Full spectrum dominance: The next three years in Parliament

by NZ Lawyer24 Sep 2014
Saturday’s election wasn’t really a nail biter, but if the provisional results are anything to go by, they’re an MMP rarity. Chen Palmer senior associate James Dunne discusses what this means for lawyers:

The provisional results are in, and barring a massive swing on the special votes due to be counted by 4 October, New Zealand has elected (in effect) its first single-party Government since 1996.

While the Prime Minister has indicated that he will seek to enter into support arrangements with his current partners ACT, United Future and the Maori Party, the reality is that, on the basis of the provisional votes, these agreements appear to be ‘nice-to-haves’ rather than essential.

Even if National loses a seat as a result of the special votes, it would still have its choice of partners to enact legislation. So for the first time in 18 years, the Government of the day may be able to pass or block legislation in the face of opposition from every other party in Parliament - full spectrum dominance.

So what does full spectrum dominance mean for policy and law reform?

The Government’s new-found freedom of action will be immediately relevant to employment and RMA lawyers as that legislation is reformed, and to lawyers working for, against and with Government.

But in the longer term, the result of the election is relevant to all lawyers because the Government’s full spectrum dominance will allow it to make changes to policy and law as necessary to support the Government’s business-friendly agenda. So this term lawyers and their clients will need to keep a close eye on Parliament to ensure they are ahead of and prepared to respond to the Government’s key priorities.

Some of the new Government’s priorities are already obvious: expect the second phase of reforms to the Resource Management Act and reforms to the Employment Relations Act to be early priorities, possibly within the Government’s first 100 days.

Both of these reforms stalled in the last Parliament because the Government couldn’t marshal the numbers to get them through – but there will be no such limitations in this Parliament.

Expect also to see the Education Amendment Bill (No 2), currently awaiting its second reading, to become law promptly. That Bill makes significant changes to the governance arrangements of universities and wananga, as well as further strengthens the quality assurance framework and the framework for the care and support of international students.

It also replaces the Teachers Council with a new body, EDUCANZ, and makes a raft of changes to the regulatory framework for teaching. The Accounting Infrastructure Reform Bill, which updates and reforms the regulation of the accounting and audit industries, is also likely to be an early priority.

The Government’s other legislative priorities should become clearer over the next few weeks. Key indicators will be the confidence and supply agreements National is likely to enter into with ACT, United Future and the Maori Party, what unfinished business, including Bills, the Government reinstates from the previous 2011-2014 Parliament, and the Speech from the Throne most likely to be read on 21 October 2014.

The Speech from the Throne will set out the Government’s priorities over the next term, including which Bills and policies it will definitely implement or enact, which Bills and policies it hopes to implement or enact, and which Bills or policies will be developed or worked on, but not necessarily enacted.

The Prime Minister has already made it clear that we should not expect radical departures from the National agenda of the past three years. Select Committee memberships will also send signals about the Government’s priorities, and who will advance to Ministerial rank from the backbench over the next three years.

In terms of the procedures of the Parliament itself, the 2011 reforms to the Standing Orders appear to have succeeded in curbing the arguable overuse of urgency by proceeding Parliaments, and there is little reason to think that will change this term.

The new Standing Orders adopted this year, which will be in effect for this Parliamentary term, make incremental and evolutionary changes to Parliamentary procedures rather than radical reform.

However, hopefully the rationalisation of the financial review procedures will improve Parliamentary scrutiny of public finance. Perhaps the most intriguing development is the new statutes revision process, which allows the modernisation of outdated language in legislation without changing the original meaning, hopefully freeing lawyers from the worst excesses of 1970s-era drafting. That process is already underway.

Overall, while we can expect the Government to continue its business-friendly law reform agenda over the next three years, our first ever first past the post-style MMP Government may throw up a few surprises yet – our constitutional arrangements have evolved to manage multiparty Governments and we may yet see some unexpected stresses and strains on the system.  

There is only one certainty in politics and law reform… uncertainty.
  • James Dunne, senior associate, Chen Palmer