urgency and therefore incentivise politicians to use it less.
Claudia Geiringer says that previously, Urgency had a confusing dual role as both a device for responding to genuine emergencies and a mechanism for extending the House’s sitting hours.
“It is very difficult for the media and the general public to understand what is going on when Urgency is taken, and therefore to know whether or not to be scandalised by it. Hopefully, following these changes, Urgency will be easier to understand.”
The authors say that Urgency is not an unmitigated evil – governments need to implement their platforms, and sometimes they need to respond very quickly to do this. But this should be the exception – the norm should be full and open debate, with ample opportunity for Opposition scrutiny and public input.
The authors were disappointed at the rejection of one of their key recommendations – that the Speaker should have a role in authorising any use of Urgency that would eliminate the select committee stage of a bill’s passage. The committee decided that adopting this would have politicised the Speaker’s role.
The study found a marked reduction in the use of Urgency since MMP. Pre-MMP single-party majority governments introduced around twice the number of bills under Urgency, on average, than multi-party governments since then.
Two exceptions to this general trend were the National-led Governments in 1996-99 and 2007-10, when Urgency was used more frequently.
The team interviewed 18 current and former MPs, including party leaders, Speakers and senior parliamentary officials. They gave four broad reasons that governments used Urgency: to expedite passage of legislation; to gain a tactical advantage (such as by being seen to act decisively); to pass Budget measures; and – most commonly – because of insufficient scheduled sitting hours.
“Most politicians believe that Urgency is a legitimate tool for the government to get extra sitting hours,” Claudia Geiringer says. “Their concern is that the House does not currently have enough hours to get through government business.”
The project was conducted under the auspices of the Centre for Public Law and the Law Society’s Rule of Law Committee. The full report has been published in a book by Victoria University Press: What’s the Hurry? Urgency in the NZ Legislative Process 1987-2010
Law Foundation funding of $40,000 enabled Polly Higbee to be employed as a full-time researcher on this project during 2010.