Upper House good for legislation process

EVA HARTSHORN-SANDERS
Last updated 05:00 13/11/2012
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REUTERS

THE CHAMBER: The United Kingdom's House of Lords.

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OPINION: While Britain has maintained a reformed version of its House of Lords, New Zealand has lacked an Upper House since we abolished our equivalent back in 1951.

As a country we pride ourselves on not having a seemingly archaic institution like the Lords scrutinising our legislation, but is the select committee system an adequate replacement?

Lessons from Britain are relevant to New Zealand lawmakers and to those who want to engage in our select committee process.

Our constitutional framework began by simply taking the British model and plopping it down here in New Zealand. That included an elected House of Parliament and an appointed Legislative Council (our version of the Lords).

In 1951, Prime Minister Sid Holland did away with the Legislative Council by appointing a "suicide squad" of council members, whose sole purpose was to vote to abolish it. It was a political coup.

So while we now have one House of Parliament, Britain still has two: the House of Commons (elected MPs) and the House of Lords (appointed Lords). The House of Lords in 1999 was reformed to dramatically reduce the number of hereditary peers and instead appoint more life peers. Life peers are appointed for their achievements and can't pass their title on to their children.

As a result, the Lords now includes Olympians, businesswomen, doctors, trade unionists, academics and others who have made an impact on public life. They come from a range of political backgrounds, there are Bishops and there are neutral cross-benchers, many of whom decide their votes according to the evidence and whether constitutional principles would be upheld. They are not bound to an electoral cycle or political whims in the tabloids and often adopt a longer-term and more holistic approach to policies.

Most changes to the Government's law proposals happen in the Lords. This is partly because it's seen as an expert revising body but more importantly because the Government can lose votes here and be forced to reconsider a policy decision in the Commons. Losing votes means there is less time in Parliament for the Government to get their programme through.

As a result, ministers are often open to compromise and willing to negotiate a policy to ensure the law is passed.

One recent example is the Public Bodies Bill. Changes to the bill, such as the decision to keep a chief coroner to provide independent leadership and training (like we have in New Zealand), was the result of effective lobbying from interested NGOs and co-ordinated opposition that led to the Government losing votes in the Lords.

Without an Upper House, our select committee process is even more important. These committees are responsible for detailed scrutiny of legislation and usually operate in a more constructive environment. Away from the TV cameras and the rough and tumble of Question Time there's more opportunity for open and honest debate of the detail of a policy - with partisan politics temporarily suspended.

Ministers in New Zealand are faced with a similar need to negotiate a policy, depending on the level of support from coalition parties and the popularity of a proposal. Just as British governments need to get neutral crossbenchers onside with legislative proposals in the Lords, New Zealand governments have to deal with MMP and the need to negotiate with minor parties. Navigating difficult legislative issues requires skill and nuance.

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The House of Lords adds value to the legislative process by allowing for law to be made on the basis of arguments and evidence with a long-term view beyond the current electoral cycle. They are an effective check and balance on the Government.

Because New Zealand lacks an Upper House we need to work even harder to make sure the select committee process works well. We all have a role in ensuring our MPs are getting the right advice, thinking long-term about the impact of policies, and joining the dots between different policy decisions.

Whether it's alcohol reform, changing the RMA or the Food Bill, New Zealanders have strong opinions about the issues that affect their lives. Our opportunities to shape this country are not limited to once every three years at the ballot box. One of the great things about living in a democracy is that we all - individuals, businesses and organisations - have a chance to make our views and expertise known to change the law.

Eva Hartshorn-Sanders is a Senior Associate at Chen Palmer Public and Employment Law Firm. She spent two years working as a senior legislative and political adviser in the House of Lords.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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