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Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Parliamentary convention ignored in the name of speed

NZH article by John Armstrong highlighting dubious activities in Parliament regarding the supercity legislation.

The Labour Party is absolutely correct. With the connivance of Act, the National minority Government is riding roughshod over parliamentary convention by dictating that a junior minister with portfolio responsibilities for local government chair the special select committee dealing with one of the two Auckland Super City bills.

When National's decision to rush the first enabling bill into law under urgency last week and without prior select committee consideration is also taken into account, the Government's decision to place Associate Local Government Minister John Carter in charge of the select committee's scrutiny of the second bill is a further disturbing development.

Select committees are supposed to be creatures of Parliament, not toadies of the Executive.

That is the case even though there are no rules preventing ministers outside the Cabinet such as Carter from sitting on select committees even if the Cabinet Manual effectively excludes Cabinet ministers from doing so.

There is plenty of precedent. Dover Samuels sat on the primary production committee during Labour's term in office, for example. In the current Parliament, Internal Affairs Minister Richard Worth is on the justice and electoral committee, while Carter himself is a member of the primary production committee.

But that is about as far as their involvement should go.

It would be unconscionable for one of those ministers as a member of the Executive to chair one of those standing committees. That would draw the Executive too closely into Parliament's role of scrutinising how ministers spend the money that Parliament votes for the running of their portfolios.

Likewise, it would be intolerable to have a minister chairing a select committee inquiry into some failing on the part of another minister.

National would argue that Carter is not setting a precedent in chairing a special select committee which is dealing solely with a legislative or policy matter.

Peter Dunne, another minister outside the Cabinet, chairs the special committee charged with coming up with a revised emissions trading scheme. However, his appointment reflected the Government's confidence in him as an effectively independent MP to arbitrate between the different factions on the committee.

Climate change has nothing to with his two portfolios of Revenue and Associate Health. He is therefore not open to charges of having a potential conflict of interest, whereas Carter's ministerial responsibilities are directly relevant to his role as chairman and thus further stretch the boundaries in terms of precedent.

Normally local government legislation of the Auckland nature would be handled by Parliament's local government and environment committee, which is chaired by National's Chris Auchinvole.

Diverting the bill to a special committee and giving the job of "minder" to Carter instead is being done in the expectation this highly experienced, down-to-earth and level-headed politician will ensure the committee's proceedings do not turn into a political circus.

The Government's timetable for abolishing the plethora of local authorities in Auckland and replacing them with a more rationalised structure of a mayor and single council is extremely tight. It cannot afford delays if the new structure is to be in place for the 2010 local body elections.

Carter's appointment is thus motivated by short-term political expediency and should not be interpreted as some longer-term constitutional conspiracy to bolster the Executive and weaken Parliament. However, that is the effective outcome.

In National's defence, the independence of select committees is more a mirage than reality. In most cases, government MPs make up the majority. Membership is determined by their party's hierarchy. Knowing they hold their positions at the leadership's pleasure, those MPs consequently act as obedient ciphers for the Executive.

Adding to the charade of independence is that Cabinet ministers are expected to actively liaise with the chairs or senior government members of select committees that have their legislation before them.

Cabinet ministers are expected to be aware of progress and to personally identify any intervention or other action necessary to advance legislation.

Despite that, there have been indications of albeit slow, but discernible progress in Parliament's select committees acting more independently of the Executive since the introduction of MMP. The treatment of the two Auckland bills is a serious step backwards.

However, the Government is terrified that the local authority restructuring will get bogged down if it takes its foot off the legislative accelerator - and with reason, given past experience of consultation with Auckland's fractious, warring councils.

In its hurry, however, the Government is copping a public backlash. Its handling of the report of the Royal Commission on Auckland Governance has somehow managed to unite disparate groups who oppose the restructuring for different reasons, for example whether there should be a quota of Maori seats.

National argues that sending the second bill to the special select committee provides ample opportunity for the public to have a say.

In going down this track, however, the Government has displayed a large degree of political ineptness.

Putting Carter in the chair sends a pretty awful message to people or organisations making submissions opposing or questioning aspects of the Super City restructuring that they are wasting their time.

It would be difficult to come up with another means of making it so easy for opponents to attack the restructuring, especially in the heat of the Mt Albert byelection.

Along with the Waterview Connection, the Super City proposal is a millstone around the neck of Melissa Lee, National's candidate, one she will not be able to shake off this side of voting day.

Labour, in contrast, has been able to milk criticism of the Super City proposal for all its worth even though in principle it too backs the concept of a single council running Auckland.

Labour was also guilty of abuse of parliamentary procedure with its filibuster on the first piece of legislation setting up a Transition Agency to forge a unitary council. Forcing parliamentary votes on hundreds of trivial amendments simply to extend the sitting into the weekend was hardly a constructive use of MPs' time and taxpayers' money.

However, the filibuster did the job brilliantly for Labour in highlighting National's refusal to consult Aucklanders on the local authority restructuring.

National has recognised this failing and organised a series of public meetings in the Auckland area co-chaired by Carter to try to reduce the political temperature and reassure people about what National is doing. The stakes are large. Lose Auckland and you lose the next election.

Labour's Trevor Mallard has been praising Carter as National's new Mr Fix-it deserving of a place on National's front-bench. If Carter extracts his party from this mess, he will deserve such promotion.

It looks more likely, however, that he and his colleagues will have to grit their teeth and soldier on regardless.


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