GOVERNMENT Select Committee Power And How to Plug Into It

Worried about new legislation that may impact upon your industry, company or organisation? Want to tell legislators what you think in an environment in which your views must be heard? Then take closer look at the way in which parliament’s select committees now work.

Some feel that you cast your vote every three years and then take your chance as to what happens in between times. And, in the days of the first-past-the post government, that was pretty much the way it happened. It is no longer the case today. What has altered is not just the arrival of MMP, but the way parliament’s select committee system has changed to adapt to it.

Traditionally, select committees – the committees of members of parliament that consider new bills that are before the house – were creatures of the government of the day. The government had majority and appointed the committee chairs. As result, while you were always free to make submissions, your chances of influencing the ultimate outcome were limited. Governments invariably had their way.

With the introduction of MMP all of that changed. Select committees became the engine room of the legislative process.

Today three important committees are chaired by members of opposition parties. Education and Science is chaired by New Zealand First’s Brian Donnelly, Primary Production by National’s David Carter, and Local Government and Environment by Greens’ co-leader, Jeanette Fitzsimons. Another, Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, is chaired by Peter Dunne whose United Future supports the governing coalition, while not being part of it.

Nor does the governing coalition often have majority on committees these days. In fact currently the only committee with an outright majority is the Government Administration Select Committee. On all the other committees – there are thirteen subject committees – the support of at least one other party and on some, two other parties, is required before the government can command majority.

All of which means we have moved into an era where governments cannot rely on select committees to rubber-stamp their legislative proposals.

An example of this is the Smokefree Environments (Enhanced Protection) Amendment Bill which started life as small bill from Tuku Morgan, was adopted by the Government as it progressed and was significantly beefed up during the select committee process. Another is the Employment Relations Bill which was subjected to intense scrutiny and amendment.

The current Resource Management Amendment which initially was Simon Upton (National) bill, was changed to shore up Green support in the first Labour coalition, and changed again to Labour Progressive bill with dash of United Future in it most recently.

Right now the Land Transport Management Bill is undergoing similar changes to better reflect submissions and the fact that the Greens have less influence now than they had when the bill was initially drafted.

Today’s select committees are also more willing to use their powers of inquiry than they were previously; even if this may be against the coalition government’s own interests or wishes. The Health Committee’s recent inquiry into the health effects of cannabis, Green initiative, is one such example.

The advent of MMP has made select committees more powerful and also, arguably, more objective. The old “them and us” approach is no longer very productive in situation where support for your stance on specific issue may well come from party that is generally implacably opposed to your political philosophy.

All of which means that the chances for an individual or an organisation to influence the final shape of legislation using the select committee process is greater than it was in the past.

Understanding the manner in which the legislative process operates; tightly-argued written submissions; persuasive and well-informed appearance before the committee; backed up by briefings to influential MPs where possible can bring significant change to legislation.

Invariably successful outcome also demands thorough understanding of the positions of other lobbyists. This requires monitoring of the progress of the relevant select committees.

How select committees work
Select committees are governed by standing orders and reflect the proportionality of parties which make up the parliament. They each have areas of expertise, such as education and science, or health, and essentially do three things: they scrutinise legislation before parliament; conduct select committee inquiries; and consider the financial reviews of government agencies, departments and SOEs.

Before an act of parliament becomes law, either all or part of it is introduced as bill. Changes being made to an existing act also appear first as bill or an amendment bill.

The bill is introduced to parliament, given its first reading and is usually sent to an appropriate select committee for scrutiny. There are thirteen regular subject committees which normally call for public submissions on bills before them, allowing around four weeks before they stop accepting submissions and begin hearing evidence.

Individuals or organisations may send in written submissions (email is acceptable) and may request to appear before the committee to give oral evidence and answer questions from committee members.

During the hearing of evidence everything from legal drafting errors and anomalies, to fundamental policy decisions is discussed. Once evidence has been heard, members produce report back to parliament with recommendation that the bill proceed, proceed with amendments, or not proceed at all.

Supplementary order papers (SOPs) may be put forward by any party in the House and are either adopted or rejected by the House as whole. It is here that committee’s recommendations for change are incorporated into bill. The arguments put before the MPs considering the bill have gained increasing influence under MMP.

A select committee may conduct an inquiry into an issue of concern to its members, usually calling for public submissions. There are more inquiries being conducted now than in the past. It is usual for the committee to prepare report to parliament on its findings, although an inquiry may remain open for years.

Changes to legislation are often part of the government response to inquiry findings, as in the case of the Health (Screening Programmes) Amendment Bill currently before the Health Select Committee which makes changes to improve the national cervical screening programme.

It is usual for the chair and top management of government departments and SOEs to appear either once or twice year before the select committee charged with overseeing its activities, to explain what their plans are and to answer questions. The public is not invited to make submissions to these meetings.

For more information on issues before committees and how to prepare submission see the Select Committee website at www.parliament.govt.nz

New Management magazine service monitors select committees
Management magazine can now provide Select Committee News coverage direct to your desktop. Readers may purchase individual reports which cover specific meetings, or package of reports providing complete SCN reporting of committee’s hearings on any specific bill, inquiry or departmental financial review. Packages will be priced on the basis of the complexity of the matters being examined and the number of meetings SCN anticipates covering. Reports on individual meetings are priced according to their length and location. list of available packages on current hearings and recent individual reports that may be of interest can be found on the Management website (www.management.co.nz). Management will also feature regular column listing the closing dates for submis

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