There are times when governments need to use special procedures to complete parliamentary business urgently; but a New Zealand study points to the need for tight controls and consideration of alternative procedures which do not alienate the opposition or the public.
Ms Polly Higbee, Ms Claudia Geiringer and Ms Elizabeth
McLeay Ms Higbee was a research fellow at the New Zealand Centre for Public Law in 2010. She currently works as a solicitor in Wellington. Ms Geiringer is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Law at Victoria University, while Ms McLeay served for many years as Professor of Politics at Victoria University. She is currently a Senior Research Associate of the Institute of Policy Studies.
Canada’s Conservative government was criticized in February this year for limiting parliamentary debate through the use of time allocations, the 18th time since September 2011 (CPA, “Canadian Majority Rule Returns” First Reading, no. 19, February 2012). The tension between executive governments and opposition parties as to the use of parliamentary time is a theme in all parliamentary jurisdictions, including New Zealand where a recent study of the New Zealand phenomenon of parliamentary “urgency” has been completed.
What is urgency? “Urgency” has been used for over a century in New Zealand’s Parliament by executive governments. At its heart, urgency is a means by which the House’s sitting hours are extended, and certain items of government business prioritised. An urgency motion may only be proposed by a government minister, and requires a
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simple majority to be passed. There is no debate on an urgency motion. Once an urgency motion has been passed, the House is “in urgency”. This means that the House sits until the business listed in the urgency motion is completed (or a Minister moves a motion allowing the House to rise). At its most benign, urgency can be
used to make progress on one stage of a piece of legislation. For example, the government business listed in the urgency motion might simply be to complete a reading already underway for a piece of legislation. However, used to its full extent, an urgency motion can provide for multiple pieces of legislation to be introduced and passed through all stages in one continuous sitting of the House.
The Urgency Project Following the high-profile use of urgency in the first term of the fifth National Party-led government (2008-2011) an in-depth study of
the use of urgency was carried out at Victoria University of Wellington. Information was compiled on every use of urgency from 1987 to 2010, and 19 past and present participants in the parliamentary system were interviewed for the project. The Urgency Project looked
at how often urgency was being used, by which governments and in what manner. Summarised below are some of the key findings of the project. The full results of the study may be found in Geiringer, Higbee and McLeay, What’s the Hurry? Urgency in the New Zealand Legislative Process 1987-2010 (Victoria University Press, Wellington, 2011).
What is urgency used for? The predominant use of urgency is to make progress – i.e. to extend the House’s sitting hours in order to complete one stage of a Bill (albeit often one stage of a number