Obvious developments to report on include two significant reviews of New Zealand’s constitutional and electoral arrangements:
- the Electoral Commission’s independent review of the MMP electoral system; and
- the Constitutional Advisory Panel’s consideration of constitutional issues.
But, sadly, neither of these look likely to led to any real change – at least in the short-term.
The one other development worthy of mention – mandatory legislative disclosure requirements designed to improve the quality of legislation – was introduced without fanfare but perhaps has greater potential for influence.
Some brief comments on the first two, along with a more detailed explanation of the latter, follow.
A Review of MMP: sensible suggestions forestalled
The Electoral Commission completed its review of the MMP electoral system and proposed a number of – in my view, sensible – tweaks to the electoral system that has been running for nearly 20 years in New Zealand. Amongst other things, it proposed changing the thresholds for the entitlement to party list seats (reducing the party vote threshold from 5%-4% and removing the controversial one electorate seat threshold). It also dismissed concerns about some features of MMP that had caused some public disquiet (dual electorate/list candidacy and list MPs contesting by-elections).
But any reform stalled – with the government indicating that it would not be actively progressing the recommendations, in the absence of parliamentary consensus or wide-spread agreement. Consensus or wide-spread agreement was, of course, unlikely. Changing the thresholds would be the death-knell for some smaller parties, and consequently would probably hamper the governing National party’s prospects of garnering a majority coalition at the next election. (On the stale-mate, see Geddis, “Stop Wasting Our Time” and Johannson, “National quiet on MMP changes”.) An opposition Labour MP recently had his Member’s Bill seeking to implement some of the review’s recommendations drawn from the ballot; however, it looks unlikely his Bill will have the numbers to pass.
Despite an independent review, political self-interest continues to present a barrier to updating and reforming the MMP electoral system in the light of years of practice and experience.
B The constitutional review: a long conversation, beginning not ending
The Constitutional Advisory Panel also reported on its consideration of constitutional issues – or, rather, “The Constitutional Conversation”. Unsurprisingly it lacked tangible recommendations for reform.
The independent panel had been charged with considering a range of important constitutional issues, including a written constitution, term and composition of parliament, human rights protections, the Treaty of Waitangi and other issues relating to Crown-Māori relations.
The process of wide-spread public engagement by the independent panel was impressive, and stirred up quite a lot of activity and debate about matters constitutional. (Even, for example, a two-day workshop I was involved in, where 50 young people drafted a new constitution from scratch!) Over 5,000 submissions from a wide-range of people and groups were received.
But the Panel’s final report tended to only recount the (divided) public opinion on the issues, rather than generating concrete suggestions for reform. Firm recommendations were quite limited and process orientated:
- the continuation of the constitutional conversation generally;
- the inevitable call for greater civics education;
- further work and consultation in relation to particular issues; eg, the role and status of the Treaty of Waitangi, a longer parliamentary term, and, notably, strengthening the NZ Bill of Rights Act (including socio-economic rights; entrenchment; enhanced judicial remedies).
Given the mammoth task the Panel was charged with, the diluted response was perhaps not unexpected. The government’s response to the report is due later this year.
C Legislative Disclosure Requirements: unheralded but significant
Modest in nature, but perhaps with significant potential, one other initiative is of some constitutional interest. In the middle of last year, Cabinet quietly issued a circular on new vetting and disclosure requirements for government legislation (CO(13)3).
“The government wants to ensure that its policies get translated into legislation that is robust, principled and effective. … The requirements draw on existing expectations about what makes good legislation to:
- bring attention to specific features of a piece of proposed legislation and/or the key processes through which it was developed and tested;
- make this information publicly available in an accessible and cost-effective way; and
- thereby facilitate greater and more effective scrutiny of that legislation by Parliament and the general public.
The increased provision of information, and scrutiny of that information, is expected to improve legislative quality over time by increasing the attention given to follow good practices during the development of legislation.”
The regime builds on other legislative vetting, such as the regulatory impact analysis and reporting on consistency with the NZ Bill of Rights Act and seeks to pull together information useful to those scrutinising legislation. It includes a mixture of the elaboration of the policy objectives, disclosure of testing and analysis, and explanation of consistency with a range of standards and norms. (Compare some of the recent work proposing legislative standards for Westminster: eg, House of Commons PCR Committee “Ensuring standards in the quality of legislation” and Caird, “A Code of Constitutional Standards”.)
The norms and standards which trigger disclosure are pretty well-established and, in a large part, echo the Legislative Advisory Committee’s long-standing Guidelines on the Process and Content of Legislation. Disclosure statements, prepared by departments based on a set template, are expected to explain the policy background, set out details of consultation and testing, and report on the following matters:
- consistency with New Zealand’s international obligations
- consistency with the government’s Treaty of Waitangi obligations
- consistency with the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990
- creation, amendment or removal of offences, penalties and court jurisdictions
- privacy issues
- compulsory acquisition of private property
- charges in the nature of a tax
- retrospective effect
- strict liability or reversal of the burden of proof for offences
- civil or criminal immunity
- significant decision-making powers
- powers to make delegated legislation
- other unusual provisions or features.
Disclosure statements must be made publicly available, through a central repository, when the relevant Bill is introduced into Parliament, and later amended, if any substantive amendments are subsequently made to the Bill (see www.legislation.disclosure.govt.nz). Initially deployed under a Cabinet circular, the government’s intention is that the disclosure regime subsequently be enacted in legislation.
The disclosure regime has its genesis in a number of failed efforts to enact aggressive and enforceable legislative standards, driven mainly by the small, right-wing ACT party which is presently a member of the coalition government. It proposed a Regulatory Standards Bill, which would have seen the courts being given some powers to enforce prescribed standards (an interpretative direction similar to those found in human rights legislation, as well as an express power to issue declarations of inconsistency). However, the proposal proved controversial, particularly the loaded legislative standards proposed and judicial enforcement (see eg Ekins, “Regulatory Standards in New Zealand; Treasury, “RIS: “Regulating for Better Legislation”; Thwaites and Knight, “Administrative Law Through a Regulatory Lens”). A compromise was eventually reached where improvements would instead be made at the departmental and parliamentary level. From that came this enhanced and comprehensive vetting and disclosure regime.
Will the disclosure regime improve things though? Time will tell.
There is some reason to be optimistic. Anecdote and intuition suggest that pre-parliamentary legislative vetting pays dividends (although it is difficult to measure). And, like regulatory impact statements and Bill of Rights consistency-reports, disclosure statements will provide politicians and interested parties with ammunition against problematic legislative provisions. Witness, already, disclosure statements being deployed a number of times in the critique of Bills by parliamentarians and commentators.
But one weakness is that the disclosure regime is not directly interwoven into the parliamentary process or given institutional support within Parliament itself. Its impact would be stronger if, for example, a specialist select committee was charged with assessing compliance (much like the non-partisan and respected work of Regulations Review Committee in relation to delegated legislation). Otherwise, whether the disclosure regime improves the quality of legislation will depend whether it is taken seriously by parliamentarians and the extent to which it melds itself into the constitutional culture. Or whether it becomes merely a perfunctory, “tick-box” exercise. We will see.
Dean Knight is a Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Law, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.
(Suggested citation: D. Knight, ‘Report from New Zealand: MMP Review, Constitutional Review, and Legislative Discloure’ U.K. Const. L. Blog (10th March 2014) (available at: http://ukconstitutionallaw.org/)).