Novel Opposition Standing Orders Protest Yields A Partial Victory
By Alastair Thompson
In protest over an incident last night during which Leader of the House Michael Cullen "collapsed" the private members bills debate - by removing all Ministers from the House - the house this afternoon experienced an unprecedented standing orders fillibuster.
The protest was led off following question time by one of National's longest serving and most respected members John Carter. Mr Carter told Speaker Margaret Wilson that he believed that Dr Cullen's action last night were a gross abuse of standing orders. He said he intended to take a considerable amount of the houses time in his protest as he felt he had no other choice.
Following John Carter's statement, members from the Act and National Party then took turns to seek leave to table the standing orders.
After getting up to standing order No. 8. – with leave having been refused for each standing order to be tabled - March Gosche, on behalf of the Government, led the Government benches into allowing leave for Green MP Sue Kedgley's private members bill on flexible working hours to be debated.
The government had previously refused leave to allow this course of action on several occasions.
This debate finished at around 5.15pm – suggesting that the unusual protest yielded a partial result for the protest.
However the conflict over Dr Cullen's interpretation of Standing Order 38, seemingly supported by Speaker Wilson, is unlikely to be left at this.
Prior to the start of question time today an extended point of order discussion considered Dr Cullen's actions last night when, using the the letter of Standing Order 38, he declined to provide a Minister to the house.
Standing Order 38 provides that at least one Minister must be present in order for the house to sit.
Dr Cullen's actions came after the Government first sought leave for the house to adjourn to enable members to attend a state banquet for the Indonesian President. When that was refused Michael Cullen then took the novel action of removing all ministers from the house, causing the house to be adjourned prematurely.
During the discussion of standing order 38 today, ACT MP Richard Prebble suggested to Speaker Margaret Wilson that standing order 38 ought to be read as an instruction to the executive that they must provide a minister to the house in order to enable it to sit.
If the reverse was true, as claimed by Dr Cullen, Mr Prebble said the Government would have carte blanche to halt proceedings of the house on a whim.
Given that one of the purposes of standing orders was to enable the free expression by MPs in the house during siting hours, Mr Prebble suggested that this interpretation of Standing Order 38 could clearly not be correct.
However, to the consternation of the opposition, Speaker Wilson appeared to rule that standing order ought to be read literally, and that provided the procedure contained therein was followed, its effect was clear.
Speaker Wilson further said that if members objected to this interpretation of the Standing Order they should take it up with the Standing Orders committee.
Later Speaker Wilson made a remark seemingly indicating that her remarks ought not to be read as a formal Speakers ruling, which would be binding on future speakers, but rather simply as advice to the house. Requests to the Speaker's and Clerk's office to clarify whether there in fact had been a formal ruling or not had not received a response at the time of posting. (ON EDIT: Speaker Wilson's Office advises that she did make a ruling, but was asked to provide a written ruling. She was likely to do this sometime next week.)
An extra wrinkle to the contretemps followed when the Government granted leave for the 2 and a half hours of lost members bills debating time to be made up next Wednesday.
This apparent victory for opposition members became instantaneously phyrric when, asked by National MP Nick Smith for clarification, Dr Cullen indicated that this leave would only be effective if all the business contained in an urgency motion intended to be presented next Tuesday had been dealt with by Wednesday at 1pm. As this is almost certainly impossible the missing 2 and a half hours were extremely unlikely to have been made up.
As this report is posted the debate on Sue Kedgley's private member's bill has finished, and the normal order of the day appears to have been restarted. However it seems unlikely that the opposition will be prepared to accept the apparent ruling of the Speaker without further debate.