Steering legislative ship through choppy waters

Rachel Brooking speaks on the Natural and Built Environment Bill. Photos: Parliament
Rachel Brooking speaks on the Natural and Built Environment Bill. Photos: Parliament
It has been a big week for Rachel Brooking, who got to steer the government’s legislative ship for several parts of the passage of the Natural and Built Environment Bill.

As has been noted several times before, resource management law — and more specifically the reforming of it — is the sort of thing that makes Ms Brooking sing, and with her associate environment minister hat on she was deputed to take questions in the committee stages of several parts of what remains contentious legislation.

If you are the government, the Bill is a vast improvement on the soon to be old RMA, and will make the consenting process much easier. If you are the Opposition however, the three Bills Labour is pushing through are enormous changes which will slow the whole process down as new concepts to this area of law are introduced which are bound to generate litigation.

Apart from getting National MPs Scott Simpson and Stuart Smith mixed up early on — and who among us has not made that mistake — Ms Brooking made a reasonably good fist of her first time as chair of the committee of the whole.

Neither National nor Act Zealand were in any hurry to draw the debate to a conclusion and were nitpicking on technicalities, which was just fine by Ms Brooking, who thrives on technicalities.

To give one isolated example, Part 2A of the Bill, which deals with the exercise of functions, powers, and duties, runs from clauses 30A to 30ZZM. That’s 65 clauses, definitions and subparts, and it isn’t exactly an airport novel when it to comes to readability.

Part 7 (just the 68 clauses) deals with coastal matters, and as oceans minister was a natural overlap for Ms Brooking.

A lengthy series of questions resulted in her having to discuss consenting for offshore wind farms, aquaculture efficiencies, the extent of the the exclusive economic zone and coastal marine areas, among other things.

By Part 8 however, exhaustion may have been setting in and an earlier stumble was repeated: "And related to Scott Simpson's points about — sorry, you are Scott Simpson. Related to Stuart Smith's point—it would be good if you didn't sit next to each other," Ms Brooking exclaimed.

Luckily for Ms Brooking, there will be plenty more opportunities for her to figure out who is who.

It has also been a big few weeks for Ms Brooking’s National rival in the Dunedin seat, Michael Woodhouse, who has found himself somewhat flat out with what is usually one of his less onerous responsibilities, being deputy chairman of the privileges committee.

Parliament has certain rights and powers accorded to it so it can legislate without interference, and those apply to members of the House of Representatives. When concern arises that an MP might have abused those, they can be referred to the privileges committee, a special select committee made up of senior MPs which can recommend to the House that action might need to be taken.

It has become something of a cliche to call it "the powerful privileges committee" but it really is — there are few avenues available to discipline an allegedly wayward MP.

Although cynics may beg to differ, our MPs are generally a well-behaved lot ... up until May, the privileges committee had not considered any business since early 2021, and there have been gaps of two or even three years between it needing to be convened.

That period of idleness has come to a close after not one, not two but three referrals to the committee.

The most recent, that of former cabinet minister Michael Wood, is yet to be heard.

Michael Woodhouse speaks on Jan Tinetti’s breach of privilege.
Michael Woodhouse speaks on Jan Tinetti’s breach of privilege.
The second, that of Act list MP Simon Court, has been recently and swiftly dispatched: Mr Court mistakenly released the result of a confidential environment select committee vote in a press release and has subsequently apologised for doing so.

The first, National’s pursuit of Education Minister Jan Tinetti, came to a close — for now — on July 18 with a special debate on the committee’s findings.

Ms Tinetti’s omission was to tarry in advising the House that an answer she had given it in Question Time was incorrect.

Parliament’s rulebook, the standing orders, require a minister to correct as answer as soon as possible, rather than the many weeks it took Ms Tinetti to do so.

This may seem a purely Beltway issue, but it is at the core of what MPs do.

Again, cynics may beg to differ but there is an assumption made that if an MP is addressing Parliament they are telling the House — and by extension the country — the truth. It is out of order to suggest anything different.

Hence Mr Woodhouse had a tricky test that particular Tuesday, to play up the politics of the situation for all it was worth, but also to convince the disinterested observer this actually amounted to something.

Having expressed his sadness that the question of privilege had arisen, Mr Woodhouse quickly asserted it was "an example of where standards have fallen well below that which we and the public should expect of its elected officials".

He then forensically picked through the evidence, in much the same way he had done so effectively at the committee’s hearing, before administering a final kicking.

"Some have said ‘Yep, this is a wet bus ticket’. Well, it's a pretty big wet bus ticket and nothing the committee could do, I think, would be as bad as the damage to the minister's reputation that she herself has imposed by her failure, by her gross negligence, by her serious errors of judgement.

"We owe it to the people who put us here[to speak truthfully] and Jan Tinetti, the minister of education, has seriously let us down on this occasion."

A suitably contrite Ms Tinetti has apologised profusely and Mr Woodhouse and the privileges committee, now well up to speed with its functions and powers, sits ready to consider its next ministerial oversight.