(delivered by Assistant Speaker, Ross Robertson, MP)
9.30am, Tuesday 31 July 2007
It is a great privilege to welcome such a distinguished line-up of participants to this, the first Australia-New Zealand Scrutiny of Legislation Conference to be held in New Zealand. I welcome colleagues from both sides of the Tasman and the staff who support their committees.
Scrutiny Committees perform a valuable role and I think the title given to this week’s programme ‘Democracy in Legislation – the Role of Scrutiny Committees’ is particularly apt. As we see in many parts of the world, democracy is fragile and we must never forget it needs to be nurtured.
The fact that this conference has been held biennially since 1987 is a tribute to those Members of Parliament and their staff who have ensured that Parliament is not only about politics but also the serious business of law-making. I am delighted that this year New Zealand is the conference host for the first time, though New Zealand has attended and supported the conference since its outset.
It is appropriate that the opening addresses should happen here, in the Legislative Council Chamber. This beautiful room is testimony to the changing nature of parliament in this country. It once was the home of our ‘scrutiny’ chamber, which was disestablished in 1951.
The New Zealand Parliament met for the first time on 24 May 1854 in Auckland. At that time the Parliament was officially styled ‘The General Assembly of New Zealand’ and it consisted of three bodies – the Governor, a Legislative Council and a House of Representatives. Only the House of Representatives, the elected component, has retained its unbroken membership of the Parliament under its original title. However it is now a much larger body with 121 members as compared to 37 in 1854.
Today, our Parliament consists of the Sovereign, represented by the Governor-General, and the House of Representatives. The Legislative Council – an appointed rather than elective body – was abolished on 1 January 1951, thus leaving us with a single-chamber or unicameral legislature. In the context of a first past the post electoral system, Parliament provided the only real scrutiny of legislation in the form of an opposition debating the legislation that came before it from the government.
There were select committees to hear submissions on Bills before Parliament but in my experience there was little possibility in a pre-MMP environment of effecting a substantive change in the legislation. It is true that the various law reform committees gave valuable technical assistance to the committees and on occasions changes were made. For many of us however, the primary purpose of presenting a submission was to achieve some form of publicity to spark a debate.
Looking at the programme for the coming days, I note a feast of topics, starting with a session devoted to public participation in primary legislation with Professor Elizabeth McLeay presenting an overview of our Select Committee system from a democratic perspective. This is an important topic with some recent developments in the New Zealand context that may be of interest. The launch last year of our updated website and the web casting of all Parliamentary proceedings in the Chamber were both designed to encourage the people to participate in the parliamentary process of law making. New Zealand has always had a direct and in recent times an open form of parliamentary democracy. Utilisation of technology is a means to ensure we maintain an inclusive democratic system.
I do not want to pre-empt the speakers to come, but I note that in my view there have been two important developments in the scrutiny of legislation in recent times. The first was the reform of the select committee system, for which Sir Geoffrey Palmer can take much credit, and the second is the introduction of MMP. On the former you will hear much throughout the conference. On the latter however I want to note that while MMP ensures legislation is subjected to greater scrutiny from a greater range of policy perspectives, there are questions whether greater scrutiny could be given to legislation at the beginning and end of its legislative process.
The Legislation Advisory Committee and the Legislation Design Committee are initiatives intended to produce a better quality statutory product. Their primary concern is not the policy intent of the legislation, but its form and compliance with good legal practice. The Legislation Advisory Committee throughout its 21-year existence has done good work in the cause of better legislation. The guidelines developed by the Committee have changed over the years and while valuable, are not required to be followed. It would be fair to say it is not integral to the legislative process. It is often difficult for the Committee to make effective interventions at the most useful time in the life of a Bill.
The Legislation Design Committee is intended to intervene at the beginning of a Bill’s life to ensure the fundamental question of what is the best form or expression of the policy in legislation is addressed before it is too late. It is too early to judge the success of this innovation but it does recognise the importance of the need to give more thought to such questions as do we need legislation and if we do, then what is the best form it should take and who should have an input into its development. One of the adverse consequences of the silo approach to public administration has been the barriers created inter agency cooperation in the process of generating legislation.
In terms of scrutiny of legislation, these initiatives provide an important contribution to best practice in the legislative process. It is time however to hear from the first of your speakers. Now let me introduce Sir Geoffrey Palmer, President of the Law Commission, who will officially open the conference. Sir Geoffrey has enjoyed a distinguished career in the law as an academic lawyer, a politician and a law practitioner.
Sir Geoffrey is testament to the fact that for the talented and committed there is a life after politics. I have heard it said that his enthusiasm and capacity for work means he will arguably achieve as much in his five-year term at the Law Commission, as he did when in Government.