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Dunne's Weekly: Parliament's Rush To Christmas Begins Now

The last few weeks of coalition negotiations have been reminiscent of the Mainland Cheese advertisement on television, where the cheesemakers wait, and wait, for the cheese to say it is ready.

Now, with the imminent swearing-in of the new three-way coalition government, attention will shift from the process of its formation and the tedium that induced, to the job that lies ahead of it over the next three years. The new government comes to office at a time of heightened international tension arising from the ongoing war in Ukraine, the mayhem and carnage in Gaza, and the fallout from increasing super-power rivalry in our own part of the world. On the domestic front, inflation, high interest rates and an economy hovering just above recession are at the forefront of most peoples’ minds.

The new government will therefore want to hit the decks running, both to demonstrate the viability and credibility of the new coalition arrangement, and to introduce some of its promised immediate legislation. The principal item here will be the Mini-Budget incoming Finance Minister Nicola Willis has been long promising, but it is also likely the government will want to introduce other items of legislation that reflect the key parts of its agreements with ACT and New Zealand First.

That will not be as easy as it sounds. It is possible, but unlikely, that the new 54th Parliament will be summoned to meet next week. The following week seems more likely. The ceremonies associated with the Opening of Parliament will take up most of the sitting time available during Parliament’s first week. These formalities include the Commission Opening by a panel of senior Judges, the swearing-in of Members, the election of the Speaker, the State Opening of Parliament by the Governor-General with the Speech from the Throne, and the moving of the Address-in-Reply debate in response.

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That will leave just two sitting weeks before Christmas. Although the timetable will be very tight, it should allow sufficient time for the government to introduce some legislation, and to pass through all stages any legislation associated with the Mini-Budget especially if the government takes Urgency to extend Parliament’s sitting hours.

But again, things are not quite that simple. The new Ministers do not have any authority to direct their departmental officials to begin work on any of the new government’s plans, until they have been sworn in as members of the Executive Council early next week. This is particularly pertinent to the development of the Mini-Budget.

While it is highly likely that Willis has been working on the content of that statement since the election, she has been unable to seek any Treasury input into its content until she is formally sworn in as Minister of Finance. Although the content of the statement is properly her (and the government’s) political prerogative, it would be extraordinarily unusual – not to mention massively unwise – to proceed without Treasury’s advice and input. Allowing for Cabinet approval of the content of the Mini-Budget, it is unlikely to be introduced to Parliament before the end of the week after next at the earliest. It would be prudent (if a little symbolic given the time available) for the government to then refer any legislation associated with it to the Finance and Expenditure Committee for what would only be the briefest and most perfunctory of consideration, before being passed through all its remaining stages in Parliament in the week before Christmas.

The Mini-Budget will be the government’s first big challenge. It must get it right, so it cannot contain any errors, or loopholes that will be subsequently discovered. This puts additional pressure on Willis, her staff, and officials. Aside from its content – likely to be pared back anyway from the scope initially foreshadowed – the Mini-Budget will be an early test of her credibility as Minister of Finance. Not only the public, but also the financial markets, will be watching in critical judgment, and their broad reaction will help frame the way in which the government is perceived as its term unfolds.

Other key aspects of the government’s legislative programme are less critical at this stage. If ready, they can be introduced to Parliament before the Christmas recess, then referred to the relevant select committees for consideration over the next few months.

Overall, though, the next few weeks through to Christmas will be a chance for new Ministers to demonstrate their capability and intent to the public, and to shape the political agenda for next year and beyond. The government will be keen to leverage off new Prime Minister Chris Luxon’s brand as crisp, competent, no-nonsense, decisive and in charge. Given its unique make-up – New Zealand has never had a three-way coalition government before – all three parties will also be keen to show they can make the arrangement work.

Although the Labour and the other Opposition parties will not be all that relevant to the political process in the lead-up to Christmas and the foreseeable future beyond, the pre-Christmas Parliamentary sitting will provide an opportunity to assess what sort of an Opposition they will be. It will be interesting to see how quickly they adapt to the role of holding the government to account and exposing any shortcomings, and how effective they will be.

After a long political year, and a hectic time in Parliament before Christmas, politicians might be forgiven for looking forward to a decent summer break to recharge their batteries. However, they are almost certainly going to be disappointed – Luxon has already made it clear he thinks Parliamentarians have too long a summer break. He wants things to resume much earlier in January than has been customary.

So, after weeks of political radio-silence where nothing much appeared to be happening, we now seem set for a period of frenetic political activity. The relative quiet of the last few weeks is at an end.

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