Members' worthwhile Bills left to languish

A great white shark cruises past a shark cage diver off Edwards Island, near Stewart Island.PHOTO...
A great white shark cruises past a shark cage diver off Edwards Island, near Stewart Island.PHOTO: PETER SCOTT
A few years ago, Parliament reviewed the rules concerning member's Bills, partly in the hope of allowing more MPs a chance of getting their proposed law reforms considered.

Try telling Southern MPs that the system is working and they may well shake their heads.

In recent days, Clutha Southland National MP Hamish Walker, Invercargill National MP Sarah Dowie and New Zealand First Clutha Southland list MP Mark Patterson have all "celebrated" the first anniversary of their respective Bills being introduced, but they have yet to actually debate their proffered legislation.

There are extenuating circumstances, of course: all member's Bills have been caught in the member's day logjam caused by the continuing thorough debate/filibuster (delete as your conscience dictates) over the End Of Life Choice Bill.

In the meantime, certainly in the cases of Mr Walker and Ms Dowie's Bills, their proposed law changes have been left looking more reasonable as time drags on.

Mr Walker's High-power Laser Pointer Offences and Penalties Bill would double the sentence and fine able to be imposed for unwarranted possession and/or misuse of a laser pointer, to six months and $4000 respectively.

That would bring the penalty in line with that in the Summary Offences Act for common assault, which to a lay person may seem inconsistent, but for a lawyer is certainly an arguable benchmark.

"Assault" includes "threatening by any act or gesture" to apply force to the person of another, but the person making the threat, or the person they are threatening, must believe the assaulter can "effect their purpose".

Goodness knows what purpose people might think they could effect by pointing a laser at an aircraft, but you would have to imagine that gesture would be far from welcome if you were the pilot, let alone a passenger.

The argument whether higher punishments are a deterrent or not is one for another day, but misuse of lasers is a continuing nuisance - a few months ago a laser was shone on a rescue helicopter near Gore.

It is a proposed law change the Government could surely consider adopting, as it can do with any member's Bill.

Which brings us to Ms Dowie's Bill. Thanks to a Supreme Court judgement, it last week suddenly became germane.

The Shark Cage Diving (Permitting and Safety) Bill aims to do just what it says on the tin and allow people to swim in an underwater cage while watching deadly predators at fearful proximity.

The Bill intends to permit an activity rendered illegal by a Court of Appeal decision, and put in place regulations for it to be carried out safely.

In the time it has taken Ms Dowie's Bill to advance from last to fourth from last on the member's Bill list, the Supreme Court has heard an appeal to that decision, and last week decided to set it aside.

The decision highlights a problem which frequently troubles the courts: trying to apply old legislation in a modern context.

When the Wildlife Act was passed in 1953, and when relevantly amended in 1996, it prohibited hunting or killing protected wildlife.

No-one, however, contemplated scuba diving alongside them.

The Court of Appeal, in a fascinating exercise of linguistic gymnastics, construed that shark cage diving amounted to pursuing or disturbing great white sharks, and was therefore "hunting or killing", as per the Act.

The Supreme Court examined that backwards somersault, then did a triple forward one itself, via a three-stage analysis of what "hunting and killing" meant ... if you thought that would be simple to explain, you haven't been to law school.

To cut a 41-page judgement very short, shark cage diving is now no longer an offence, so New Zealand is faced with the prospect of people swimming with the fishes in an unsafe manner.

Ms Dowie has suggested that perhaps her Bill could fix that, given its provisions would govern the geographical area within which the commercial shark cage diving operation could operate, as well as minimum distances of operation from specified locations.

That last point lay at the heart of the case, which was originally brought by paua quota owners concerned shark tourism would attract, well, sharks, and hence pose potential greater risk to their divers.

Ms Dowie is right: this is an area requiring regulation.

However, the person she needs to convince is Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage, who has not been best-pleased with Ms Dowie's spirited opposition to the Indigenous Freshwater Fish Amendment Act - passed this week despite Ms Dowie's claims it would result in whitebaiting being banned.

Governments have an inbuilt reflex to reject any Opposition legislation, but these Bills are two which it could progress at little cost to itself and in the interests of common sense.

So don't expect it to happen any time soon.

This seems familiar

Dunedin National list MP Michael Woodhouse went another round of "whose fault are district health board deficits" with his Dunedin North Labour rival David Clark on Tuesday.

Mr Woodhouse asked if the Health Minister had seen reports of DHBs repeatedly telling the previous Government that they had been diligent about making sure their payroll systems met Holidays Act requirements.

Unsatisfied with Dr Clark's answer Mr Woodhouse appealed to Speaker Trevor Mallard that he had not addressed a clear question of "had he seen reports with those quotes in them?"

Keen to help a momentarily confused Speaker, Dr Clark expanded: "If I may add further, I've seen the member's press release to that effect."

While not confident that Mr Woodhouse's statement really counted as a "report", Mr Mallard decided just letting things roll was the best option.

Cleaning up

For a generally unheralded workforce, Parliament's cleaners get more attention than you might expect.

Soon after being sworn in, Mr Mallard pledged all the precinct's catering and cleaning staff would earn a living wage, and on Wednesday Parliament marked "Thank Your Cleaner Day".

"I actually want to thank all the cleaners, and the cleaners in our Parliament, particularly," Dunedin South MP Clare Curran said.

"I describe them as the invisible but essential workforce, and they do deserve our thanks."

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