IN COMMITTEE MP Mussels In

The idea behind Parliament submitting piece of proposed legislation to select committee for consideration is to allow you and I and anyone else who has an interest in the subject under consideration to have their say. It is the point at which the politicians should stop talking and start listening. We should, therefore, be concerned by the recent trend for political parties, and indeed MPs themselves, to make submissions to select committees.
If the Green Party did not start this practice, then it certainly popularised it. But it is difficult to find precedent for the submission made last month to the Fisheries and Other Sea-Related Legislation Select Committee on the Foreshore and Seabed Bill by 34-year-old Labour MP for Tainui, Nanaia Mahuta, who pointed out that the Bill did not have the support of the Tainui waka confederation.
As private citizen Mahuta, who has an MA (Hons) in Social Anthropology, is of course perfectly entitled to have her views heard. However, she is not private citizen when she steps into the Parliamentary precincts.
She is member of that Parliament, member of the ruling Labour Party caucus, parliamentary private secretary to the Ministers of Education and Local Government, chair of the Maori Affairs Select Committee and member of both the Health and Local Government and Environment Committees. Indeed, in her written submission she specifically stated that she was making her submission in the role of the Tainui MP.
It is reasonable to have thought that any one of the above positions gave her sufficient forum to express her views on controversial piece of legislation, without seeking to hog one of the speaking spots – and they are being strictly rationed in this case – reserved for ordinary New Zealanders who have no access to the Parliamentary platforms for expression open to Mahuta.
When Prime Minister Helen Clark was asked about Mahuta’s actions at subsequent post-Cabinet press conference, she replied that Mahuta got “permission from the Labour caucus to cross the floor and the submission is in line with that”.
Clark was then asked if permission extended to making submission before the select committee. She replied: “She was given permission to cross the floor. She withdrew from being considered as member of that select committee so she would be free to express her views, and putting in submission is entirely consistent with that. I don’t have any problems with that.”
Well, maybe the Helen Clark in her role as Party leader does not, but the question arises as to whether the public should be so sanguine?
The argument can be advanced, of course, that the case was almost unique, in that Mahuta was presenting view which is opposed to the stance being taken by the governing party of whom she is member. But it is not strong argument. If she has dissenting view, then she has any number of opportunities to express that view, including crossing the floor of the House when the ultimate vote is taken.
None of Mahuta’s options are available to ordinary New Zealanders. What every member of the public does have is the right to submit his or her views to select committee and, if they choose, the opportunity to speak to them. This pro-cess is as close as we come to having “a people’s Parliament”. Perhaps it is time for MPs to recognise that and to leave select committees to those who have no other pulpit.

Julie Collier is editor and publisher of Select Committee News.

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