Parliament’s security guards are likely to be given powers to restrain and hold people under legislation planned for later this year.
The legislation called the “Parliament Bill” is a new measure originated by former National Attorney General Chris Finlayson and is now being handled by the Leader of the House, Chris Hipkins.
Speaker Trevor Mallard is also proposing that the Bill could allow for the early establishment of a Parliamentary Budget Office, which would provide independent scrutiny of political parties’ manifesto spending and tax promises.
Mallard told POLITIK this might make it possible for the Office to be in place, possibly on an ad-hoc basis, before the next election campaign.
In announcing that, he scores both a small victory for himself and brings to an end an obscure three-year battle between himself, on the one hand, Finance Minister Grant Robertson and Greens Co-Leader James Shaw on another and former National Leader Simon Bridges as a third protagonist.
The Bill will also address the relative impotence of Parliament’s security guards when faced with an incident such as the recent occupation of Parliament’s grounds.
The guards could not themselves pull down the protesters’ tents when they were initially erected.
Obviously, if the tents had come down as they went up, the chances of a full-scale camp being established would have been much less.
Instead, the Police had to be called, and the Trespass Act was used (or in the protest case, not used) to evict the protesters.
Under the proposal in the Bill the security guards would be able to “restrain” people for a short period of time until the Police arrived.
The Parliamentary Budget Office has its origins in the 2017 Confidence and Supply Agreement between Labour and the Greens.
The Greens had proposed a Parliamentary Costing Unit to be established within Treasury.
The Office would be exempt from reporting to the Minister and would pro-actively release its costings of party political promises.
But when Finance Minister Grant Robertson announced its establishment in August 2019, it had morphed into becoming an office of Parliament on a par with the Auditor General and Ombudsman.
This was opposed by the Speaker, Trevor Mallard, to whom the Offices report.
“Officers of Parliament are people who are going to actually hold the government to account,” he told POLITIK yesterday.
“The Auditor-General can stop the money.
“The Ombudsman comes pretty close to being able to require them to release stuff and factual information.
“And he has a statutory power.”
Mallard instead proposed that the Office be contained within Parliamentary Services and report directly to him.
Robertson, however, maintained it should be an Office of Parliament.
“It is really about trying to find the highest degree of both real and perceived independence for such a body,” he told a Select Committee in 2019.
“We think we need to find the position within the broader system of our government arrangements that provides the highest level of independence. We believe that an Officer of Parliament fulfils that role.”
Robertson said he and Greens Co-Leader James Shaw believed the proposal met the criteria to be an Office of Parliament.
“It gives it the appropriate status; it will build more credible and independent analysis, and it will support the work of parliamentarians.”
So the proposal was in trouble, with the Speaker and the Finance Minister unable to agree on its status.
National, however, opposed the proposal altogether.
Then-leader Simon Bridges claimed in 2019 that Treasury had failed to provide him with a Treasury advisor for his Office.
“Forgive me if I’m deeply cynical, but I don’t trust the Government on this proposal given that they undermined us around that very modest request for a Treasury official which other Oppositions have been entitled to,” he told POLITIK at the time.
“That’s it; that’s the primary reason why I say I’m distrustful.
Bridges said the proposal was nice in theory, but in practice, he was deeply sceptical it could work.
“You are asking oppositions to trust a Government with their deepest secrets and its most important strategic calls in the middle of an election campaign, and we’re just not going to do that.”
But now, with Bridges about to leave Parliament (next Wednesday) and a new finance spokesperson, Nicola Willis, National is willing to support the idea.
“When we come closer to the election, and we lay out the details of our fiscal plan, I want to ensure that New Zealanders can have absolute confidence in that plan,” Willis said on Newshub’s Nation at the weekend.
“So I will be writing to Grant Robertson to say to him, Well, let’s have another look at your idea of a Budget Responsibility office because actually independently verifying our costings is something National’s absolutely up for.”
Mallard told POLITIK the Office of Parliament proposal had now been abandoned, and instead, the Budget Office would be part of the Parliamentary bureaucracy as he had originally proposed.
It would draw on some resources from the Parliamentary library and would employ its own economists.
“I think the really important thing is you would need to get an independent director,” Mallard said.
“You’d need to get someone to come into it who was not a big public person but who fronted and took responsibility for it.
The first person is going to be really important because they will set the tone and set the integrity of it.
“It’s got to have the trust of everyone, particularly over confidentiality, and it’s got to have enough heft to require government departments to hand over systems and data. “
It may be too late to have the provisions to enable it to be set up to be included in the Parliament Bill when it is introduced into Parliament, but Mallard said they could be moved as amendments during the Committee stages.
He said it wouldn’t be complicated and would mainly involve a slight expansion of the Clerk’s role.
Ironically Treasury officials have already attended OECD meetings and seminars about Parliamentary Budget Offices, which are found in many Parliaments around the world.