Heather Roy

18 November 2017

At the start of each Parliament the Business Committee approves the members of each of the Select Committees. On 15 November the Business Committee published the list of agreed members of the 12 subject select committees and 5 specialist committees.

There is no record yet of the election of Committee Chairs and Deputy Chairs on the parliament.govt.nz website, although this must be imminent. Election of these positions is always the first item of business for a new committee and no work can be done until they are determined. Initial reports indicated that there would be five Opposition Chairs, and five Oppostion Deputy Chairs. As with everything else in parliament these things are all determined by proportionality of election day vote.

Much of the ‘work’ of parliament is done by the select committees. They scrutinize and make amendments to legislation (both government bills and private members bills), examine spending of government agencies, have the ability to hold inquiries and hear petitions from the public. In some respects they perform the role and scrutiny of a second chamber that the New Zealand parliament does not have.

At the beginning of November a storm erupted between the National Party and Labour over total numbers of MPs that would be allowed to sit (with voting rights) on committees. Labour had announced there would only be 96 places for MPs around select committee tables, as recommended by the Standing Orders Committee in April 2017. National claimed that Labour was acting undemocratically and denying the opposition the ability to hold the government to account. With just 96 places, 11 National MPs would miss out. Both of course were jockeying for best control of the committees.

The history of select committee make-up is interesting to those who follow parliamentary procedural matters. Traditionally, the number of positions has matched the number of MPs. However the Standing Orders Committee (one of the specialist committees) – with representatives from both National and Labour – examined three different options for committee numbers in March this year. The option of 84 members was deemed too few, and the current 108 would “maintain the current arrangements’. All options assumed 12 rather than the previous 13 committees. Their report recommended that places be reduced to 96 – note that numbers in this report relate to those of the 51st parliament.

There are two areas of special note around the select committees of the 52nd Parliament. The first is that there has been quite a re-jigging of the committees and the areas they scrutinize. For example the Education Committee previously examined all Science related work but that has been moved to the Economic Development, Science and Innovation Committee. Education has been paired instead with workforce related issues and is now the Education and Workforce Committee. The changes give a strong signal as to the agenda of the new government.

The second area of change is the number of committees without a government majority. Kiwiblog has done a quick analysis of all committee make-ups by party. Only five of the select committees have a government majority, the other seven are tied evenly between National and Labour. Again, the government has signaled where its emphasis lies for the next three years by where it has ensured there is a committee majority and therefore the easy passage of legislation.

The National Party is a strong opposition and the select committees make-up was always going to be tricky. The government will have to rely on the support of National to be able to get legislation through this process tidily. There are other options, such as making amendments during Committee of the whole House stage or passing legislation under urgency. However this would lead to compromising the rigour of our current procedures and deny the public the ability to have their say through submissions to select committees. It is an unwise government that acts without listening to the people.

To date, the new government has hit several speed bumps and there will likely be more to come. Let’s hope the democratic process isn’t the loser as they scramble to gain control.