Deliberating in public “would have a chilling effect on free discussion”, say MPs

Last year we went to the trouble of collecting nearly 900 signatures for a petition. When I was finally informed that it was going to be discussed on a Thursday by the appropriate Select Committee, I said “Good, I will come”. “Oh, no,” said the secretary, “this is not an open session”. Having been involved in local government where meetings are almost always in the open I was gobsmacked.

Well the petition was turned down and we are none the wiser as to why. We don’t know what arguments were put forward or used in objection, we don’t know anything – only that they invited a submission from the Reserve Bank because they sent us this recently, together with their final report.

NZ Parliment
After discovering this behind doors policy, I wrote to the Speaker, saying that Parliament had legislated to require local authorities have their meetings in public (give or take a couple of exceptions) 22 years ago. Why did they now expect the same standards of open government from themselves?

The Speaker wrote an excellent letter back and invited us to submit to the Select Committee on Standing Orders. We did this and before long they invited us to give evidence. We got a reasonable hearing.

But a few months later when I asked what the result was, the secretary gave me a link to the committee’s report and lo and behold there was nothing about having Select Committees in open session. Again we have no idea what the arguments were and who argued which way.

The only part of Parliament we see is the tribal raruraru in the House and it is an embarrassment to notice there are school children in the gallery watching it all. The Westminster System certainly shows its ugly side.

But Select Committees, they tell us, are the most constructive part of Parliament. So why can’t the public see them cooperating and deliberating? Why do they close their doors? What have they got to hide?

No wonder so many are turned off Parliament and don’t vote. All parties seem as bad as each other at the moment.

And today the advice from the Clerk of the House was posted on Parliament’s website. “No”, she said. “While I agree that it would be useful for the public to see the constructive discussions that occur in closed meetings, the nature of these discussions would be likely to change if they were conducted in public, or they would take place outside the committee room. In particular, opening proceedings would affect the provision of free and frank advice, have a chilling effect on free discussion and political negotiation amongst members, and increase the likelihood of lobbying.”

Well that was what one MP told us when we went there. Oh how dreadful seeing them being constructive. Oh how surprising seeing them negotiate. Well it makes one wonder what is so different about being an MP when councillors at local level can deliberate in public with the media and the public present. The latter is democracy we trust, the former is a closet democracy.

And it seems the MPs followed the Clerk’s report, because that is how they decided. And no one will ever know if one of them didn’t agree. If this is the effect of the adversarial imperative of the Westminster system it is not serving well and it is time our adversarial system was reformed.