CHEN PALMER: A long (dodgy) walk to the altar

Chen Palmer, NZ Public and Employment Law specialists have written a summary of the progression of the gay marriage bill.

In it, they take a few swipes at the way politicians dealt with the issue, including

“The Select Committee process was controversial. Given the very high number of submissions (21,533 submissions, demonstrating the intensity of feeling on both sides of the public debate), only 220 submitters were asked to appear in person.”

“..the (2nd reading) vote holding so strongly in the face of intense public debate was not the only success at second reading — more surprising was that the vote was taken at all. That day the Bill was ranked third on the Members Order paper behind Chris Auchinvole’s Habeas Corpus Amendment Bill and Dr David Clark’s Holidays (Full Recognition of Waitangi Day and ANZAC Day) Amendment Bill. Pushing the Bill further back was Hon Chester Burrows’ South Taranaki District Council (Cold Creek Rural Water Supply) Bill. As a Local Bill this took priority over Members Orders of the day, effectively ranking the Bill fourth on the Order Paper. Taking into account time for Questions for Oral Answer and General Debate, this would have meant that a vote on the Bill would likely have been delayed until the next member’s day two weeks away. To make matters worse, on Monday 11 March the Finance and Expenditure Committee reported back on the Budget Policy Statement (“BPS”). According to Standing Order 327(4) this replaced the 1 hour General Debate with a 2 hour debate of the BPS, putting further pressure on the amount of time the House had to debate and vote on the Bill. What transpired was a salutary reminder that Parliament is the master of its own pace. The Campaign for Marriage Equality, working with MPs in Parliament from across the House, negotiated with Party Whips and MPs that the Bill would be debated that evening. By taking short calls on Bills MPs were able to find an hour of extra parliamentary time, resulting in the shortest BPS debate in recent memory, votes on all three Bills before it on the Order Paper, and an eventual second reading vote with seconds to spare before the House rose at 10 pm.”

“…four SOPs were voted down and the Chairperson Eric Roy ruled the two referendum SOPs out of order. This was surprising as they had been accepted by the Clerk of the House. Roy’s ruling appears to extend the rules around what is a “relevant” amendment during the Committee of the Whole House. Roy based his decision on Standing Order 298(1), which reads: A committee of the whole House considers a bill to determine whether the bill properly incorporates the principles or objects of the bill as read a second time by the House. Roy interpreted this to mean that amendments at Committee should not be contrary to the intention of Parliament at second reading. As Winston Peter’s motion to include a referendum was defeated at second reading his and Horan’s SOPs calling for a referendum were out of order. This rationale for this ruling can be queried. Standing Order 298 allows the committee to make amendments that are relevant to the subject-matter of the bill and are consistent with the principles and objectives of the Bill. The key question is the interpretation of what is “relevant”. Roy’s ruling appears to preclude any amendment that is contrary to the Bill as voted on at Second Reading. This is a very broad interpretation of “relevant” that could potentially be used by MPs to push out legitimate amendments to future Bills. It also begs the question, if amendments cannot be contrary to the intention of Parliament at second reading, then what is the Committee of the Whole House for? However, the Chairperson’s rulings are their prerogative and are a reminder that as well as setting its own pace, Parliament’s Standing Orders are not static. Politics is just as important as procedure. Parliament’s rules and their application can, and often do, change.”