Claire Trevett 's Opinion

Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Claire Trevett: Opposition should use vote of 'rubber man' while it lasts

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United Future leader Peter Dunne. Photo /  NZ Herald
United Future leader Peter Dunne. Photo / NZ Herald

There are occasions when United Future leader Peter Dunne becomes a Neptune-like figure striding through the political oceans, bringing the trident of his single vote crashing down on the unfortunates below.

The quirks of democracy mean Dunne's single vote can make the difference between a law passing and failing, and the Government has been both smote and relieved by it.

Last month, Dunne was pilloried by Labour for using his single vote to pass the law which allowed the Government to sell minority stakes in state-owned companies.

This week, he was using it to Labour's advantage to help get through two member's bills - Sue Moroney's bill to increase paid parental leave and David Clark's to give a Monday off where Anzac Day and Waitangi Day fell on a weekend.

The power of his vote has increased the amount of mischief that member's bills - those put up by MPs who aren't ministers - cause the Government, turning every second sitting Wednesday into a potential minefield.

It's hard to see quite why National is so opposed to the Monday-ising of Anzac Day and Waitangi Day, other than because Labour would get the credit for it.

The extra cost to business, as David Clark quite reasonably pointed out, would be minimal and would happen on two days every seven years.

Veterans' Affairs Minister Judith Collins argued that it's because Anzac Day is not a holiday at all, not a day for lounging about watching back episodes of M*A*S*H and stocking the freezer with soups. Instead it's a day which should be spent hard at work in remembering and honouring the fallen.

Nobody has yet explained how allowing the Monday off as well would prevent people marking Anzac Day in the usual manner on the day it actually fell, as they do in Australia.

Prime Minister John Key is usually more pragmatic than that and National's objections are clearly not that deeply felt, given that earlier this week he couldn't recall whether National was opposing it or supporting it.

National is on firmer ground when it comes to its decision to veto Moroney's bill to increase paid parental leave. That would cost a lot, would directly benefit only a few, and will be a long-term extra cost on the Government's books.

National doesn't necessarily need to justify its position, given the majority of the public have already agreed that while paid parental leave would be nice, the money just isn't there.

Nonetheless, the issue does leave National in the relatively uncomfortable position of having to override the will of the majority of Parliament to ensure paid parental leave is kept at 14 weeks.

Unfortunately, it's unlikely this will be the last time National is confronted with such a pickle.

Members' Bill Days come around every second sitting week and when one bill is dispensed with there are plenty of others lurking in the ballot to take its place. Gay marriage, limits to foreign investment, entrenching the Maori seats, giving pensioners discounts on power bills - you name it, there's a bill for it.

However, there are some cunning tricks to try to neutralise the dangers. One of these is to get other National MPs to stack the ballot with their own bills to dilute Opposition members' chances of having their bills drawn.

Several recent member's bills by National MPs arouse the suspicion that the Attorney-General has a lucky-dip sack in his office with ideas for member's bills which will clog up the system without causing any ripples.

Most of those are based on minor Law Commission recommendations and involve a basic tidying up of the law books to get rid of redundant laws.

One was Kanwaljit Singh Bakshi's recent bill to expunge from the law books a historical provision allowing private land to be requisitioned to use for military training.

Two more have recently been drawn from the ballot box: Simon O'Connor's repeal of the Joint Family Homes Act, the provisions of which have largely been taken over by the Relationship Property Act; and Chris Auchinvole's Habeus Corpus Amendment Bill which streamlines the process by which courts deal with habeus corpus applications.

Both are based on Law Commission recommendations rather than any driving passion for reform on the part of the MPs concerned.

Such bills to tidy up the statute books are usually dealt with in omnibus Statutes Amendment Bills containing a wide range of non-controversial changes which are periodically put through by the Government.

National has, however, discovered they also serve a useful function of helping block the way to other member's bills.

To be fair, some National MPs have made the effort to put up genuine member's bills. Michael Woodhouse's bill would provide financial assistance to people who donate organs for transplant and lose income during their convalescence.

Nicky Wagner's bill will allow men to apply for paternity orders and allow the Family Court to order parental tests of children.

In the meantime, the Opposition should take advantage of Dunne's casting vote while it lasts. Dunne could be described as the rubber man in the circus of Parliament for his apparent political flexibility.

However, if Neptune was sometimes arbitrary with his trident, Dunne is less so with his vote. A wise Opposition MP should easily be able to pick an issue which Dunne would be politically obliged to support.

Dunne has made the most of the opportunity this week has given him to rub Labour's nose in its previous criticisms of the way he cast that vote. But that is the price to pay for wooing the man with one vote to rule them all.

- NZ Herald

Claire Trevett

Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor and joined the Press Gallery in 2007. She began with the Herald in 2003 as the Northland reporter before moving to Auckland where her rounds included education and media. A graduate of AUT's post-graduate diploma in journalism, Claire began her journalism career in 2002 at the Northern Advocate in Whangarei. Claire has conjoint Bachelor of Law/ Bachelor of Arts degrees from the University of Canterbury.

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