Labour has happened across a pretty nifty little parliamentary trick. But it's time to put it away, I think.

Over at Kiwiblog, David Farrar has hit high dudgeon mode over Labour's ongoing filibuster of Heather Roy's Education (Freedom of Association) Amendment Bill (or, "the VSM Bill", as it is better known).

For the uninitiated, Labour has been preventing the VSM Bill passing its Committee Stage by dragging out the debate on those private and local bills that appear before it on the Order Paper. As Standing Orders require these matters be disposed of before the House can move on to debating members' bills, Labour's foot-dragging is successfully eating up all the time available on each members' day and so preventing Heather Roy's Bill progressing into law. This is, according to DPF (and Heather Roy too, of course) a gross abuse of parliamentary procedure that is wasting resources for no good purpose. Labour rather sees things differently: Trevor Mallard says the VSM Bill is "evil" and that nothing extra is being spent as a result of the filibuster as the House would have been sitting in any case.

I'll leave it up to the reader to decide if the VSM Bill is so terrible in content as to demand this level of staunch opposition. DPF thinks it is all an effort by Labour to protect its future bright young things' breeding grounds. But by that reasoning, of course, his and Heather Roy's determination to knee-cap students' associations is no more than an attempt to undermine Labour's future prospects. My point being, once you start down the rabbit hole of "it's all partisan!', then you end up having some pretty strange conversations with giant caterpillars.

For what it is worth, my own suspicion is that Labour has come up with a pretty clever way of actually stopping - as opposed to slightly delaying - something from getting enacted that the governing majority wants to see become law. Under our parliamentary rules, that's a very, very rare outcome. And as Labour hasn't had too many wins this parliamentary term, the temptation must be to ride this wave for as long as it will keep going.

But, for all that cleverness, I still think it should hop off pretty soon. My chief concern is that it sets a dangerous precedent for the future. Recent years have seen some pretty controversial law begin its journey as a member's bill - think of the "Anti-Smacking Law", or the legalisation of prostitution. If Labour's newfound tactic had been around when these measures were being debated, wouldn't the temptation be for their opponents to use that tactic to prevent the "evil" proposals entering the statute books? And if future opponents to future "evil" members' bills moved by Labour MPs were to do so, then what complaint could there be about the practice?

So, as fun as it must be to annoy Heather Roy and to make DPF eat his words, Labour's actions seem to me to have just too high a potential for blowback to persevere with.

But that said, there are a few more things I want to say about this subject. First of all, seeing as we're talking about the importance of respecting proper process in relation to the VSM Bill, let's cast our minds back to 20 October last year. On that members' day in the House, the VSM Bill was set down for its second reading. However, in front of it on the Order Paper was Paul Quinn's ugly little Bill to strip the right to vote from all sentenced prisoners. Despite this Bill removing the right to vote from several thousand New Zealand citizens in a way that the Attorney-General certified as being inconsistent with the New Zealand Bill of Rights, the National and ACT Party MPs supporting the measure refused to give anything more than 2-or-3 sentence "speeches" to justify the measure. Why? Because they wanted to race through the "debate" on it so as to leave enough time to get through the VSM Bill's second reading as well.

I'm dredging this ancient history up again to show that there's a fair bit of mud to sling around when it comes to stretching proper procedure in order to accomplish your immediate goals. While we're on that point, DPF's condemnation of Labour also included this claim:

Labour is also being incredibly selfish. Backbench Mps get only one day a fortnight to have their bills heard. Dozens of MPs from the Greens, Maori and National parties have members bills they would like to have debated. Labour has decided that no other members bill can be allowed to pass this year, just so they can try and allow their future MPs to keep forcing students to fund their political activism.

That's a fair point. There's a very small window for "ordinary" MPs to squeeze their proposed legislation through, even without Labour bolting it closed. But, seeing as members days are so special and important, we might note that National has appropriated a fair few of these over the past parliamentary term in order to progress Government business. Sometimes this is done through urgency motions - a practice I note DPF has expressed his disquiet with, and to which I'll return. But, as I/S has noted here and here, the Government also has found other ways to make use of members' time in the House for its own purposes.

(None of this can excuse Labour's actions, I hasten to note. But in the interests of being fair and balanced, and simply reporting so you can decide, it's useful to consider DPF's outrage in the bigger picture ... .)

One last point from DPF's post. As I noted, he previously has joined with Labour's Grant Robertson to express his concerns about the frequency with which urgency is being invoked to pass legislation. They both are to be commended for their principled position on this matter. But in his post, DPF draws a link between that use of urgency and the practice of filibustering (it's a theme he's raised before):

If an Opposition continues with mindless sustained filbustering, then they can expect no-one to take them seriously if they complain about use of urgency in the future. If you turn yourself into a roadblock, don’t be surpised when a bulldozer is used. ...

So next time a Labour MP complains about urgency, the response should be to buy themselves a mirror so they can find someone to blame.

This seems so wrong to me that I can't help but think he's let his annoyance with what Labour is doing blind his usual good sense. Sure, if an opposition were to constantly filibuster the Government's legislative programme, then the Government could be justified in invoking urgency to actually get its business done. However, and this is important enough to reach for the bold-and-italics, Labour's actions are not affecting the Government's legislative programme one little bit! Rather, as DPF himself notes, it is members' business that is being delayed by Labour's actions, while the legslative time available to the Government is not restricted by one second.

So to say "what Labour is doing somehow justifies the future use of urgency to move the Government's business forwards" is ... how to put this ... just plain dumb. And I say that with respect, because the only other alternative is that DPF is proactively using Labour's perceived abuse of legislative process with respect to members' bills as an excuse for his side's future abuses of a completely different legislative process, even though he knows there's no real connection between the two. Which would be something worse than dumb.

Oh - one very, very last point. If this VSM Bill really is so important, and Labour's actions really are so terrible, there's an easy fix. The Government could adopt the Bill and include it on the order paper under the Government orders of the day. But, of course, this would mean spending the Government's time passing it into law and so having to give up some legislative measure that the Government otherwise would pass instead. Which, given National's tepid-at-best support for the VSM Bill, doesn't look likely to happen any time soon.

Comments (6)

by Graeme Edgeler on June 06, 2011
Graeme Edgeler

If this VSM Bill really is so important, and Labour's actions really are so terrible, there's an easy fix. The Government could adopt the Bill and include it on the order paper under the Government orders of the day. But, of course, this would mean spending the Government's time passing it into law and so having to give up some legislative measure that the Government otherwise would pass instead. Which, given National's tepid-at-best support for the VSM Bill, doesn't look likely to happen any time soon.

I don't think it fair to say National's support for VSM is tepid at best, perhaps the PM, or cabinet, but the backbench and the broader party are warmer than tepid on VSM.

I also suspect that the Government is quite happy that member's time is being eaten up. Less chance of being forced into embarrassing votes (voting against worker protection, for example) or hypocritical votes (having to oppose ACT's free trade legislation, and their youth wage bill despite previous statements of massive opposition).

National is confident it will win the next election, and may adopt this bill for final passage under urgency not long before the election, or not long after it.

by Andrew Geddis on June 06, 2011
Andrew Geddis

I don't think it fair to say National's support for VSM is tepid at best, perhaps the PM, or cabinet, but the backbench and the broader party are warmer than tepid on VSM.

You may well be right, Graeme. I had heard (in that wonderful Wellington way) that the National members on the Select Committee were moving towards retaining the status quo of allowing each student association to choose its own rules of membership, before Heather Roy's loss of her Ministerial portfolios allowed her to rejoin it just in time and stiffen their resolve. But these things are ghost whispers in the dark ...

As for "National is confident it will win the next election, and may adopt this bill for final passage under urgency not long before the election, or not long after it", that had occurred to me. In point of fact, the nasty, suspicious gnome that lives in my head suggested to me that DPF's linking of this issue to urgency may well have been a pre-emptive strike against any criticism leveled at just such a move. But I try not to listen to that gnome. Nasty, nasty fellow.

by Dave Guerin on June 06, 2011
Dave Guerin

Andrew, I've been following this Bill for work purposes and I'd agree that it will probably be picked up by the government at some stage. I can't see that causing any of the problems that you hint at because (a) Labour's filibustering provides an easy justification for doing so, that doesn't need any Machiavellian work by David Farrar; and (b) no-one cares about this Bill outside of the rather small pro and anti VSM camps - the six months-plus of filibustering has not garnered any media coverage until now, when the tactic itself, rather than the issue, is the focus. There has been no growth in anti-VSM feeling (or in pro-VSM feeling). The main benefit has probably been for some Labour (and Green) MPs to experience some control they would otherwise not get in Opposition. Whether the final debates and votes happen on Members Day or not really doesn't matter that much.

by Andrew Geddis on June 07, 2011
Andrew Geddis

Dave,

Accepted. And I should be clear - I don't think DPF is being "Machiavellian" in trying to make this happen ... rather, I just think he can read the tea-leaves as well as you can.

by Lyndon on June 07, 2011
Lyndon

As far as I recall it's often been the case that urgency eats members day time too, so that threat would actually be a little on the far side of irrelevent.

by Christopher Bishop on June 07, 2011
Christopher Bishop

NRT is certainly wrong about his claim that the government decided to schedule a two-hour debate on the Budget Policy Statement in order to shorten members' day.

SO 322(4) provides that "In place of the first general debate after the report of the Finance and Expenditure Committee on the Budget policy statement has been presented, a debate is held on the Budget policy statement and on the report of the Finance and Expenditure Committee on that statement."
 
So it was not the government's fault; but just what standing orders provides.

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