Parliament can take urgency whenever it wants, allowing it to rush new laws into force with limited consideration and public scrutiny. Sir Geoffrey Palmer explains the case for change.
Parliament’s Standing Orders allow urgency to be taken whenever a majority of MPs agree. In effect, this means that the Government, with assistance from one or two small parties, can take urgency whenever it wants.
When urgency is taken, Parliament’s standard procedures are suspended. A proposed law can be sped through all of its remaining stages in one session, avoiding the scrutiny and public consultation that is normally required under Parliament’s rules.
It can even pass a proposed law through all of its stages in one day, with no public consultation and very little time for MPs to properly consider it. Though it is rare, this has happened.
In the current government’s first two years of office (2008-2010), it used urgency to pass 17 laws into force. In 2011, Parliament changed its rules to allow for longer sitting hours, and since then use of urgency has reduced – but it has sometimes been used to pass significant laws without public scrutiny.
In our view, the current provisions for urgency give the Government power that is unnecessary and can be abused. We think the use of urgency should be limited. It should be available only when there is broad agreement among MPs that it is needed.
In our draft constitution, we propose that urgency be allowed only if 75 percent of MPs agree.
Another approach would be to allow urgency to be taken only if there was a genuine emergency that demanded rapid action.
Either of these options would set the bar much higher than it is now, and prevent governments from using urgency to rush legislation through with unnecessary haste and to avoid public scrutiny.
Many other countries have a second house of Parliament, which can recommend changes to proposed laws and require the House of Representatives to take a second look. New Zealand doesn’t have that. Our Parliament has only one House. It’s important that proper procedures are followed, to protect people and to preserve the basic principles of law.