Time for an Independent Review of Parliament

All around the world people are questioning the relevance of political institutions, and public cynicism is growing, not only with politicians, but with the whole political system.

In America, the Occupy Wall Street movement is calling for a clean-up of the American political system, which they say is corrupted by lobbyists and by dysfunctional and bitter partisanship.

In Australia, a debate has been raging about their political system, with claims that it is being ‘dumbed down’, becoming a side show, and is in desperate need of reform. Columnist Katherine Murphy recently denounced their parliamentary Question Time as a pointless, banal and time-wasting ritual, which is “uncomfortably aggressive, spiteful and gladiatorial.” As a mechanism for genuine accountability, she wrote, it’s a joke. As a spectacle, it’s pathetic…..As a focal point for the political day it confirms the most crushing of truths; politics is progressively breaking all of our hearts.”

I believe it’s time we began a similar debate here about our parliamentary democracy, and how we can make it more effective, more modern and more relevant.

We live in a time of almost constant change. Yet our Parliament is a 19th century British institution, hidebound by rules and conventions, and it operates, a lot of the time, like an Old Boys Club.

Parliament often urges other sectors of society to be innovative and to embrace change. But there has been little innovation or change in the way our Parliament operates.

The last time there was any significant change, in fact, was in the eighties when Sir Geoffrey Palmer introduced a number of reforms including giving select committees more independence.

The problem is that Parliamentary democracy, like everything else, needs constant renewal or it will become stale and tired and out of touch, and less and less relevant.

And that is what is happening to our Parliament, in my view. It is becoming less relevant to the lives of ordinary New Zealanders, and many people are feeling alienated from our entire political process.

Many New Zealanders I talk to are turned off by the way our Parliament works; by the seeming irrelevance of so many of our debates, by the polarised and confrontational way we conduct business in the House, and by the constant use of urgency and by passing of due process.

108 bills passed through one or more stages under urgency in this Parliament and many were rammed through the House without any opportunity for public input or submissions.

This not only undermines our democracy; it erodes people’s confidence in Parliament as an institution.

If we are to restore credibility to our political system and get New Zealanders more politically engaged and active, I believe we need an independent review of Parliament, which would examine every aspect of the way Parliament works, and how it could be made more effective.

The sad reality is that there is seldom constructive dialogue or thoughtful debate in the House. A lot of the time MPs speak into a void, with no one listening to what they are saying. And general debate and question time, which ought to be show cases of our democracy, routinely degenerate into a pointless slanging matches, with MPs from the two major parties hurling abuse and insults at the ‘enemy’ on the other side.

Another problem with our political system is that it is dominated by the executive, or Cabinet, which controls a great deal of what Parliament does. As a result, much of the time Parliament operates as little more than a rubber stamp, and there are limited opportunities for Opposition MPs to have any real influence over policy and legislation.

This is disheartening, and contributes to the sense of frustration many MPs feel when they are not in government, and to bad behaviour in the House. Simon Power confessed recently that he ‘nearly went round the bend with the grinding negativity and lack of progress that can become so entrenched on the Opposition benches.’

If backbench and Opposition MPs had more opportunity to influence legislation and policy, I believe Parliament would be a more constructive and positive place.

Another concern is that unlike most other Westminster democracies, our Parliament has only one legislature, and no written constitution, so there are few checks and balances on the potential abuse of power, and few real opportunities to scrutinise the executive outside of Question Time.

I believe we need to give more independence, and influence, to the House of Representatives, so that it can counterbalance the power of the executive, and better hold the government to account.

I would like to see more independence for the Speaker, and a rule, such as exists in the United Kingdom, that the Speaker is elected by a free, secret vote, and severs all political affiliations. This would enable the Speaker to be a truly independent umpire in our Parliament.

Other reforms I would like to see are more ‘conscience’ or free votes; more time for special or urgent debates on relevant issues, and for private members bills and legislation not sponsored by government to be debated in Parliament. I would like to see select committees strengthened and made more independent, with strong investigative and inquiry powers such as American Congressional committees have, including the ability to quiz Ministers during inquiries, and to commission independent research.

These are just a few ideas about how Parliament could be reformed and modernised, to make it more effective. They are the sort of ideas that could be examined by a comprehensive, independent review of Parliament.



Sue Kedgley