IN COMMITTEE Why Committees Count

Occasionally I run into former colleagues from my newsroom days – some of them “personality presenters” and “household names” nowadays – who politely inquire how I pass my time. The look on their faces when I explain that I edit publication devoted to the inner workings of Parliamentary select committees is invariably picture. In the glitzy world of broadcast media, select committee assignment is the journalistic equivalent of being shipped off to the Gulag with one-way ticket.
They are usually too polite to ask what awful sin I committed to have earned such fate, but I can see the question is there in their eyes. My answer is inevitably along the “them’s the breaks” line and the conversation moves on to other matters. Not that these encounters leave me downhearted; rather I come away feeling more than little smug. You see, select committee meetings – rather than being the exercises in unmitigated tedium that my erstwhile colleagues believe them to be – are where the real life and soul of Parliament is to be found.
Over the years we have reported on submissions so lucid they bordered on genius. We have listened to tales so heartrending that strong men have wept. We have also heard stories so funny that proceedings had to be adjourned so that the committee could compose themselves, (my all-time favourite was from Southland farmer who accidentally drank the illegal Rabbit Calici Virus he had mixed up in the kitchen whiz and stored in the fridge). And on one infinitely sad occasion – which we did not report – we were present when gentleman passed away during his submission.
I have often asked myself why the goings-on in the select committee rooms – where the SCN reporter is sometimes the only observer present – are so much more involving than the proceedings in the House with its well-stocked press gallery. There are, I believe, several reasons. The first is that this is the true ‘people’s parliament’. Any New Zealander with view on bill or inquiry under consideration, has the right to make written submission and – if they so choose – to turn up in person and to speak their mind. Many of them do so at considerable personal sacrifice, not to mention expense.
Another reason that select committee hearings are fascinating is that matters are dealt with in depth. Real issues are thrashed out with even the politicians largely abandoning the sloganeering of the House. For those of us who have the privilege of watching the full kaleidoscope of select committee activity, there is also the enthralment of the sheer variety of matters that may tumble out of the committees on any given day. Take, for example, the 13th of this month when no less than six Bills are scheduled to be reported back to the House.
One of them from the Commerce Committee, known as the Standards and Conformance Bill – which aims to align the functions of the Standards Council and the Testing Laboratory Registration Council with international standards and conformance norms and practices – may not exactly get your pulse racing. However, Commerce will have another offering that day that well might. The Unsolicited Electronic Messages Bill will, when passed, gives the Government real legal muscle to deal with the plague of spam that jams my – and no doubt your – electronic mail-box each morning.
There will also be the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee’s offering – the cumbersomely named Geographical Indications (Wine and Spirits) Registration Bill – which essentially aims to ensure that champagne comes from Champagne; bordeaux from Bordeaux; and – if our wine growers desire it – marlborough from Marlborough; all matters of some importance, you will agree.
The 13th will also have something instore for drug cheats in the sporting arena. Government administration will release the results of its deliberations on the Sports Anti-Doping Bill which will, when passed, enable New Zealand to implement the World Anti-Doping Code. Not to be outdone, Transport and Industrial Relations is scheduled to report on the Immigration Advisors Licensing Bill which aims to clean up immigration scams by requiring advisors – of whom there are believed to be about 1000 operating – to be registered for the first time.
Finally the Social Services Committee will be reporting back on the “big-brotherish” Housing Restructuring and Tenancy Matters (Information Matching) Amendment Bill which will enable Housing New Zealand Corporation to disclose information about tenants and tenancies to the Ministry of Social Development as the department responsible for the administration of the Social Security Act.
And all of that is scheduled to spill out of the committee sausage machine on single day this month. Boring? I don’t think so.

• Julie Collier is editor and publisher of Select Committee News.

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