The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Overuse of Urgency (law-making 101: part two)

21 Mar

In the past year there has been growing concern that the National government has been abusing their power to pass laws under urgency. ‘Urgency’ is a normal parliamentary tool used to help deal with a backload of work but critics argue increasingly the use of urgency to pass laws is threatening transparency, scrutiny in the normal select committee process and the public’s ability to engage with this process. Some bills that have been passed under urgency since 2008 include the sacking of Environment Canterbury’s elected council, the increase of GST and the introduction of National Standards for primary schools. This is the second part of a blog on Law-making 101. I will briefly explain what ‘urgency’ is and how it is potentially being abused. Several media and blog sites have commented on this here, here and here

A minister may move an urgency motion for specified business, particularly bills. The motion can be moved without advance notice, and is not debated by the House, although the minister must inform the House why the Government wishes to take urgency. There are two main effects of urgency: firstly, the sitting hours of the house can be extended and secondly, the House must proceed with all business until it is concluded. If a bill is introduced under urgency, it must pass through all the stages (see previous blog) without going to select committee. Normally, a bill cannot go through more than one stage per day.

On many bills there is significant public participation in the process and this is where passing bills under urgency becomes problematic. Under urgency, bills do not have to go through the normal process and can skip the select committee stage. Thus public have no significant space to be a part of the decision making process. In a report presented to a select committee reviewing the processes surrounding urgency, Victoria University Professor Elizabeth McLeary stated, “we’re not saying urgency should never be used, but there needs to be greater distinction between when it’s a result of the government being frustrated with the pace its legislation is progressing through the House, as opposed to the times when there is a genuine need for something to be fast-tracked.”

While in many cases the extended hours under urgency are needed to get through a backlog of work, bills that are being rushed through because of impatience are less likely to receive the kind of scrutiny that is paid to bills that occur under normal circumstances.

Some recent bills since 2008 that have been passed under urgency include:

1. Education (National Standards) Amendment Bill implemented national standards in primary schools.
2. Employment Relations Amendment Bill introduced 90-day trial period for small companies and allowed employers to consider KiwiSaver contributions when negotiating pay increases.
3. Taxation (Urgent Measures and Annual Rates) Bill introduced tax cuts, cut some aspects of Kiwisaver, including holding employer contribution levels at 2 per cent rather than increasing up to 4 per cent.
4. Energy (Fuels, Levies, And References) Biofuel Obligation Repeal Bill removed Labour’s requirement for an increasing proportion of petrol and diesel sales to be biofuels.
5. Electricity (Renewable Preference) Repeal Bill removed Labour’s 10-year ban on new fossil-fuelled thermal electricity generation.
6. Local Government (Auckland Reorganisation) Bill was the first of three bills for the new Super City in Auckland. It provided for the end-date of the previous city councils, set up the Auckland Transition Agency to manage the change, and restricted the powers of the city councils until the new Auckland Council was born.
7. Environment Canterbury (Temporary Commissioners and Improved Water Management) Bill replaced Environment Canterbury’s elected council with government appointed commissioners until 2013. Gave powers to impose a moratorium on water and discharge permits.
8.Taxation (Budget Measures) Bill increased GST to 15 per cent and cut income taxes.
9. Canterbury Earthquake Response Bill gave government greater powers to deal with recovery after the September earthquake. Set up the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Commission.
10.Employment Relations (Film Production Work) Amendment Bill so-called Hobbit Bill – specified workers on film productions are independent contractors unless they specifically entered into an employment agreement.

Some, such as that Canterbury Earthquake Response Bill, are clearly necessary. But a cut to income taxes or the implementation of national standards for primary schools? Many of these bills are highly controversial and would benefit the most from public consultation. Regardless of our party allegiances, these bills apply to all of us and overuse of urgency on bills that there is little need to is an abuse of the power invested by the public in the government. Why should we care? Because bills that have substantial public input result in good laws that can stand the test of time.

Kiri Stevens


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