It is not often a complete bill put up by an Opposition MP gains the support of a majority in Parliament only to be vetoed by the minister responsible for the public accounts. But that is what happened last week to Labour MP Sue Moroney's bill to extend paid parental leave from 18 weeks to 26 weeks. All parties except National and Act supported it, giving it 61 votes out of 120.
But Finance Minister Bill English used a provision in Parliament's standing orders allowing the Government to overrule a measure which "in its view would have more than a minor impact on the Government's fiscal aggregates if it became law".
Supporters of the bill are understandably aggrieved. An additional eight weeks of paid parental leave would hardly have sunk the Budget.
The Treasury estimated it would cost an additional $278 million over four years, or about $70 million a year. This in a Budget that will spend $77 billion in the coming year and $1.6 billion of that is new spending. But there is no objective test of how much "would have more than minor impact" on the books. The standing order leaves this to, "in its view". In effect, the Government can veto anything that will require it to spend money.
A good case can be made for extending paid parental leave. New Zealand's welfare state is relatively generous to its senior citizens by international comparison. It is less generous to its young families. Many comparable countries provide longer paid parental leave than we do. If the Government is unwilling to add $70 million a year to its spending overall, it could surely find savings of that amount elsewhere in the Budget.
The how, of course, is the hard part. It is much easier to gather a parliamentary majority for paying a benefit than it would be to get agreement between Labour, Greens, the Maori Party and NZ First on whether to pay for it by specified cuts to other outlays, or by a tax increase or debt.
If last week's experience causes anyone to argue for a weakening of the Finance Minister's veto, the proposition would need to include a proviso that Parliament could agree on how it is to be financed.
Despite proportional representation and governments of more than one party, the leading party remains the only one that feels answerable for the country's fiscal position at the next election. Under the previous Labour Government, Sir Michael Cullen used the veto 15 times over his nine years as Finance Minister. Bill English has used it seven times so far. The difference this time is a complete bill has been overruled.
Normally it is an amendment put up by the Opposition during debate on a Government bill. When a private member's bill attracts sufficient support to proceed in its own right, as this one has, governments will usually respond with a bill of their own that goes at least some way to the same end.
National has been remarkably conciliatory so far for a party so long in power. It made concessions and compromises on environmental and labour issues. An extension of paid parental leave deserves its consideration too.