A parliamentary battle is brewing over the Government’s plans to shrink the size of select committees, with National suggesting the move is undemocratic and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern accusing the party of hypocrisy.
With National leader Bill English warning last week it was not the Opposition’s job “to make this place run”, the party may look to employ stalling tactics in protest over the Labour-led Government’s approach.
The issue relates to a proposal to shrink the number of places on select committees, which review legislation and hear public submissions, from 120 MPs to 96.
National MP and shadow leader of the House Simon Bridges labelled the move as “undemocratic”, saying it would limit the ability of the committees to hold the Government to account while depriving 11 of National’s 56 MPs of the “full opportunity” to hold a position.
“Reducing the level of oversight is not increasing accountability. It does the opposite,” he said.
However, Ardern has been quick to fight back, pointing out National joined other parties in backing the changes to Parliament’s standing orders earlier this year.
“Mr Bridges moved a motion in Parliament supporting exactly what we are now enacting. He in fact moved it with enthusiasm – he voted for it at the business committee, he has now decided that it’s an erosion of democracy,” she said.
“The proposal has not changed, the only thing that has changed is the position that Mr Bridges has.”
The review of standing orders backed by all of Parliament did include an observation that select committees were “generally larger than is necessary for them to be effective”.
“A decrease in committee seats would provide more flexibility for parties to manage committee attendance and absences,” she said.
“This flexibility would also allow members to attend committee meetings according to their interests, expertise, and availability.”
However, the review explicitly advised against specifying the number of seats in the official standing orders, instead leaving it to the Business Committee to decide the size of each committee – although it did recommend a “target” of 96 seats across the 12 subject select committees.
National’s argument is that it backed the changes earlier in the year as a Government trying to satisfy the Opposition, but the new composition of Parliament – with National as the largest single party – puts it at a marked disadvantage.
“To … be described as operating in an undemocratic way I find to be completely unfair.”
That seems somewhat at odds with the standing orders review, which said shrinking the size of select committees would mean government backbenchers “would not be expected to be on more than two committees each, allowing them to be more focused in their committee work”.
Ardern said the Government had also offered National five committee chair roles and five deputy chair roles, which was “an extraordinary degree of sharing” compared to other parliaments.
“To then be described as operating in an undemocratic way I find to be completely unfair.”
The Standing Orders Committee’s report suggested concerns about MPs missing out on select committee spots could be mitigated by appointing permanent non-voting members, as well as “splitting” seats between MPs and allowing them to focus on their specialties.
That doesn’t appear to be enough for National, although Bridges has suggested the party is “willing to compromise” – perhaps by meeting somewhere between the original 120 and the proposed 96 MPs.
However, Ardern was firm when asked if she was committed to the change to 96 MPs: “It was an agreement of the business committee of the last Parliament, every party supported that agreement, it was a parliamentary decision.”
The Government’s unwillingness to give ground may be due to English’s comments last week around National’s plans in opposition, as select committee discussions were taking place.
“It’s not our job to make this place run for an incoming Government that is a minority … we have no obligation to smooth [Labour’s] path, none whatsoever.”
What form that takes remains to be seen, but National could filibuster when possible to slow the passage of legislation – a tactic employed by Labour at points during its time in opposition.