Select committees need more independence

Select committees need more independence

Mr Mallard argues that this committee is too important to be a political plaything, and that someone who is more independent, and not beholden to ministers, should chair it. This is an excellent idea.

But why just the finance committee?

All of Parliament's select committees are important, and they all need more autonomy.

Select committees are supposed to be the engine room of Parliament.

Away from the theatrics of the debating chamber, they are supposed to be places where MPs leave party politics and petty point-scoring behind, and work constructively with other MPs, scrutinising legislation in the public interest.

A lot of the time they work well, but most select committees are so tightly controlled by the government of the day that they aren't able to be independent, or an effective check on the executive.

We have recently witnessed MPs in British select committees grilling media barons such as Rupert and James Murdoch, and former banking chiefs such as Robert Diamond. MPs insisted on interviewing reluctant witnesses. Their questioning was gruelling and went on for many hours..

I can't recall anything similar here, and I believe one of the reasons is the control governments exert over select committees.

The Government appoints all committee chairs, ensures it has a majority on all key committees and tightly controls their agenda and work. Most chairs meet the minister and other party members of their committee before each meeting, where they receive instructions and work out tactics.

Governments often use their majority on committees to vote down constructive amendments to improve legislation, or inquiries that could be politically awkward.

In recent years, the National Government has voted down inquiries into banking and the state of aged care, and severely curtailed an inquiry into milk prices.

Committee chairs set the agenda and decide how long committees will spend on each item of business. They may decide that submitters can have only five minutes to present their submission and answer questions.

This makes it impossible to ask in-depth questions. It also ensures that many who appear before select committees come away frustrated and disillusioned.

When ministers appear before select committees, their time is usually constrained. This makes it difficult to get beyond the flannel or to expose them to rigorous questioning.

Certainly, many select committee chairs try to be fair and non-partisan. When I chaired the health select committee, I refused to meet the minister beforehand or take orders from the Government, and I did my best to be fair and impartial.

Chester Borrows and the late Allan Peachey both earned a reputation for being fair and impartial chairs in the last Parliament, but in the end, they had to carry out their ministers' instructions.

I watched Mr Borrows rule out constructive proposals for improving the Alcohol Reform Bill, which I suspect he supported, because his minister had vetoed them.

When Lianne Dalziel tried to get an independent investigation into milk pricing last year, she was outmanoeuvred by the majority of Government MPs on the commerce committee.

The Government prevented the presentation of a report investigating the health of bees in New Zealand last year, presumably because the minister didn't like its recommendations.

There are many examples like this, where constructive work in a committee is undermined by a Government wanting to avoid political flak.

Committees should have more control over their agendas, the ability to require ministers and others to appear for extended lengths of questioning, and stronger investigative and inquiry powers, including the ability to commission independent research.

I would also like to see a requirement that the majority of select committees be chaired by non-government MPs, who are not beholden to the government.


Sue Kedgley