52nd Parliament

Lazy Labour-led government's ponderous Parliamentary pace

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We're into the fifth Parliamentary sitting week and the new Labour-led government appears to be plumbing new depths of legislative laziness, having only managed to introduce three new bills since the 52nd Parliament commenced.

Contrast that to the Fifth National government who, across the first two sitting weeks of the 49th Parliament in December 2008, managed to introduce seven new pieces of legislation.

Things will undoubtedly change from Thursday when the government unveils the Half Year Economic and Fiscal Update along with Grant Robertson's much-hyped mini-Budget. Leader of the House Chris Hipkins has already indicated that the House will move into urgency after Question Time on the 14th to consider new legislation resulting from that mini-Budget.

That aside, the fact is that it's taken the new government more than twice as long to introduce less than half the new legislation that the previous National-led government managed in its opening stanza. It suggests that not only were the parties of the Labour-led government woefully unprepared for getting the Treasury benches, but now they have them they appear utterly clueless as to what to do with them.

The government has made a big deal about having a 100 day plan, but so far on day 49 it's more like a 100 day plod.

Labour not asleep at the wheel because they're not even in the car

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The Labour-led government's horror start to the 52nd Parliament continues this evening as they've been forced to start filibustering their own legislation as the House has sped through earlier legislation on the Order Paper.

Having commenced the 52nd Parliament by having their bluff called by National over whether they had the numbers to elect Trevor Mallard Speaker, resulting in an embarrassing backdown over Select Committee places, things seem to have gone from bad to worse for Labour.

The next disaster was when Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters were away for their first international summit trip, leading Labour Deputy Leader Kelvin Davis in charge. Over the course of three days Davis was torn to shreds in the House during Question Time, appearing to be completely out of his depth and inept. Prime Minister Ardern tried to brush his disastrous performance as him doing exactly what he was meant to do, which begs the question just how bad will it be when she thinks he's done a poor job?

Next was the rather inept keeping of Stuart Nash out of Question Time after he'd put his foot in his mouth over the introduction of GST on online goods. This was followed by Clare Curran bumbling of questions over openness and transparency in government, which has now seen her twice kept away from Question Time with Chris Hipkins having to take her questions instead in what appears to be an admission that Curran isn't up to her role.

In a separate incident, Labour lost an entire patsy question due to the letters of delegation for associate ministers having not been publicised yet.

Labour's ineptitude in the House appears to have been capped off this evening as Labour first deployed its backbenchers, then had to rush eight ministers to the House, including Chris Hipkins and Grant Robertson, to filibuster legislation on their own Order Paper. At the time of writing, government MPs are having to literally read subparts of the legislation they're speaking on and make up fluff around it. We've even had a speech on the meaning of the word "is".

What's phenomenal about this is that normally the government treasures House time, there's typically such a demand on it that it's difficult to get new legislation introduced because there's such a backlog to deal with. What we're seeing instead is a government who on the one hand claiming that they're busy, and on the other revealing that they're not so much asleep at the wheel, but that they're completely missing from the car of government, having fallen out of the driver's door some four miles down the round.

And while I was getting this post ready we've had a history lesson on the invention of the telephone, and the Oxford dictionary definition of email and email addresses.

Now there's not necessarily anything too bad about letting backbenchers get some House experience on technical bills, but when you're having to drag a third of your Cabinet back to the House to keep the filibuster going, it's starting to look like bad comedy.

The political week ahead 28 November 2017

Here's a bit of a look ahead at the week in politics. Apologies for not posting this yesterday, my son wasn't well so had him glued to my chest snoozing most of the day.

Tuesday

  • Caucus - All the parties have their caucus meetings from around 10am, so they'll be well into it by the time I've finished writing this blog! Haven't spied anything too exciting from the morning's caucus media run either.
  • National's Amy Adams is going to try and seek leave to introduce her paid parental leave amendment bill to Parliament at the start of Question Time. Leave to introduce this bill can be denied by any MP, though indications are that Labour at the least won't object this time. National has started a petition supporting this amendment, but I feel like they should have had this petition going two weeks ago to maximise on the media exposure the issue was getting. That way, Amy Adams' move to introduce the bill today would have given them a second bite at the cherry in promoting the petition.
  • Then there's Question Time, which I imagine will take place after any motions congratulating Prince Harry and Meghan Markle on their engagement. It'll be the first time that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Bill English have squared off in Question Time since the election.
  • That'll be followed by a bit more of the Address in Reply Debate before the government continues to work through the order paper.

Wednesday

  • Usual House business including Question Time. I don't think this Wednesday is a Members' Day, but I could be mistaken.

Thursday

  • Usual House business, including Question Time. Labour also expects to pass their Parental Leave and Employment Protection Amendment Bill, though this could change subject to Amy Adams' amendment bill being tabled on Tuesday afternoon.
  • Stats NZ is releasing Building Consents for October 2017, which will be interesting to see how they tracked during the post-election period while coalition negotiations took place.

Friday

  • As announced by Prime Minister Ardern, Finance Minister Grant Robertson will be giving a significant economic speech on Friday, where he'll announce when the half-year fiscal update will be released and the date of the Labour-led government's "mini-Budget".
  • Stats NZ is releasing provisional Overseas Trade Indexes for the September 2017 quarter. 

Crying a river over Parliamentary written questions

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Poor, poor Labour. How tough life in government must be for them. Or so you'd think with all the tweets over the past 48 hours regarding National submitting a whopping 6,254 written questions to Ministers.

Now it's fair to say that's a bloody huge number of questions. As way of comparison, the nearly ousted opposition in 2008 asked 619 questions in the first three weeks of the new Parliament - though keep in mind that the new Parliament only started on 8 December 2008, so they were pretty quickly into the holiday break.

In 2011 the Christmas break didn't curtail Labour, with the first three weeks of the 50th Parliament seeing 3,712 questions asked. In fact, those 3,712 questions were all lodged on one day - 21 December 2011.

As Newsroom's Sam Sachdeva noted, in the three weeks following the start of the 51st Parliament, 964 questions were lodged. Though what's missing from that analysis is that at the same time Labour was embroiled in its own leadership context, so evidently didn't really have much time to spend actually being an opposition. Plus they'd also been on the receiving end of one of their worst ever election defeats, so there was obviously a bit of wound licking going on. Whereas National managed a fantastic election night result for a three term government, so it makes sense that they're going to launch into opposition with a sense of vigour.

One thing that's been severely lacking from all this talk of Parliamentary questions is analysis of why there have been so many. What it's all stemmed from is a stoush between the Labour-led government and the National Party over getting answers to the question of who ministers have been meeting with during their first month in the job.

Who ministers meet with in their ministerial capacity is important, and there's a long history of both opposition parties and journalists trying to get that information released. National is just as guilty as Labour is at playing silly buggers with the release of that information in the past. But what seems to have happened this time is that National has had a host of questions about ministerial meetings knocked back as being too broad so, in retaliation and to make a point, they've gone ultra-specific instead.

As National's Chris Bishop pointed out, he was told that his day-by-day questions to Police Minister Stuart Nash were too broad, so instead he's asked for an hour-by-hour breakdown.

In many respects, the Labour-led government have only themselves to blame for the deluge of questions. If they'd played ball a bit more when the initial questions were asked of their ministerial diaries, they could have saved everyone, most importantly themselves, a lot of time.

Certainly, National isn't free of blame here, as they're going to an extreme to make a point, and weren't necessarily always forthcoming about the diaries of their own ministers during their time in the hot seat.

But the reality is that who and when ministers meet with people is important public information. We'd want to know if the Minister of Health had been meeting with pharmaceutical executives prior to a health announcement, just as it's useful to know if a Minister is guilty of white lies by professing prior engagements in avoiding Question Time.

The obvious solution is for Ministerial Services to introduce a system where by, say mid-month, a list of meetings that the Minister attended in the previous month for each of their portfolios, is released for the public. We already have a convention of sorts in play around Briefings to Incoming Ministers (BIMs) which are released around four to six weeks after they've been presented to Ministers, and a similar convention for meetings could do wonders for the openness of our government.

While New Zealand already ranks well for transparency, there's always improvements we can make, and this appears to be an easy area to make such an improvement.

Ultimately though, the reality is if the Labour-led government doesn't like the opposition asking questions about who they have, and haven't been meeting with, I'm sure the opposition would be more than happy to swap places if it's all too onerous for ministers.

The political week ahead - 13 November 2017

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Here's a few highlights to keep an eye out for this week in politics:

Monday 13 November

  • Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Foreign Minister Winston Peters, and Trade Minister David Parker (I think!) are in Manila on Monday for the East Asia Summit. At this stage it looks like PM Ardern will hold formal talks with Canada's Justin Trudeau, the Philippines' Rodrigo Duterte, China's Li Keqiang, India's Narendra Modi, Indonesia's Joko Widodo and the European Union's Donald Tusk. PM Ardern is also looking at catching up with Australia's Malcolm Turnbull, who is currently looking down the barrel of his worst poll results ever and the potential of a spill within the Liberal Party or an early election rearing their heads.
  • Due to so many Cabinet Ministers being away, I don't think Cabinet will be meeting today.

Tuesday 14 November

  • With PM Ardern's East Asia Summit wrapping up, she won't be back in the country until Wednesday at the earliest (but more realistically Thursday).
  • The House is sitting, so there'll be caucus runs from between 9.30am and 10am, and the provisional Order Paper has Questoin Time, the continuation of the Address in Reply debate with maiden speeches (there's still 12 hours and 2 minutes remaining of this debate).
  • Iain Lees-Galloway's Parental Leave and Employment Protection Amendment Bill is likely to be debated in the evening, with the bill going through urgency. 
  • Stats NZ have their National Population Estimates to 30 September 2017 being released, this is the NZ-wide figure, subnational estimates are released on Thursday, but expect this to kick off a debate about immigration and population growth.

Wednesday 15 November

  • The House is sitting again, so Question Time as per usual, and I believe this may be the first Member's Day of the 52nd Parliament, so hopefully we might see Chris Bishop's Films, Videos, and Publication (Interim Restriction Orders) Amendment Bill passed. There's 90 minutes of debate left on this, so it should get through as it did have plenty of support in the previous Parliament.
  • Stats NZ releases include:
    • Māori Population Estimates - a good chance for new Māori Development Minister Nanaia Mahuta to articulate her vision for Māori Development in the Labour-led Government.

Thursday 16 November

  • PM Ardern should be back from the East Asia Summit, but she won't be in the House, and more likely will be doing engagements in Auckland.
  • The House continues to sit, so Question Time.
  • Stats NZ releases include:
    • Ready mixed concrete, secondary production - an indicator for the construction industry
    • Transport vehicle registrations - this will likely trigger debates about the mix of investment in New Zealand's transport infrastructure
    • Births and deaths: Year ended September 2017
    • Subnational Population Estimates at 30 June 2017 - this will likely be a catalyst for discussion about which regions are doing well/poorly, so look for Regional Economic Development Minister Shane Jones to be asked what he's doing about it.

Friday 17 November

  • Stats NZ releases Business Price Indexes - an indicator of inflation specifically related to the cost of doing business.

Hipkins' creates omnishambles on first day as Leader of the House

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On the Commission Opening of Parliament the Leader of the House has one simple job - make sure you have the numbers to elect a Speaker. Today the new Leader of the House Chris Hipkins failed to do just that.

With at least five Labour, NZ First, and Green Party MPs away and one National Party MP, Labour wasn't confident if it would have had the numbers in the House to elect Trevor Mallard as Speaker.

If Hipkins was doing his job properly he would have realised that he didn't have the numbers before the Commission Opening, and would have approached National's Leader of the House, Simon Bridges, and done a deal before it came to a head on the floor of the House.

The onus is on the Government to ensure it has the numbers to ensure confidence, pass legislation, elect a Speaker, and so on. You can't fault the Opposition for picking up on Labour potentially not having the numbers and forcing the issue.

The net result for Labour is that they've been forced into an embarrassing back down over Select Committee numbers.

Nothing short of an omnishambles from the Government on its first day in the House.

UPDATE:

It appears as if Labour fell for a spectacular bluff on National's part. Labour did actually have the numbers 58 to 56, however ended up negotiating on Select Committee numbers to ensure that Trevor Mallard's nomination as Speaker didn't end up going to a vote. As a result, there are now 108 Select Committee places, with National receiving 5 chairs and 5 deputy chairs.

Leader of the House Chris Hipkins and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern emerged nearly four hours after Labour's shambolic performance in the House to try and spin their way out of it. Hipkins claimed that they knew they had the numbers, but wanted Mallard to be elected unopposed to show he had the confidence of the House (ignoring the fact that in the past opposition parties have voted against Speakers), and also that they had let National know previous that Labour wouldn't oppose a nomination, and had hoped National would do the same.

Problem with Hipkins' claims are this: there's no onus on the opposition to ever vote with the Government on anything. Your base operating position should also be that if you haven't heard anything to the contrary, you always assume the opposition will not support whatever it is you're putting to the House.

Fun and games in the House by oppositions are nothing new. Last term I remember some urgent legislation that Nick Smith put to the House. As it was an omnibus bill being passed under urgency, it meant that the then opposition could keep putting up amendments which the then Government would then have to vote down. Even though the opposition parties knew all their amendments would be voted down, they still did it because they had been given the opportunity to do so.

What is far more likely is that Hipkins and Labour's leadership team were completely unprepared for some basic House manoeuvring, didn't realise their bluff was being called, and ended up caving on Select Committee numbers which they had, up until now, been firmly entrenched on.

While this whole botch-up by Labour is little more than a Beltway sideshow, it's still hugely embarrassing for Labour. They know that one of their key weaknesses this term will be avoiding getting stuck in the narrative that they're unable to manage their two divergent partners in NZ First and the Greens. Today's omnishambles did little to dispel that.

Day two and Work for the Dole could create trouble for new government

The new Labour-led Government is little over 24 hours old and already has a potential conflict brewing between its two minor party partners over the reintroduction of a Work for the Dole scheme.

As I predicted on Tuesday, there are a number of areas where NZ First and the Green Party differ significantly on policy, and I identified the re-introduction of a Work for the Dole scheme as one of those areas. I have to admit, that I'm a little surprised that a potential flash point has been created so early.

While Labour and the Green Party might agree on creating job opportunities for those on a benefit to participate in cleaning up waterways, the Green Party approach is to create the opportunity and allow people to take it if they're willing and able to, not to force them to participate.

NZ First's approach is taken straight out of the play book from the Fourth National Government, where those on benefits were threatened with having their benefits reduced, or cut entirely, if they didn't participate in the euphemistically named "Community Wage" scheme as Work for the Dole was known as.

Given Shane Jones says he's been "encouraged" to look at a Work for the Dole scheme, I have to wonder if NZ First isn't trying to draw a line in the sand early on with the Green Party. It could be likely that they're testing the waters, trying to put the Green Party in what NZ First sees as their place as the most junior partner in the arrangement, and seeing how much they'll bend on this issue.

There's three ways out of this:

  1. NZ First backs down on creating a Work for the Dole scheme for the Regional Economic Development Fund, which given it's been their policy for almost as long as they've been a party would be an embarrassing start to their time in government.
  2. The Green Party either backs down or keeps very silent on the issue, effectively abandoning one of their policies and no doubt annoying their supporters given their very strong stance on social development issues in recent months.
  3. A very uncomfortable compromise is reached where the environmentally orientated, and entirely optional, work scheme that Labour and the Green Party have envisaged is expanded to include projects delivered by the Regional Economic Development Fund. This result won't be entirely satisfactory to NZ First, as they've historically taken a very hard line on wanting non-participation to punished.

Where National will have difficulties in exploiting this tension is that they've historically been supporters of Work for the Dole and its variants. Not that support for a prior policy position has been an obstacle for political parties in the past, such as Labour displayed over its opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership and other recent free trade agreements.