Whatever else may be said about it, the new National Government cannot be accused of sitting on its hands. In the first session of the new Parliament, it may have looked like an administration unused to the finer points of procedure but when the House got down to business, it was keen to show who's boss.
On the face of it, this may appear unexceptionable. The new administration is armed with a substantial electoral mandate and nine years in Opposition is plenty of time to build up a head of policy
steam, so the team has plenty on its agenda. But the procedural tactics that it has adopted suggest an efficiency that is too close to ruthless for comfort.
On Tuesday afternoon, Brownlee put Parliament into urgency to debate
legislation that National wants to pass before Christmas. The approach is part of what the Government has called its "100-day action plan", which is a stirring slogan intended to evoke a Government with its sleeves rolled up. But even if measured from election night, it will be well into February before 100 days will have passed; if the clock is reckoned to have started ticking on November 19, when the Government formally took office, 100 days will take us to the verge of spring.
The Nats, apparently oblivious to this arithmetic, seem to be operating on the basis that 100 days will be up sometime this week. It has adopted a bulldozing approach that is disturbingly at odds with democratic Government. Gerry Brownlee would not even name the bills to be passed under urgency, but only the subject areas that they canvassed. Worse, he refused to give Opposition parties advance copies of any of the bills, until just before they were to be debated in Parliament.
The fact that the matters were being dealt with under urgency already meant that there would be no chance for public submission; there is no room in the action plan for tedious details such as the select committee
process, by which interested parties get to express their view about
proposed legislation. But the public was denied the opportunity to even see the legislation, because the Nats were producing for debate law that had not been completely drafted and officially tabled and therefore, under Parliament's rules, cannot be formally published.
Extraordinarily, it was left to the Greens to scan paper copies and, in a samizdat-style operation reminiscent of the gulag-era Soviet Union, publish them on its own website. It is a state of affairs seriously at odds with the notion of a Parliamentary democracy.
With the possible exception of its tax cuts and changes to KiwiSaver, none of the matters being pushed through under urgency is really urgent. Amendments to sentencing and bail laws, changes to the Education Act and a law providing for a 90-day probation period for new employees in small
businesses are all matters that deserve, even demand, scrutiny. The provision to fine parents of truants up to $3000 is questionable enough as it is, since truancy is disproportionately a problem in poorer communities, and kids' failure to attend school is often evidence of more deep-seated problems which are not addressed by imposing unpayable fines. But with school now winding down for the year such haste seems foolhardy. As one principals' spokesman put it: "When bills are rushed
and the sector is not consulted, it will create a sense of suspicion with the Government."
The same may be said of the so-called "90-day" bill, which makes it possible for a small employer to dismiss new employees without risking a grievance claim. The bill is not without apparent merit: it's tough
running a small business, and the difficulty and expense of complying with complicated employment procedures to get rid of a plainly unsuitable new recruit can be daunting. But the new law strips many
vulnerable workers of their rights. As Human Rights Commissioner Judy
McGregor said, this is a "fundamental change to employment law which
requires serious consideration".
It is entirely possible that National is in the grip of a first flush of legislative enthusiasm. If so, it will adopt a more measured pace in the new year. If not, there is cause for concern. The Clark administration
was often described as taking a "nanny state" approach - but it did consult widely; the Nats, by contrast, are looking remarkably like bullies.