Thomas Coughlan: Parliament must open up post-Covid

OPINION:

Parliament is rewriting its own rules as part of its triennial Standing Orders review.

Don’t let the soporific name fool you. Recent changes have been big – and this term could be no different.

Every three years, MPs from across the house gather to thrash out how they would change the way Parliament operates by reviewing the Standing Orders, Parliament’s in-house rulebook. The new rules take effect in the next Parliament.

Some quietly radical changes proposed in the last review made improvements to the way this Parliament has functioned. Debates on ministerial statements are more free-flowing, with more back and forth between the Opposition and the Government.

In the current review, MPs will consider how to grapple with the “new normal” pandemic restrictions, and assess whether changes need to be made in light of lessons learned from Parliament’s grumpy relationship with the first single-party outright majority government of the MMP era.

The pandemic meant the Government has assumed more executive powers than modern MPs are used to. Debates on ministerial statements have helped the opposition probe the use of those powers.

Possible changes to the rules made this Parliament could be no less influential.

The Standing Orders Committee, which will be deciding on the rules, is doing things differently this term by asking the public for their view on how they’d like Parliament to run, before the committee makes its own decisions.

But MPs are already mulling changes they’d like to see.

Former National leader Simon Bridges fired the starting pistol last week during his valedictory speech, when he suggested electing the speaker through a secret ballot, rather than a public vote in the chamber. National seems quite keen, and Leader of the House Chris Hipkins said he wouldn’t rule out such a change being made.

This would detach the election of the speaker ever so slightly from party politics. In reality, the Government’s pick would be the favourite to win, but whoever became Speaker would know they enjoyed a majority that is less directly attached to party-political preference than it is currently.

You could potentially see more opposition speakers elected. The current Speaker in the British Parliament is a former Labour MP (speakers there have to resign party affiliation upon election). It’s also just possible it would end the current circus of confidence motions in the speaker.

For a start, there’s a good chance the Speaker would enjoy the confidence of a broader cross-section of MPs. The government would also have less to lose if the Speaker were deposed by a no-confidence motion, given the Speaker would be less attached to the government.

Other ideas on the table respond to concerns raised in the current Parliament about Labour’s absolute dominance in Parliamentary matters after it won the first absolute majority in MMP history. MPs are keen to balance the democratic right of governing parties to enjoy the fruits of their election victories against the need for opposition parties to have sufficient avenues to hold the government to account.

One possible change is to alter the composition of select committees. Currently, select committee membership is propositional to party membership in the House “so far as reasonably practicable”.

This could be changed to make membership proportional to the number of non-executive MPs. This is the formula used for allocating questions during question time and gives the opposition a numeric leg up to counter the dominance of the government.

In the current Parliament, this would probably mean National having a greater chance of getting its way on some committees if it could corral enough Act and Green support behind it. This is no small change On Wednesday, National’s finance spokeswoman Nicola Willis was outvoted by Labour on the Finance and Expenditure Committee when she asked for a briefing on new fiscal rules, despite her motion having the support of Act and the Greens.

Hipkins hinted at two more changes on Tuesday, saying some of the emergency fixes made to be more accommodating of Parliament’s needs during the pandemic could become permanent. This could include allowing MPs to continue to beam in to question time and select committees remotely, in special circumstances.

Allowing MPs to vote electronically on personal votes rather than filing into the Ayes and Noes lobbies was floated during the last standing orders review. Personal (better known as conscience) votes are very rare, however, they can be tedious. During the last Parliamenta flurry of amendments to euthanasia and abortion bills were required to be voted on individually, keeping MPs voting in the chamber well past midnight, more than two hours after they should have left.

Electronic voting would make this much quicker, and take away incentives to put up spurious amendments to bills in an attempt to use lengthy personal votes to filibuster legislation.

Standing orders reviews are also one of the rare occasions in which journalists submit to MPs their own proposals for how Parliament functions. Last Parliament, my Press Gallery colleagues Sam Sachdeva and Jo Moir, both now of Newsroom, successfully managed to liberalise rules governing photography in the debating chamber.

My own submission for making Parliament function better is probably best dealt with outside of Standing Orders.

I would like to see some of the bad habits that have crept into the public service during the Covid pandemic rolled back, and for conventions that existed prior to the pandemic to be restored.

Most public service chief executives appear before committees a minimum of twice a year for their estimates and annual review hearings. Others, like the Reserve Bank Governor, can appear as often as eight times in a year. The convention for these appearances is that following the committee meeting, chief executives take media questions for 10 to 15 minutes outside the committee door, much like an MP. The media are allowed to ask questions in these spaces, but cannot ask questions if the subject flees to other parts of Parliament.

The pandemic has meant that much important select committee work has fled to Zoom. Select committee scrutiny survived, but media scrutiny of chief executives (other than poor Ashley Bloomfield) disappeared. In-person select committee meetings have recently returned, but some public sector chiefs seem to think they have no obligation under the previous convention to take media questions outside.

This convention (and it is a convention, rather than a Standing Order) must be restored. During an hour-long grilling by MPs, chief executives may only face half an hour of questions from the opposition (less when you consider their often lengthy opening remarks), with the rest left to patsy government questions. It’s unconscionable that public sector chiefs – many earning above $600,000 a year – could get away with doing barely any media in a year.

Another change that needs to be made relates to the scrutiny of MPs. The need for social distancing has forced the Speaker, political parties and the Press Gallery to agree to change the locations in which MPs are interviewed in Parliament. Media no longer crowd caucus corridors or the famous black and white tiles, stopping MPs on their way to caucus or the House in a riotous game of journalistic bull rush.

Instead, by mutual agreement, senior MPs and ministers detour to the Grand Hall where they give set-piece media conferences (a slightly different accommodation has been reached for Labour, whose enormous caucus had meant it now gathers in the Theatrette, rather than the Government’s traditional caucus room).

This has been a suitable stopgap measure, but it has meant that MPs (mainly backbench MPs), who are reluctant to face media scrutiny, can do so with great ease. Whereas before, there was almost no way to evade questioning at least once a sitting block, most backbench MPs in the current Parliament have been able to avoid serious media scrutiny.

Fixing this won’t require a standing order change, but if the “new normal” requires a persistent baseline level of health restrictions, media and MPs must come to some accommodation that does not lead to a permanent reduction in the level of access journalists have to MPs.

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