Auckland, December 27, 2019
Democracy in New Zealand is suffering from a Parliament which under-performs in its scrutiny of human rights.
A new report says that human rights oversight by Select Committees examining potential legislation is weak and ad hoc. Human rights obligations and protections lack parliamentary leadership.
Parliamentary Scrutiny of Human Rights in New Zealand: Glass Half Full? is the result of a research project undertaken by AUT Professor Judy McGregor and former Attorney General and Minister of the Crown and Waikato University Law Professor Margaret Wilson over two years.
It was funded by the New Zealand Law Foundation.
The current climate of declining political trust, poor parliamentary behaviour and the way laws are made, as well as insufficient parliamentary scrutiny of human rights contributes to a dynamic of fractured politics, the report says.
It calls for a new style of politics in the New Zealand House of Representatives that fosters dignity and respect for everyone inside and outside of Parliament.
“Public engagement in submissions to Select Committee needs to be improved as it is the jewel of the New Zealand parliamentary system,” Professor McGregor said.
“Members of the public who make written submissions need to be guaranteed the right to be heard and answer questions and to have a minimum time period. They don’t need to be told that because there’s no time or there’s too many submissions, they can’t have a say.”
Select committees could increase their hours of work or sit at different times, she says.
The Attorney-General should report at the beginning of each new Parliament on legislation previously introduced that breached human rights and recommend whether it should be repealed.
“All laws with provisions that breach human rights obligations should have a sunset clause of three years for such provisions,” Professor Wilson said.
“If there is a report to Parliament indicating that a bill breaches the Bill of Rights or other human rights then the breach should trigger a special parliamentary vote.”
Twenty Five Recommendations
The 25 recommendations in the report address policy formation before legislation is introduced, parliamentary processes, Select Committee scrutiny and the role of officials and agencies like the New Zealand Human Rights Commission.
The report supports calls for a parliamentary code of conduct and believes parliamentary debate of major human rights treaty reports on New Zealand’s record after examination by the United Nations is overdue.
It recommends increased resourcing for private members bills that are drawn from the ballot and wants Green and White papers to allow full analysis of substantive policy changes before legislation is introduced.
The training of departmental and parliamentary officials, new Members of Parliament and chairs of Select Committees, in New Zealand’s human rights obligations and how they affect law-making, is raised in the research.
Role of Human Rights Commission
“We also believe that the New Zealand Human Rights Commission has a significant role in improving human rights scrutiny by Parliament,” Professor McGregor said.
It should produce an annual guide for parliamentary and public use and the commission could be requested to advise Select Committees.
Most importantly, to improve the perception of independence and increase their mana, Human Rights Commissioners need to be designated as Officers of Parliament, like ombudsmen.
The report is based on interviews with Members of Parliament, parliamentary officials and on five case studies of legislation passed before and during the current parliamentary term.
The researchers also appeared before a Select Committee on a bill before the House. The researchers submitted to the Standing Orders Review and were heard on December 5, 2019.
Following are some of the observations made towards the end of the Report:
Public participation in Select Committee processes is the jewel of New Zealand’s parliamentary system. Moves to enhance public engagement in the submission process through earlier visibility of the legislative programme, more time for written and oral submissions and improved transparency of outcomes in Select Committee reports may act to counter diminishing public trust in politics.
Human rights scrutiny by Select Committees where it exists is weak, ad hoc, and partial, and will remain so while the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act sets out obligations arising from the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, but does not cover economic, social and cultural rights. Parliament should articulate rights drawn from the core United Nations treaties that New Zealand has ratified in a new, coherent and modern human rights framework.
Parliamentary leadership to ensure law-making respects, protects and fulfils New Zealand’s human rights obligations requires urgent attention through education and induction of all MPs, specialised training of Select Committee chairs, and everyday practice by all those who work in the House of Representatives.
A new style of political dialogue among Members of Parliament that respects the important accountability function of oppositional politics while accommodating cross-party negotiation and fostering dignity and respect for everyone should be an expectation of those within Parliament, as it is for those outside.
Improved capacity and capability of departmental and public officials is overdue to develop a rights culture necessary for effective parliamentary scrutiny of human rights. Lack of an effective inter-departmental mechanism and systematic training and development in human rights contributes to Parliament’s under-performance in law-making.
The research confirms the primacy of public participation in Select Committees as an expression of human rights and in their protection and promotion in everyday life. However, the New Zealand Parliament generally under-performs in its role of scrutinising human rights in law-making. The recommendations are made with the aim of helping to address democratic deficits.
Source: AUT Website. AUT was the Sponsor of the ‘Business Excellence in Ethics and Compliance’ category of the Twelfth Annual Indian Newslink Indian Business Awards 2019.