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  • Alex Heine-Sheldrake

Unneeded Urgency: Constitutional Criminals

ALEX HEINE-SHELDRAKE (HE/HIM)


Last week, the Act Party twitter posted a graphic celebrating the “disestablishment of the Māori Health Authority”, days before it had even entered parliament, a move as premature as the party’s leader in his Saturday night search for love. 


While the freshers were busy drinking, getting to know each other, and drinking more over the past couple of weeks, the new coalition government has been rushing significant legislation through Parliament under urgency. The latest in this saga is the Pae Ora (Disestablishment of the Māori Health Authority) Amendment Bill, which has faced widespread criticism.


Urgency allows the government to get through the lawmaking process much faster, even down to a couple of days, but should be used sparingly. As every disappointing Nuku notification has taught us, rushing that 50% assignment isn’t the best idea. Urgency skips the usual pause periods between votes on bills that normally allow MPs to closely read a bill and offer amendments. It's their job here to think about their constituents (a hard job for many politicians), and ensure the bill doesn’t harm them unintentionally. Without this scrutiny, governments risk passing laws that are ineffective at best, and outright harmful at worst. 


Most problematically, urgency skips the select committee stage. This is where the public can write submissions, speak to MPs about their thoughts on the bill, and suggest amendments. Without public consultation, bills often go through exactly how they were drafted, and with little concern for the constituents politicians represent. Obviously, cutting the time a law takes to pass, from 6-12 months to a couple of days, has its flaws.


Opposition parties have derided the government’s recent use of urgency, especially surrounding the Pae Ora bill. One critique is about the rushed process. Greens MP Chloe Swarbrick told Salient, “there needs to be regular scrutiny and conventions to ensure that legislation is going to operate in practice and do what it says on the tin.” Without proper process, the sloppy lawmaking urgency can cause rears its ugly head in a big way. 

Opponents also say it shows a disregard of Māori communities. Te Pāti Māori Co-Leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer described the Coalition as putting urgency before the wellbeing of tangata whenua, and said she was “ashamed to be in this House debating this bill.” She notes the government has not provided any alternatives, or communicated with iwi about the disestablishment process. This bill is undeniably a change that has deep and wide-reaching impacts for vulnerable Māori communities, and it is clear the Māori community at large is outraged about their treatment through this process. The end result is a bill passed to fulfill an election commitment with no care for or attempt to consult about its effect on the people of Aotearoa.


The government remains firm that it is not misusing urgency rules. Leader of House Chris Bishop told Salient that, “the repeal of the Māori Health Authority is a very simple piece of legislation and all of the issues were well canvassed in the last parliament so we don’t think [select committee] needs to happen.” In his speech introducing the urgency vote for a series of bills to the house, Bishop told parliament that these bills were ones the Government won a mandate for in the election, and therefore, because people knew they were coming, there was no need for consultation. This is how urgency is justified for the Pae Ora bill, and their repealing of Fair Pay Agreements. They also note that they need to fulfill their 100 day plan commitments. 


This is the only justification the government has provided for other legislation, such as the Smokefree changes. Other governments have used urgency for their 100-day plans before, but the coalition agenda means changes under urgency far more significant than anything in the past. Labour used urgency to increase parental leave in 2017; this government disestablished an entire government entity. 


Objectively, this government has used more urgency than anyone in a very long time. A study right here at Te Herenga Waka on the use of urgency showed that from 1987 to 2010, an average of 10 bills per term were put through under urgency. So far in 2024, 16 have been passed, more than previous governments did in their entire terms. 


The coalition has stretched the reasonable limits of urgency in parliament to pass a colossal legislative agenda, both in the individual bill’s significance and the sheer amount of bills. Important legislation is therefore being rushed past the public, and once we all lock back into the year and pay attention, this country will look like a very different place. 


 

In print under the title: 'Chris, David and Winston: Masters of Stealth'

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