Yesterday the Opposition showed that you can make a difference, despite not being in Government. Parliament voted for four members' bills to pass their first readings and to proceed to select committee.
One, by Government backbencher and Tamaki MP Simon O'Connor was to repeal to the Joint Family Homes Bill, and is uncontroversial.
The Opposition managed to get Parliament to vote for three of its bills, despite the opposition of National (and ACT) to two of them. This was a real reminder of MMP in action where single parties may form the Government, but will not win every vote in Parliament.
The first of the three opposition bills was by Labour's Dunedin North MP, David Clark. It seeks to Mondayise ANZAC Day and Waitangi Day, if they fall on the weekend. It was supported by Labour, Greens, NZ First, Maori, Mana and United Future.
Personally I'm somewhat bemused by the fact National decided to oppose this bill. Yes one has to be careful of imposing additional costs on businesses, because doing so destroys jobs and reduces international competitiveness, unless there are productivity gains to compensate.
However two extra days of public holidays every seven years is relatively insignificant. It adds around 0.11% to the average wages bill. Also, many employers, budget for there being 11 public holidays a year anyway.
If the Government was worried about imposing extra costs on businesses, then I would have expected them to not be increasing the minimum wage (which has increased 12.5% under National) or to pledge to repeal the fourth week of annual leave which costed businesses an extra 2% on their wages bill. It seems silly to take a stand on such a relatively trivial measure.
The other argument against the bill is that by having the public holiday on a different day to the actual event, undermines the importance of that day. I have more sympathy for that argument. The actual days of 6 February and 25 April are important ones to New Zealanders. However I would observe 25 December is quite an important day also, and people seem to cope with getting the Monday off also.
The second opposition bill to pass was a bill from Labour List MP Sue Moroney to extend paid parental leave from 14 weeks to 26 weeks. Again it was supported by Labour, Greens, NZ First, Maori, Mana and United Future. After months of demonising Peter Dunne for keeping his word and voting for the mixed ownership model legislation, he has now become Labour's best friend!
It is less clear that Moroney's bill will make it all the way into law, as I expect will happen for the Mondayisation bill. Dunne's support is not guaranteed for all three readings and if it gets to a third reading the Government can use a procedure under Parliament's standing orders to veto the bill on the basis it will cost too much.
This bill I think fails to take account of the ongoing crisis of debt ripping apart the European Union, and affecting the world economy. When fully implemented, after three years, it would cost taxpayers an extra $170 million a year. This extra spending would almost inevitable have to be borrowed from China or some other foreign lender. I don't think Labour truly appreciates the nature of our fiscal challenges. Even if we manage to get back into surplus by 2014/15, we then need to grow that surplus to at least $2 billion a year, to cover the cost of contributions to the NZ Super Fund. That is probably around 2017 or 2018, if we are lucky and the Eurozone doesn't disintegrate as Greece, Spain, and even Italy get declared bankrupt.
We should be grateful I suppose that Labour are only proposing an extra $170m a year for 26 weeks paid parental leave. Their policy is to eventually increase it to 52 weeks, which would cost half a billion dollars a year.
One could have a useful discussion about the merits of extending paid parental leave, if the country was enjoying massive surpluses. But at a time of a global debt crisis, it seems almost detached from fiscal reality to be proposing this extension.
The third members' bill passed was from Green List MP Holly Walker called the Lobby Disclosure Bill. As far as I can tell, it was supported by all parties in Parliament. The intent of the bill is excellent - more transparency around lobbying. It's one of those thinsg no political party will want to be against. However getting an agreement on how it should work, is likely to be problematic. Will Labour want a law that requires it to disclose every and all meetings with union officials and what was discussed? Will the Greens want a law that requires very environmental group that talks to them on an issue to have to register with the Auditor-General? However, if you exclude unions and NGOs from the bill, it then becomes very unbalanced. So it is far from certain what form the bill will emerge from select committee on.
Overall though a very good day for the Opposition, to get three bills through a first reading. It is much better to be in Government than Opposition, but this shows you can still be an effective legislator from opposition.
Today's ballot just saw five more bills drawn - four from Labour, and one from the Greens. This includes a bill from Louisa Wall on same sex marriage, so there will be lots more debates to come on opposition bills.