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Urgency allows politicians to get things done in a hurry (Image: Tina Tiller/supplied)

PoliticsFebruary 28, 2024

Parliament is in urgency this week – here’s what that means

the green interior of parliament with big alarm clocks
Urgency allows politicians to get things done in a hurry (Image: Tina Tiller/supplied)

Passing legislation under urgency certainly saves time, but it cuts a few corners too.

To get big changes in legislation achieved for its 100-day plan, the government has put parliament into urgency, increasing the amount of time MPs have in the house to pass bills. This week is a sitting week, and parliament is in urgency to pass laws including repealing Auckland’s regional fuel tax, repealing Te Aka Whai Ora and removing cultural reports from legal aid eligibility. 

Urgency means that more bills can be introduced into the House and passed into law, but also means that there is less scrutiny of the process by which they do so. Here’s a quick guide to understanding urgency.

two men sitting on parliament chairs chuckling
PM Christopher Luxon and deputy Winston Peters in parliament (Photo by Marty MELVILLE / AFP) (Photo by MARTY MELVILLE/AFP via Getty Images)

How do bills get passed? 

Every bill must get three readings in the House of Representatives and be signed off by the governor general before it becomes an “Act of Parliament”, and part of our law. At each reading stage, a majority of members of parliament  must vote to support a bill for it to continue. Assuming all MPs vote on a bill, that means at least 62 votes in favour of it becoming law.

If a bill passes its first reading, then it usually goes to a select committee for closer scrutiny and a report. Select committees are smaller groups of MPs that each deal with a particular subject area. During this scrutiny process, which usually lasts for six months, members of the committee examine not only the bill’s general policy aims, but also the exact wording used to try and accomplish those goals. Members of the public usually get to engage with the bill at this stage through written submissions or by coming to select committee hearings to give their feedback directly. 

In its report on the bill, the select committee may recommend that the House adopt amendments that it believes will improve the proposed law. If the revised bill then passes its second reading, it is discussed and debated by the entire house during a “committee stage”; other politicians have the opportunity to ask questions of whichever MP is sponsoring the bill. The house then votes for the bill again at a third reading, and if it passes this the bill becomes law. 

Normally, parliament’s rules require pauses between each of these stages to allow MPs to reflect on the proposed legislation and consider whether they wish to continue to support it. However, these requirements can be set aside if a bill is accorded “urgency”. Where this occurs, readings can take place without a break being taken between them. A bill considered under urgency can even skip the select committee stage altogether. When urgency is taken, the house also sits for longer, so MPs literally have more time in the chamber to vote for legislation. 

Select committee chairs before the MPs come and fill them up (image via Parliament)

Why does parliament go into urgency? 

Urgency is useful when there’s a lot to do and the government wants to do it relatively quickly. One example is budget bills: the government has already decided how it wants to spend money for the year and wants to get that decision confirmed as quickly as possible. The government also may want to use urgency when it has made various commitments that it needs to pass into laws – if there’s a stacked list of everything that needs to be passed, then the extra sitting hours and truncation of process means it can be done more quickly. 

The House might also go into urgency to fix a piece of legislation – like if an accidental loophole in a law is uncovered or there is a need to revise a failure to comply with the existing law (for example, this has happened twice when police officers were improperly sworn in, which could have called into question the legality of their subsequent actions.)

Who gets to decide when the House will go into urgency? 

Any minister can move a motion to accord urgency to a particular piece of business. Usually the minister to do so will be the leader of the House, who manages the government business and makes sure it goes through the House in the right order – they’re usually a pretty senior and well trusted figure. At the moment the leader of the House is Chris Bishop. The minister has to explain why they want to take urgency, but there is no debate on those reasons. If a majority of MPs vote to support the motion – which they always will, if the government has decided that it wants it – then it passes and urgency commences. 

National MP Chris Bishop
National MP Chris Bishop is currently leader of the house (Photo: Getty Images)

What are the downsides to urgency? 

Passing legislation more quickly risks the legal equivalent of the old “marry in haste, repent at leisure” maxim. As the authors of a 2011 book on parliament’s use of urgency noted,  a faster process makes it harder to follow principles of good lawmaking. In particular, skipping the select committee process means there’s less scrutiny on the government, and there’s also less debate about what a bill might mean. The public has less chance to be informed about the law, there is reduced transparency, and legislation might simply be less good – imprecise wording or unintended effects can slip through. 

Why doesn’t the urgency happen all the time? 

All governments constantly face calls to “get more done”. Urgency seems like a solution to this: just blast through as much as possible as quickly as possible. Politically, urgency can be (and often is) a way for the government to escape scrutiny, especially on contentious bills.

The current government’s use of urgency has been criticised by Te Pāti Māori, who requested an urgent debate around the use of urgency yesterday. “The governments use and abuse of urgency has created a dictatorship in what should be a Tiriti-led democratic state,” said co-leader, Debbie Ngarewa-Packer.“We have seen urgency used to abolish three waters legislation, workers’ rights including fair-pay agreements, 90-day trials, and section 27 cultural reports.

“Urgency deprives both legislators and the public of adequate time for scrutiny and deliberation on significant legislative measures such as the disestablishment of the Māori Health Authority and abolishment of Smokefree legislation.

However, there are some in-built limits to the use of urgency as it takes time to actually draft the bills that MPs have to consider. Furthermore, the long hours required when the House is in urgency are tiring; in particular, extending sittings past Thursday makes it much harder for MPs who live outside of Wellington to get home to their families. And finally, using urgency too often opens a government up to accusations that they are ramming law into place without due consideration of its effects. Over time, those criticisms may come to stick.

Are there any weird quirks or fun facts to urgency rules that you would like to tell me about? 

I’m so glad you asked! If the House enters into and remains in urgency  from one day to the next, then it pretends that everything is still happening on the day it entered urgency. So if parliament enters into urgency on a Tuesday and remains under urgency on Wednesday, all debates and votes held on Wednesday are treated in parliament’s record as having happened on Tuesday. Turns out politicians can control time (when they want to). 

Keep going!