Opinion: David Carter should be ashamed of his anti-democratic select committee stunt

Andrew Geddis for The Spinoff.

The National MP's self-righteous defence for halting yesterday's meeting ignored the essential role the Opposition plays in upholding the select committee process, writes Andrew Geddis.

OPINION: On Wednesday something happened in Parliament that was on its face a clever but petty political move designed to capture headlines, yet at a deeper level ought to concern anybody interested in how New Zealand governs itself.

Forgive me while I set the scene with some bureaucratic jargon before I tell you why I think what happened matters.

Parliament's Finance and Expenditure Committee – a very important sub-group of MPs, because its remit is keeping an eye on how the billions and billions of our public dollars get spent – was due to begin its first meeting for 2019 at 8am.

It was going to hear from (and quiz) Finance Minister Grant Robertson on his Budget Policy Statement 2019, as well as examine how the Pike River Recovery Agency performed last year.

Not small potatoes stuff. And there were apparently 15-20 public submitters from around the country there to give the committee their views on these subjects.

But it turns out there was a problem.

You see, as with all select committees, this committee is made up of MPs from across Parliament: 6 Labour; 5 National; 1 NZ First; and 1 ACT. By 8 am, not all Labour's MPs had made it to the meeting room.

(There are different accounts as to how many were in attendance and why some Labour MPs weren’t there, so rather than litigate those details I'll pass over them because in the end it just doesn’t matter that much.)

That didn't matter in itself, though, because all (or maybe some, as accounts again differ) of National’s MPs were in attendance.

And taken together there were sufficient Labour and National MPs to satisfy the quorum requirement in Parliament's Standing Order 209: "half of the membership of the committee, rounded upwards where applicable."

However, rather than let the meeting start, the National MPs apparently spotted a chance to make some sort of point.

They left the committee room to stand in the hallway outside, thus depriving the Committee of its minimum numbers. Once the clock ticked past 8:10 am, the Chair was forced by Standing Order 209(3) to adjourn the committee meeting – meaning that it couldn't conduct any of the business it had planned for that day.

And those submitters who had turned up hoping to participate in the country’s governing processes? Out of luck, I'm afraid.

Let me start by giving you National's defence of what happened here, before I tell you why I think it is dangerously wrong.

According to David Carter – the previous Speaker of the House, mind you – it was all Labour’s fault: "It's the government’s job to maintain a quorum and be organised. They called the meeting. They are expected to get out of bed and start at 8am."

I guess this claim helps furthers some sort of broader narrative about Labour being unable to govern properly.

And maybe there's something to Carter's allegation that a stand needed to be taken as "[w]e've watched the tardiness of MPs on this select committee for all of last year" – but I'd note that the Committee Chair, Michael Wood, expressly denied this claim on Twitter.

I'm going to leave the question of whether the move represents "good politics" to others, as it isn't my concern here.

Rather, I think this little stunt has the capacity to badly damage the role that select committees play in our parliamentary democracy.

Here's how Parliament itself describes those select committees:

New Zealand's select committee system enables members of Parliament to examine issues in more detail than is possible in the House of Representatives.

Select committees can also provide the public with an opportunity to comment on and suggest changes to impending legislation, and to participate in other parliamentary functions such as inquiries.

Select committees carry out public scrutiny of the Government's spending plans and of the performance and operations of Government departments, Crown entities, and State enterprises. 

Select committees operate under the authority of the House and are required to report to the House.

I've highlighted that last line for a reason. You see, contra David Carter's claim, select committees aren't the government's responsibility to run.

In fact, they exist principally to let all MPs from all parties scrutinise, challenge and hold that government to account.

We know how important this activity is because back when this Parliament was getting started, National threatened to block the election of Speaker Trevor Mallard in order to increase the proposed number of places for MPs on select committees.

That action was necessary, Simon Bridges stated, as "[i]t means we can scrutinise things … ."

As such, running select committees is a collective responsibility of all MPs from all parties in order that the House of Representatives (which is not the executive government) can properly carry out its functions for the benefit of voters.

If select committees are seen as just the job of those MPs from the governing parties to run, then there literally is no point to them.

After all, consider this scenario. The seven governing party MPs on the Finance and Expenditure Committee vote to have an inquiry into government spending on (say) universities.

They then vote to only hear from witnesses who think the current government is doing a bang-up job on this issue.

The Chair then only allows the majority governing party MPs to ask questions of the witnesses. That majority then votes to produce a report that only contains the view of the majority.

Is this the sort of select committee process that David Carter – again, a former Speaker of the House – wants to see develop?

Because it's where we are headed if we take seriously his claim that, as an MP from an opposition party, essentially "it's not his job" to make sure a select committee can function.

I don't know why Carter and his National colleagues did what they did. Like I say, the politics is for others.

But I will say that it was wrong, it was dangerous and it shouldn't be repeated. Because the practices and shared understandings of Parliament as an institution ought to matter far more than immediate political grandstanding.

The Spinoff.