Study shows Parliament’s urgency provisions often abused

Press Release – Victoria University of Wellington

Researchers at Victoria University’s Faculty of Law have completed a new study into how bills have been put through Parliament using urgency and say too often the provision is being abused. Study shows Parliament’s urgency provisions often abused

Researchers at Victoria University’s Faculty of Law have completed a new study into how bills have been put through Parliament using urgency and say too often the provision is being abused.

The researchers examined the use of urgency between 1987 until 2010. Senior Lecturer Claudia Geiringer, Polly Higbee and Professor Elizabeth McLeay found that more than 1600 bills had urgency accorded to them at some stage during the 24 year period.

The current government has been one of the biggest users of urgency motions since the introduction of the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system in 1996, along with National-led governments between 1996 and 1999.

Urgency motions require the House of Representatives to sit longer and, at times, on days it might not normally sit at all. They also allow the government to dictate the business that is dealt with while under urgency.

The Urgency Project was funded by the New Zealand Law Foundation and carried out under the auspices of the New Zealand Centre for Public Law at Victoria’s Faculty of Law as well as the Rule of Law Committee of the New Zealand Law Society.

One of the research team, Professor McLeay, says while abuse of urgency has been greater at some times than others, successive New Zealand governments have relied on urgency to pass legislation more quickly.

She says the key area of concern is where major policy pushed through under urgency avoids the scrutiny that happens at the select committee stage.

“This stage of the legislative process is especially important in a country without an upper house,” she says.

“We’re not saying urgency should never be used, but there needs to be greater distinction between when it’s a result of the government being frustrated with the pace its legislation is progressing through the House, as opposed to the times when there is a genuine need for something to be fast-tracked.”

Examples of the latter include bills that are needed because of a civil emergency or to fix a mistake found in earlier legislation.

When MMP produces a minority government, says Professor McLeay, the small parties can potentially veto the use of urgency. The study found that while they have used this power at times, there is no consistency due to a range of factors including the personalities of key figures such as the Prime Minister, the philosophies of support parties and the nature of support agreements.

The researchers interviewed 18 current and former MPs and senior parliamentary officials as part of the study. Professor McLeay says most of them are of the view that there aren’t enough scheduled sitting hours to get through government business and using urgency is a legitimate tool to get extra time.

She says media also tend to accept the frequent use of urgency: “It’s become part of New Zealand’s culture,” she says.

However, the researchers say the public should be worried about overuse of urgency motions.

“We believe relying on urgency to address the perceived problem of insufficient time to deal with the government’s legislation programme is undesirable because it comes at a cost to the integrity of the legislative process.

“Even relatively benign uses of urgency contribute to a public perception that Parliament is not following its own rules and the legislation is being rammed through.”

The research team’s finding will be published shortly by Victoria University Press in a book titled What’s the Hurry: Urgency in the NZ Legislative Process 1987-2010.

Earlier this year, the researchers had input into the three yearly review of Parliament’s Standing Orders and Professor McLeay says several of the recommendations adopted by the House of Representatives as a result are in line with the submission made by the Victoria team.

“However the changes don’t go far enough. The biggest concern is that there is nothing new to deal with the troubling use of urgency to bypass the select committee stage of legislative scrutiny.”

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