MPs on notice over written question feud, reform possible

Trevor Mallard continues his very promising start as Speaker. He has introduced innovations to try to help the flow of questions and answers, he has been balanced, and has penalised interjections that breach his guidelines in a balanced way. And he has been prepared to adjust his guidelines as he sees how they work in practice.

Question time (Oral Questions) has been working better as a result.

See Speaker Mallard plans to let the game flow

Trevor Mallard says he wants to be a hands-off Speaker in Parliament — if MPs are prepared to play ball. Mallard spoke to Sam Sachdeva about which predecessor is his role model and his plans for parliamentary reform.

On Friday Mallard warned all MPs over the written question feud that had escalated into large numbers of questions to Ministers being submitted by the National Opposition.

Newsroom: MPs on notice over written questions furore

Speaker Trevor Mallard has put both sides of Parliament on notice in the war over written questions, warning them he expects a higher standard once the House resumes in 2018.

Speaking to Newsroom, Mallard said it was “very early days” in the new Parliament, but he expected both sides to resolve the situation by the new year.

“There’s clearly a bit of ‘young bull, old bull’ head bashing going on, and that is pretty inevitable as a settling down of new and different roles.

“I think it’s fair to say I wouldn’t be happy if the current approach from either side continued in the long term … I don’t want us to be in this situation after Christmas.”

“Members are meant to be individually approving each of their questions and I’m not convinced that’s happening, and ministers are meant to be individually approving each of their replies and I’m not convinced that’s happening either, but it’s not my role to dig deeper into either side.

“What I hope is that the Government eventually gets to the point of fulfilling its undertakings to be open and transparent.”

That’s a gentle but pointed reminder of what Jacinda Ardern had promised but have not yet delivered.

Mallard said he would not comment on the quality of the Government’s answers, “other than to say if it continued like that for a long period of time then I would get anxious”.

Asked specifically about decisions to decline written questions asking for a list of briefings, he acknowledged he had used the same approach while in opposition.

He has asked thousands of questions of Ministers in the past. He knows most of the tricks of Parliamentary process, a lot of it from his own experience.

While there were some cases where it was justified to withhold information, Mallard said “most stuff … should be able to be got out there by one route or another”.

However, he described written questions as “sort of like a last resort”, and instead believed it would be better to establish an automated method of releasing information.

“There was a strong view [in past discussions] that if you could get a system that was pretty much automatic, transparent, didn’t require application, then that would be better.

That sounds like significant reform, not just of systems but also of attitudes and practices of Ministers and their departments.

“That obviously takes time, it takes a bit of discussion with the Ombudsman to work out where lines should be.

“Eventually getting some websites going which contain most of that material, for example, Cabinet papers two months after they’ve been to Cabinet automatically up unless there’s a good reason not to, just that sort of stuff would mean you’d have a lot of access to, actually quite boring information, but access to what’s going on.”

Opening up more public mechanisms for transparency was the best approach, he said.

“Frankly, the idea that the written parliamentary question is the mechanism for transparency generally … it would be very sad if it had to be that, because I think it’s not just parliamentarians, everyone should be able to access the matters which should be publicly available.”

I hope Mallard has success with this sort of reforming and the necessary cultural shift.

National MP and shadow leader of the House Simon Bridges said the Opposition remained concerned that the Government was “simply not giving any respect to” the written questions process.

Leader of the House Chris Hipkins refused to speak to Newsroom about the issue, with a spokesman saying he had said all he intended to on the matter and was focused on “delivering for New Zealanders”.

There is little sign of progress so far.

 

Should major reforms go to referendum?

Labour were slammed for campaigning on potentially major tax changes that would be determined by a ‘panel of experts’ after the election and could be implemented without a mandate.

Winston Peters wants to negotiate major economic and social reforms. If he succeeds, should these reforms be decided by the people via a binding referendum?

NZ First policy is to let people decide via referendums.

Or should any major changes wait until after the next election to see if there is a mandate for them?

It would be highly ironic if NZ First succeed in reversing ‘the neo-liberal experiment’ started in 1984 with major reforms without a mandate. One of the biggest criticisms of David Lange’s Labour government was in making major changes that most people hadn’t voted for.

Peters has already promised referendums on some relatively minor things like smacking, number of MPs and Maori seats.

To be consistent any major economic or social policies negotiated to form a new government should go to the people to decide on whether they support them.

7.2% of the vote is nowhere near sufficient to force through major changes without getting popular support.

Cannabis law reform – when, how, not if

It may take a change of government but it looks likely cannabis (and other drug) law will be reformed. It’s just a matter of when and how.

The National Party is the main impediment to drug law reform.

Stuff: What would happen if New Zealand legalised cannabis?

Peter Dunne, the bespectacled politician in the bow-tie, was the unlikely hero of drug reform.

Not really. I’ve known he was open to cannabis law change six years ago because I asked him about it.

In May, the Associate Health Minister ventured that “some, if not all” class C drugs should be reclassified and regulated.

That Dunne, a 63-year-old, 11-term MP should be the one to fly the kite for drug reform – and hit no particular turbulence – said a lot. Perhaps he was not such an unlikely hero after all.

Three-quarters of adult New Zealanders have tried cannabis. Diversion for low-level personal cannabis use is common. And the Government has recently made allowances for some medicinal cannabis use.

So, what if it was legal?

Stuff has just launched “a major series exploring that prospect”.

What would happen if farmers could sow cannabis crops? Would gangs suffer from it becoming legal? Could our health system manage a possible surge in patients with addiction problems? Is there a massive tax windfall awaiting us in a regulated market?

It’s time we explored these questions in detail as, in all probability, a regulated market draws nearer.

There are signs cannabis prohibition could be headed the same way as the ban on same-sex marriage. Only a year or two before a conservative MP stood in New Zealand’s Parliament to celebrate “the big gay rainbow” that welcomed same sex marriage, that law change appeared unlikely, at best. We could be in the middle of the same kind of sea-change right now.

poll last year suggested almost two-thirds of New Zealanders believed possession of a small amount of cannabis for personal use should be either legal (33 per cent) or decriminalised (31 per cent).

The split between those for legalisation and those for decriminalisation reflects where the debate really resides: not whether we should change cannabis laws – but how.

This is strong public support for change.

Expert opinion weighs even more heavily in favour of change.

We start today by explaining the basic differences between depenalisation, decriminalisation and legalisation.

To be clear: this project does not mean we’re supporting cannabis use or even advocating for law reform. It means we’re advocating addressing the cannabis question head-on, through a candid conversation about the benefits and drawbacks of a change in drug policy.

The debate is at a tipping point and in need of informed discussion in the mainstream. And that includes everyone – the dread-locked, the sports jocks and the bow-tied.

This series will help drive the debate and will hopefully get through to reluctant MPs.

The status quo on drug law is untenable.

 

Abortion law reform

This morning The Nation asked Is it time for abortion law reform?

The Nation has spoken to a number of women about their experiences. Some didn’t want to be identified.

The common theme is that seeking an abortion in New Zealand is a drawn-out process that adds stress and discomfort to an already fraught situation.

“It’s unnecessarily complicated, it’s out of date,” says Dame Margaret Sparrow, who has been advocating for abortion law reform for decades.

“I think it’s demeaning to women because women can’t make the decision for themselves – the decision has to be made by two certifying consultants.

“And also, I don’t think we need grounds for abortion – 98 percent are done on the grounds of mental health. I think that’s ridiculous.”

Under New Zealand law, abortion is a crime. But the law outlines a few scenarios where women can obtain an abortion at under 20 weeks’ gestation:

  • if the pregnancy is a risk to the physical or mental health of the mother
  • if there’s a substantial risk that the child would be “seriously handicapped”
  • if the child is a result of incest
  • if the women is “severely subnormal”.

Handicapped and subnormal are not terms you hear much any more.

The way abortion law works in practice in New Zealand is outdated and outlandish, demanding dishonesty from women seeking abortions as well as from doctors rubber stamping them – if the woman is lucky, otherwise it is degrading.

When a woman decides to seek an abortion, she first has to get a referral from her doctor. She has to undergo a number of tests, including an ultrasound.

She’ll see two doctors, called certifying consultants, who give the sign-off for the termination.

She’ll also be offered counselling. In some areas it’s compulsory.

Ms Ruscoe said for her, the process took a month.

“I had pretty much every side-effect it is possible to get. It made it really difficult to work, really difficult for me to keep it from people around me. Emotionally it was really difficult, it was stressful, it was pretty much the longest month of my life.”

For A, the process was similar.

“It was extremely tiring. It took every ounce of energy to be able to continue to just go through my day-to-day without letting everything go. That was hard.”

And a bad experience with a social worker made it much more difficult.

“It felt like I was at the mercy of everybody else and their opinions, and what they thought was best.

“It is my body and I made the best decision I could at the time and I don’t regret it.

The law needs to properly reflect modern public attitudes and practices. But MPs and parties don’t seem keen on doing anything about it.

But the Government says change isn’t necessary.

“We’ve made it quite clear it’s not something we’re planning to review at the moment,” said Minister of Justice Amy Adams.

“Our main concern is that the law is working as Parliament intended, and I haven’t’ seen any indication that that clumsy language is affecting its operation. That’s the critical thing for me.”

The whole way it operates is more than clumsy, it’s crazy – women just about have to claim they are crazy to get an abortion.

National isn’t the only political party apparently ducking for cover. The Labour Party wants a Law Commission review of abortion law, but justice spokesperson and deputy leader Jacinda Ardern declined to be interviewed for this story.

Her spokesperson says that’s because it’s a conscience issue rather than a party one.

That is, doesn’t want to do anything about it.

The Greens and ACT support decriminalising abortion. The Green Party’s Jan Logie says changing the law isn’t a topline priority, but it’s a fundamental human rights issue.

“When we have a law that is being loosely interpreted, we can feel grateful but we can’t feel secure. I really think that is another call for us to act and make sure our law reflects what we want.”

‘Not a topline priority’ means they won’t do anything about it. That’s a political way of appearing to support something but not doing anything.

The national government won’t do anything, and no one else is trying to do anything about.

There are no current Members’ Bills in the system on it.

Women are poorly served by their Parliamentary representatives on this.

 

 

 

 

Edwards: 4. Chuck our disconnected deadwood

Political scientist and commentator Bryce Edwards believes that “New Zealand badly needs a revolt against the current political system for the good of our democracy” and has published “my 10-point manifesto for change in New Zealand”.

Each of his ten ‘pledges’ will be posted separately this week.

Pledge Four: Chuck our disconnected deadwood

Politics is now just a career – MPs want a job for life. And they want to be remunerated like CEOs or other elite professionals – putting them into the top one per cent of income earners.

Most New Zealanders struggle to buy their own house, but the average MP owns two and a half houses. They all have significant superannuation funds invested. It’s no wonder MPs are disconnected from real life and real people. We now have a Parliament of the rich.

But democracy works better when it’s a calling, not a highly paid career. Amateur politicians standing for office from all walks of life make for a very different type of Parliament and Government. An anti-establishment party could insist on MPs taking home the average salary. This would keep them in touch with constituents. And it would ensure MPs don’t cling on to the life raft of Parliament, simply because of the riches it provides.

Edwards: 3. Reform, reform, reform

Political scientist and commentator Bryce Edwards believes that “New Zealand badly needs a revolt against the current political system for the good of our democracy” and has published “my 10-point manifesto for change in New Zealand”.

Each of his ten ‘pledges’ will be posted separately over the next few days.

Pledge Three: Reform, reform, reform

The MMP electoral system works very well, but needs further reform. All existing parties have an interest in preserving the status quo, or only allowing minor tweaks – hence no change occurs, despite an Electoral Commission inquiry and others recommending change.

The most obvious change needed is the abolition of the five per cent threshold that undemocratically prevents new parties challenging incumbents. This would also solve the electoral seat farce in which parties are exempted from the threshold, and various deals are done to game the system.

Labour backing RMA bill for now

Recently National introduced a Resource Management reform bill that would leave environmental protections at the insistence of the Maori Party and Peter Dunne. Dunne was involved in writing the original Resource Management Act.

Initially two Labour spokespeople voiced some concerns, but a third has now said that Labour will support the reform bill to committee stage at least.

But what should be a positive for Labour has been laced with negativity.

Megan Woods: RMA changes must protect the environment

RMA changes must protect the environment

A Government bill to reform the RMA must not be used as a chance to tinker with its key role of protecting the environment, says Labour’s Environmental spokesperson Megan Woods.

“We will have to look at the proposed changes carefully as there are 200 pages in this Bill. We will be watching to make sure there is a decent chance for people to have their say through the select committee stage over what will clearly be a complex piece of legislation.

“The RMA is New Zealand’s core environmental protection and those protections must remain. That is our bottom line.

“Our offer to work together on sensible reforms is still on the table. This offer stands.

“We will be concerned at any changes around appeals to the Environment Court or any undermining of case law around the environment.

“We will be looking to see if the Bill elevates private property rights above wider community interests.

“This new Bill must meet these environmental bottom lines. We will be looking carefully at the Government’s intentions,” says Megan Woods.

: RMA changes skim surface for Maori participation

Protecting the environment and getting the right balance for sustainable development will be a core test of the proposed RMA changes, says Labour’s Maori Development spokesperson Nanaia Mahuta.

David Parker: Labour will back RMA changes at first reading

Labour will back changes to the Resource Management Act because it is a step in the right direction, Labour’s Environmental spokesperson David Parker says.

“We have always said we would support sensible process improvements to the RMA. We are pleased National lost the battle to undermine the core environmental protections in the Act.

“These process changes are modest and will do little to fix the causes of the housing crisis. But they will have some positive impacts around the margins.

“For that reason Labour will support this Bill to select committee.

“This legislation is no magic solution. It is an abject surrender by National because – after years of blaming the RMA for out-of-control housing prices – they know gutting the Act is not the solution.

“Labour has offered to work with Nick Smith to come up with meaningful changes but he has repeatedly refused to do so,” David Parker says

So Labour will vote for the bill to be introduced, which is positive.

But Parker chose to lace what should have been a good news story with political vitriol. So even on overdue RMA reform the impression is left of a negative Labour Party.

Parker replaced Woods as Labour’s Environmental spokesperson in Monday’s reshuffle.

RMA reform – same old opposition

Nick Smith says National is reviewing the most contentious parts of it’s last (failed) attempt at RMA reform and stated “National’s “preference” to build support beyond a bare majority” but “made it clear that the party was prepared to do so with just the support of the single MP of the Act Party”.

National pushes on with Resource Management Act reform is a bit contradictory.

After failing to gain the support it needed to pass changes proposed in 2012 during the last term, today National signalled that it could use its stellar election result to proceed – with little change.

Although Environment Minister Nick Smith said it was National’s “preference” to build support beyond a bare majority, the MP for Nelson made it clear that the party was prepared to do so with just the support of the single MP of the Act Party, which has long objected to what it considers to be an anti-development bias in the environmental legislation.

“Our first duty is make changes to the RMA that make the act work better for New Zealand. If we can’t get the support of the Maori Party and the United Future Party to be able to advance the reforms, then we will still be progressing with the support of the ACT Party,” Smith said.

Smith signalled that National was reviewing the most contentious of its proposed reforms of the RMA, covering changes to the act’s principles – a move critics have argued would aid development – but otherwise the tone of today’s speech was consistent with the last term.

“It’s consistent with the direction that was set in 2012, but there’s still a lot of detail in the amendments to deliver the overall package of reform,” Smith said.

He expected “intense discussion” over some of the “hundreds” of amendments to the existing legislation.

Not surprisingly the ‘Opposition” opposes it, for now at least.

Labour leader Andrew Little

…said the changes would do nothing to cut the price of building or increase the supply of affordable homes.

“National has spent six years claiming they will change the RMA to make housing more affordable but have yet to produce any tangible solutions. Nick Smith’s proposals are underwhelming and show the Government is out of ideas.

“It is critical that changes to benefit housing are not used as a smokescreen to undermine the environmental protection standards.”.

NZ First leader Winston Peters…

…said if the government was to curb rising house prices it needed to deal with speculation, immigration and a lack of construction.

“The minister’s planned changes to the RMA to address housing affordability do nothing of the sort, they are just a sop to developers. He is blaming the RMA for a high price of Kiwi homes, the lack of supply and making speculators rich as a red herring to National’s complete failure.”

The Green Party…

…said the changes would not build more homes.

“The Government has the ability to build affordable homes and address the housing crisis now but it is simply not doing it. New Zealand needs a major state home building programme, to meet the need for new homes and drive down high prices,” Green Party RMA spokesperson Julie Anne Genter said.

But the mayor of the major housing problem area approves.

The reforms would streamline “complex” processes for house-strapped Auckland, Mayor Len Brown says.

Brown said Auckland Council had been working closely with the government to find a solution to Auckland’s housing crises.

“From Auckland Council’s perspective, there is considerable scope to improve the RMA,” he said.

“In particular streamlining the complex processes councils are required to work within, reducing duplication and providing more affordable housing.

“I particularly welcome recognition of the needs of cities and urban areas, including housing and infrastructure, which the current legislation doesn’t cover well.

Wider support will depend on what changes National are prepared to make.

Radio NZ reports Smith’s RMA speech strident, says Dunne – Dunne has appeared to be peeved that so far he has been left out of the loop and doesn’t know if he will support changes or not.

He said he had thought the Government was moving down a more pragmatic path, but he was not so sure.

“I just don’t quite know what the intended strategy is here. This speech just leaves you wondering frankly.”

Mr Dunne said the speech was short on detail, so he was still no closer to knowing whether he could support any changes.

Maori Party co-leader Te Ururoa Flavell…

…said he still believed the Government was willing to compromise, even though it no longer needed their support.

“There’s a lot of water to go under the bridge yet, these things are by negotiation and I detect certainly a desire to work with us.

The detail and the debate is yet to come so it’s too early to tell how thios reform will be dealt with.

RMA reform proposal

NZ Herald: Nick Smith announces 10 dramatic changes to Resource Management Act
(Thanks for the link Kiiwi_Guy)

The Government has outlined its plans to dramatically reform the Resource Management Act, armed with new research which showed environmental regulations added $15,000 to the cost of a new home and $30,000 to the cost of a new apartment.

The high-level reforms were designed to reverse the skyrocketing price of housing in New Zealand, which the Government has blamed squarely on the costs, delays and uncertainties caused by the laws which govern how this country’s environment is managed.

In a speech in Nelson this evening, Environment Minister Nick Smith said overhauling the RMA was critical to addressing housing supply and affordability and encouraging economic growth, while also managing the environment.

Nick Smith’s ten RMA changes

1. Add management of natural hazards

 the management of significant natural hazards has got to be added. New Zealand is one of the most natural hazard prone countries in the world with significant risks from earthquakes, floods, landslides and volcanoes. I give one simple example to emphasise the point – the Bexley subdivision in Christchurch. Hundreds of pages of reports and submissions were written on the effects of this housing development covering birdlife, landscape, coastal impacts, effects of recreation, effects of Maori cultural values, but nowhere did any official consider the effects of land liquefying in an earthquake like what occurred in 2010 and 2011. This was despite this risk having clearly been identified by council natural hazard experts.

2. Recognise urban planning

We need to make is to properly recognise the urban environment. Eighty per cent of resource consents are about urban issues yet currently they rate no direct mention in the purposes and principles of the Act. It is as though the Act was designed for a Garden of Eden prior to the development of cities. The careful design of our urban environments so we have places to live, work, shop and play and the appropriate transport links to travel between them is core to the proper functioning of the Resource Management Act.

3. Prioritise housing affordability

 recognising the importance of more affordable housing. The Productivity Commission’s 2012 report noted a sharp shift in the type of housing being built since the RMA was enacted. They noted that 30 years ago, New Zealand built a healthy mix of new homes across the price spectrum whereas today new homes are pitched towards the top of the market. Thirty-five per cent of new homes built were sold below the then median house price as compared to just five per cent today.

4. Acknowledge importance of infrastructure

Good infrastructure is essential to the functioning of a modern nation – whether it be for transport, communication, water or energy. The stories of 19th century London, Auckland or Nelson without a reticulated sewer system emphasises the connection between the environment and infrastructure. Even today, many of our urban water pollution problems relate to poorly designed or maintained sewerage and storm water systems. The absence of any mention of the importance of good infrastructure is an anomaly in the RMA that needs addressing.

5. Greater weight to property rights

Give more explicit recognition to property rights. There always has to be a balance between the rights of a person to use their own land and the wider community interests, but the pendulum has swung too far. We are looking at amendments that limit the degree to which council officials can meddle in people’s lives. We also want greater discretion for councils to waive the need for resource consents where the wider environmental effects are negligible. So in examples like I cited with the Stoke Medical Centre, the Nelson Young Parents School or Bob Jones’ window, the council could waive the requirement for a consent.

6. National planning templates

Consolidate this mountain of RMA rules across our councils. It does not make sense for a small country of four and a half million people to have each of the councils reinventing the wheel. For example, we have over 50 different definitions of how to measure the height of a building. We intend to legislate to require councils to use standard planning templates. Councils will still be able to choose from these templates what will apply in different areas but rather than having hundreds of different rules across the country in residential areas there will be a standardised range.

7. Speed up plan-making

Speeding up the plan-making process. The process set out in in Schedule One of the Act is cumbersome, inflexible and slow. It takes on average six years to complete a plan. We have had residential housing go from boom to bust and back to boom in this timeframe. The OECD has made plain that responsive and timely plan making is essential to avoiding the sort of property bubble that wreaked havoc in the recent Global Financial Crisis.

8. Encouraging collaborative resolution

Fostering a new collaborative way of resolving resource management issues. The RMA processes currently favour a litigious and adversarial approach. We have been experimenting with collaborative processes where those with a range of interests are encouraged to get around the table and find a balanced solution.

9. Strengthening national tools

strengthening the powers for national regulation. The RMA makes provision for National Policy Statements and National Environment Standards but these have been used infrequently. Our Government has done more in five years than previous governments in the preceding 18 years covering coastal management, freshwater management, metering of water takes, contaminated land and renewable electricity. However, these tools remain cumbersome. Take a simple issue like requiring all dairy farmers to fence their stock out of rivers. It is a policy most New Zealanders would agree with and indeed farmers and Fonterra have developed a Clean Streams Accord to that effect.

10. Internet for simplicity and speed

Reframe the Act into an era of electronic communications. The current Act still requires truckloads of paper to be shipped between submitters. For example, all submitters on a plan change must get a copy of other submitters’ views. There are sometimes 10,000 submitters to a plan and the council can be required to provide a paper copy to each of the other 9999 submissions.

The public notification requirements are equally arcane. Councils need to be required to have their full up-to-date resource management plans publicly available on the Net and in a form that is readily accessible and understandable to the general public. The age has also arrived that councils rather than being required to send out full applications and submissions in paper form need simply to make the information available on the Net.

Othere discussions: Greg Presland at The Standard: RMA reforms … be very afraid

David Farrar is still away in Africa.

Whale Oil musn’t be on Nick Smith’s mailing list (or his Creditor list). No post yet.

See the full speech notes here: OVERHAULING THE RESOURCE MANAGEMENT ACT