Does Parliament have enough to do?

After the Budget, concerns have been raised that the svelte state of Parliament's Order Paper - the roster of Parliament's daily business - suggests that Parliament is at risk of running out of business to attend to.

But it is wrong to conclude that because Parliament is finally starting to deal efficiently with a backlog of legislation that this somehow reflects a lighter workload for MPs, or that a tidier Order Paper raises the prospect of Parliament running out of things to do.

On the contrary, the Government's management of the Order Paper deserves praise.

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It is true that Parliament has only about 30 Government Bills on the Order Paper to deal with at the moment, when the historical average has been much higher than that. And many of those Bills have been with Parliament for some time and are not likely to progress further toward enactment in the foreseeable future.

But merely looking at the Order Paper does not take into account the Bills currently being considered by Parliament's Select Committees - including such important legislation as the Health and Safety Reform Bill, which will now remain with the Transport and Industrial Relations Committee for a further two months. Select Committees are the engine rooms of Parliament where most of the real work is done, but their business often happens out of the public eye.

The advantage of a well-managed Order Paper is that the Government can put legislation through Parliament on a reasonable timetable. When the Order Paper is clogged with legislation, as has been the case in the past, worthy Bills must compete with each other for Parliamentary time.

The result was either frustrating delay in making needed changes to the law, or Parliament taking urgency to deal with legislation - not because legislation was genuinely urgent, but in an attempt to obtain more Parliamentary time to deal with day-to-day legislative matters.

Neither approach really reflected best legislative practice.

Recent changes to Parliament's Standing Orders have also meant that some Bills can be dealt with much more efficiently. For example, Bills implementing Treaty of Waitangi settlements are now often dealt with under extended sitting hours on Thursday mornings.

This means that these Bills - which are usually almost unanimously supported and whose contents have been agreed as part of hard-fought negotiations - are being dealt with faster, without taking time away from other matters. Since most settlement deeds include a penalty clause increasing the value of the settlement the longer the Crown takes to pass the settlement Bill, the taxpayer benefits as well.

Finally, the Order Paper does not reflect all of the other policy and legislative work currently underway by the Government, such as the review of the Customs and Excise Act, or the review of the financial advisors legislation, or the process improvements to the Resource Management Act, all of which are likely to generate further Bills which will come before Parliament in due course.

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Nor does it reflect, for example, the work of the Regulations Review Committee scrutinising regulations or considering Parliament's legislative response to national emergencies. So there is plenty to keep politicians busy.

But if Parliament were to run out of Bills to pass, would that really be a bad thing? As leader of the House Hon Gerry Brownlee has said, Governments should not be in the business of making legislation just for the sake of it.

Legislating isn't free - a study in 2012 suggested that each new Act cost the country about $3.5 million. So perhaps we should look forward to a day when Government decides that the statute book is fine as it is and no further legislation is required. But I am not holding my breath.

James Dunne is a partner at Chen Palmer Public and Employment Law Specialists