IN COMMITTEE A New Breed of MP?

In the good old days of First Past the Post, parliamentary select committees were rather tame animals. The government of the day held both the chair and majority. Then the coming of MMP made committees somewhat less predictable. Now the chairs were sometimes awarded to non-government MPs and, since party membership is broadly meant to reflect the situation in the House, the government of the day sometimes no longer had majority.
Select committees began to show their fangs. Bills sometimes took mauling in the committee process and committees discovered that there was great fun to be had by conducting inquiries into matters where the government would have far preferred to let sleeping dogs lie (a current example being the Finance and Expenditure Committee’s look-see into the shenanigans at TVNZ).
Now, in the wake of the formation of the third Labour-led coalition, the nature of the committees will inevitably change again. While the Government retains the chair in most (but certainly not all), it finds itself in minority in virtually all of them.
The potential for the opposition parties to wreak havoc on the Government’s legislative programme is there if they choose to exercise it. However the term “opposition member” no longer means what it once did.
All parties represented in Parliament, other than Labour and the one-man band known as Jim Anderton’s Progressives, staunchly insist that they are in opposition; situation that caused right brouhaha when it came to deciding who would sit on the cross benches.
The fact is that there are only three pure opposition parties in Parliament – ACT, National and Mori.
The other three parties represented – New Zealand First, United Future and the Greens – are all, to degree, compromised by the post-election deals they cut with Labour. The leaders of the first two hold major cabinet portfolios (foreign affairs and revenue respectively), while the latter also has cooperation agreement with the Government under which Green MP Sue Bradford bills herself as “government spokesperson”.
The question now, from the select committee viewpoint – is going to be how their New Zealand First, United Future and Green members elect to behave as the year unfolds. If they act as true opposition members then the Government will find some real speed bumps ahead.
The picking is that the Greens will go their own way as usual and will tear into the Government whenever they are of mind to do so.
United Future members will play it pretty straight, opposing where it is party policy to do so, but also cooperating where this is called for – at all times seeking to exude the sweet reason which they see as their trademark.
What will happen with the New Zealand First members is anybody’s guess. Leader Winston Peters, to go by his performance so far this term, is proving far greater asset to the Government than most of its own ministers. When National leader Don Brash had them on the ropes over Labour’s election spending during the opening of Parliament, it was Winston Peters who counter-punched him back to centre ring and delivered couple of hefty haymakers.
But it does not necessarily follow that New Zealand First members are going to be similarly supportive of the Government in the select committees room. There is still lingering resentment in the ranks about Peters’ decision to accept the baubles of office and select committees might just be the place for it to find expression.
Either way, the fate of the Government’s programmes will be decided by strange new hybrid MP – part opposition, part government.

Julie Collier is editor and publisher of Select Committee News.

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