The chance for backbench MPs to get their members' bills drawn in the biscuit tin ballot is pretty low. Photo: Office of the Clerk, Parliament

They call it the biscuit tin – the ballot box from which backbench MPs’ members’ bills (or at least the bingo chips which represent them) start their hopeful journey to become new laws.

Unbelievably, it’s a real biscuit tin – bought 30 years ago (complete with biscuits, apparently) from a DEKA store before the chain disappeared. It was then rinsed (presumably) and repurposed to hold enough housie counters for each backbencher. 

I kid you not. “Housie counters” is officially what Parliament uses for this most democratic of Government processes. 

Only in New Zealand, surely, would members’ bills be chosen using a 30-year-old biscuit tin and bingo counters. Photo: Office of the Clerk

Each counter – up to a maximum of one for each of the 93 non-executive MPs – links to a member’s bill sitting in a dusty pile waiting to see the light of day.

Each represents the possibility for meaningful change – allowing same sex marriage, preventing waka jumping, banning genital mutilation, making it compulsory for primary schools to teach foreign languages. And more.

But with almost 70 tokens in the tin at the most recent count, and with the drawing of each new bill from the tin having to wait until another member’s bill progresses to its first reading, the probability of any MP’s bill being plucked from biscuit tin obscurity is pretty small. 

What is a law change that would be agreed by a near two-thirds majority of non-executive MPs? Click here to comment.

The chance a member’s bill will blossom into legislation is even smaller – most get unceremoniously dumped. (The most oft-quoted example of a crazy trivial members’ bill is National MP Nuk Korako’s 2016 “lost luggage” bill, allowing airport authorities to no longer have to place newspaper advertisements for auctions of lost property.) 

But important bills get ignored too.

Members’ bills get debated every second Wednesday the house is sitting. Sounds like a lot until you remember Parliament only sits for 90 days a year; alternate Wednesdays is about 14 days – if you’re lucky and nothing urgent usurps members’ bill debates.

Labour back bench MP Louisa Wall has been lucky in the biscuit tin lottery. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Some fortunate MPs get several bills drawn out during their career – Labour’s Louisa Wall is one

Others might be in Parliament for decades and never get lucky. 

It’s a frustrating and random system – particularly if you are a backbencher with a passion for change. 

A new rule change

Then suddenly, with no fanfare, heralded by just two lines on page 36 of the relatively obscure three-yearly 2020 Review of Standing Orders, there’s a new way, allowing for “the automatic introduction of members’ bills which receive formal expressions of support from at least 61 non-executive members”.

What the rule change is saying is if a backbench MP can get 60 other “non-executive” members – that’s anyone who isn’t a minister – to support his or her bill, it automatically gets introduced.

It’s a tough call – there are 120 MPs, of whom 27 are in the executive team – 26 ministers plus Speaker Trevor Mallard, who introduced the change. So a bill would need two-thirds support of remaining MPs.

Under the present Parliament, even if Labour, the Greens, ACT and the Māori Party supported a piece of legislation, National could still block it being introduced under the 61 member rule.

You’d have to build consensus.

Chlöe Swarbrick reckons cross-party consensus isn’t impossible on some issues. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick isn’t daunted. She’s a big supporter of the new rule; she pushed hard for it with the Standing Order Committee.

It’s all about building cross-party consensus on a topic MPs might feel strongly about, but which their parties probably don’t have an official stance on, Swarbrick says. Getting change on an issue that’s not politically controversial and might be a big deal for only a small percentage of the electorate.


Banning greyhound racing, for example, she says. It’s a Green Party policy, but probably not top of the list of priorities to push with Labour.

Or ending the ‘charitable purpose’ tax loophole which allows cereal company Sanitarium, which is owned by the Seventh-day Adventist Church, to not pay income tax. The ACT Party is big on this reform too, and the rules have tightened up overseas. 

The Greens and ACT (which also collaborated on the End of Life Choice bill) would be hoping the loophole change would be small and uncontroversial enough to get 61 non-executive MPs over the line.

“Allowing bills which are widely supported to be introduced to the house… is a positive step towards encouraging members to be better parliamentarians.”

Speaker Trevor Mallard

Trevor Mallard says the rule change had itself languished for a decade in the Standing Orders committee, but it was something he promoted after getting the Speaker’s job after the 2017 election.

Speaker Trevor Mallard has been keen to improve Parliament’s culture. Promoting consensus may be part of that. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

“Allowing bills which are widely supported to be introduced to the house where they can be scrutinised is in my view an encouraging step forward for the Parliament.

“It is also a positive step towards encouraging members to be better parliamentarians.”

A test case

Swarbrick says last year’s Crimes (Definition of Female Genital Mutilation) Amendment Bill was seen in Parliament as a test case for changing the rules. 

The bill amended the 1961 Crimes Act to update the definition of female genital mutilation so all types of mutilation are illegal in New Zealand. It was the sort of bill it was hard not to support, but it wasn’t on the Government’s priority list. Leaving it to the biscuit tin ballot meant it could have been years before it was pulled out. If ever. 

So MPs got together with the Speaker’s office to try to make it happen, Swarbrick says.

“Parliament is the master of its own destiny – it can change processes. So there was consultation with the Speaker’s office and Parliament’s Business Committee about how to make it happen.”

The consensus approach included the bill having four sponsors from four different parties: Labour’s Priyanca Radhakrishnan, the Greens’ Golriz Ghahraman, NZ First’s Jenny Marcroft, and National’s Jo Hayes.

The new 61-member support rules basically create an easier process for what already happened with the female genital mutilation bill, Swarbrick says.

“You could do it, but it was an arduous process and it could be blocked by one dissenting voice.”

Potential for change

University of Auckland politics lecturer Dr Lara Greaves, a member of the Public Policy Institute, says the change to the standing orders rules took her by surprise – it wasn’t widely talked about beforehand.

But she calls it “major news” and “a major constitutional change”.

Lara Greaves sees this as a major constitutional change. Photo: Elise Manahan

She wonders how easy it will be to get the required 61 supporters for a bill in the present Government.

Still in the future, she reckons it could be useful to push forward an MP’s individual project – and might be used by backbenchers to get some public profile.

“I can see there’s potential there. A backbench MP could back a non-controversial, non-partisan issue, lobby a bunch of people and push something through.” 

However, getting MPs to give their formal backing to a bill coming from the other side of the house might be a sticking point, she says. 

And there’s the opportunity for the rule change to be used to get some harder line issues – abortion for example – back on the table.

“The biscuit tin is hilarious – I have a picture of it I show my students. But it’s not an efficient system.”

Lara Greaves

“It’s exciting. You could get policy through for people wanting change. There’s potential there, particularly when it’s around smaller or community issues; when it’s well-drafted policy and affecting a relatively small number of people.”

It’s certainly an improvement on the present system.

“The biscuit tin is hilarious – I have a picture of it I show my students. But it’s not an efficient system.”

Swarbrick is also a fan – not least because it might just get MPs from different parties working together.

“It’s a big change and I’m excited about it,” she says. “It’s going to be really interesting politically to see whether the two larger parties are going to enable their members to take an independent stance on some issues.” 

Chlöe Swarbrick and David Seymour sparred on a TVNZ youth debate in 2017. Now they might have to work more together. 

She says she sees opportunities for the Greens to work with parties on the right – even ACT, as they did with the euthanasia debate.

“There are definitely social issues where there could be overlap. I am vehemently against much of their economic poIicy, but I will work with anyone willing to progress other issues. 

“We have a strong track record there.”

Lifting the lid

So what exactly is in the biscuit tin that might potentially get MPs working together?

Anyone interested in the bills in the biscuit tin can check here.

The list will be updated on Wednesday, with the first post-election ballot. The contenders include members’ bills most people would be hard pressed to say were a political hot potato, or even a bad idea. 

Think National’s Matt Doocey’s “Policing (Killing a Police Dog) Amendment Bill”; Labour MP Marja Lubeck’s “Prohibition of Conversion Therapy Bill”; National Stuart Smith’s “Sunscreen (Product Safety Standard) Bill” and National’s Melissa Lee’s “Fair Trading (Gift Card Expiry) Amendment Bill”. 

Then there’s Alfred Ngaro’s “Life Jackets for Children and Young Persons Bill”, although that will need to get picked up by another MP following Ngaro’s departure from Parliament.

Who doesn’t think it’s a good idea for kids to wear life jackets?

All that’s needed now is 61 water safety enthusiast MPs.

Nikki Mandow was Newsroom's business editor and the 2021 Voyager Media Awards Business Journalist of the Year @NikkiMandow.

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