Law-making 101 (part one)

14 Feb

Like many New Zealanders, until a year ago I knew next to nothing about how legislation passes through parliament.  A failing of our school system perhaps or [as in my case] more likely just a lack of interest, many New Zealanders have a limited understanding of how involved in the process they could be. Often the opportunity for regular kiwi’s to have their say on proposed laws is lost as a result. A further downside of this is when criticism is leveled against the parliamentary system, such as with the current discussion (See: radionz, Greens, idealog, Greens) about the increasing use of urgency to pass bills into law, many people do not realise the true implications of the issue.

In two blog posts I am going to briefly outline how legislation passes through parliament to become law and discuss the implications of the increasing use of urgency.

Before we can understand why the increasing use of urgency to pass laws is raising concerns with people across the political spectrum, it is necessary to understand how laws get passed in New Zealand.  There are seven stages for a bill (proposed law) to proceed through, three to six being the most vital.

1.    Introduction: A bill is made publically available and is announced in the House. There are four types of bill that can be introduced, Government bills which are part of the governments legislative programme to enable their policy platform, Members bills which can be introduced by members other than ministers; Local bills that are prompted by local authorities and deal with matters confined to a particular locality and Private bills- which are uncommon and provide for a particular interest in the form of an exemption for the general law for an individual or group of people (for example, it would enable two people to marry who are too closely related to married such as adopted siblings).  Bills are publically available here.

2.    First Reading:  This is when the bill is first debated in the House and when it is decided if a bill should progress further to a select committee.  If the bill is defeated in votes then that is the end of the bill. A fifty-plus-one percentage of the vote is needed for the bill to proceed. At present, with 121 members in parliament, 61 votes are needed. This is the case in the second and third readings as well.

3.    Select Committee: This is when the public have a chance to get involved. Select committees are made up of politicians from across parties.  They invite public submissions on the bill and then hold public hearings to listen to some of those who made submissions.  After hearing all the submissions, those on the committee work through issues raised and decide on any changes that need to be made to address and concerns from the public submissions.

4.    Second Reading: A bill is read a second time to the House. Members of parliament debate the bill and any changes that have been recommended by the select committee. Again at this stage, if the vote is lost then this is the end of the bill.

5.    Committee of the Whole House: If the bill progresses through the vote then it is again debated in the house, however it is a less formal debate and the speaker of the house is not present.  The bill is examined closely and the debate can take several days.

6.    Third Reading: Changes made in the previous stage are incorporated and the bill is summed up in the third reading.  The bill has a final vote before going to last stage of the process.  Bills are not commonly rejected at this stage.

7.    Royal Assent:  The bill is signed by the Queen or the Queens representative the Governor General (Presently Jerry Mataparae) and then becomes law.

If this seems like pretty dry stuff, then going along to a select committee meeting can be a bit more exciting.  All of the meetings are open to the public at some stage and details are published here.  Along with learning about what bills are under consideration (the media attend only a very small proportion of the meetings) attending a meeting can be enlightening experience to see the relaxed and respectful behaviour of the politicians towards one another.  Unlike in the House, which is run in a combative debate style, select committee meetings are reasonably collaborative process across party lines.  In the part two of this blog I will discuss the impact that operating under urgency has for this legislative process and particularly for the select committee section of the process.

Kiri Stevens


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