New Legislation Aims to Deter Unnecessary Legislation

New research by the University of Otago’s Wellington branch has put a dollar value on the rampant time-wasting, political point-scoring, and other such shenanigans involved with law-making in New Zealand. According to the study, each new Act of Parliament costs an average of $3.5 million, while a new regulation costs $530,000. That’s an average of $44,000 per parliamentary page.

Critic spoke with the lead researcher, Associate Professor Nick Wilson of the University’s Department of Public Health, about the reasons behind these high costs. Firstly, Wilson criticises the tactic of filibustering. Labour stalled the progress of the VSM bill for months by endlessly debating the Hamilton City Council (Parana Park) Land Vesting Bill, offering such high-quality public discourse as “When I was a child, [we] often would walk our dog down to Parana Park.” ACT, meanwhile, delayed the Foreshore and Seabed Bill by proposing hundreds of amendments clarifying the Latin name of each and every marine mammal in New Zealand. While amusing, filibustering wastes parliamentary time.

Parliament’s time is also taken up by MPs entering bills into the private members’ ballot that have no chance of making it into law, such as Sue Moroney’s recent Paid Parental Leave Bill. Wilson says: “It would be better if there was a system for opposition parties to have an opportunity to choose bills that they thought were plausible for the ruling party to work with them on.”

Wilson hopes his research will enable politicians to make more informed choices about whether to propose laws. “We’re trying to make the whole process more rational with cost-effective estimates”. So far, so uncontroversial. But this leads into a wider debate about the quality of legislation and regulation. What makes a law good? What should governments have to consider when passing new laws?

Critic spoke to ACT Leader and Minister for Regulatory Reform John Banks, who “welcomed” Wilson’s report. However, Banks noted that study did not take into account the “wider costs of regulation”, such as “the costs that consulted parties face when new laws are being considered and they engage in that process; and the costs of the regulation itself, whether that be: implementation costs, enforcement costs for the Crown, or compliance costs for impacted parties.”

The Regulatory Standards Bill, currently being shepherded through Parliament by Banks, aims to “reduce wider regulatory costs by improving the overall quality of the stock of regulation.” The Bill will do this by “specifying [six] principles of responsible regulation” that must be taken into account when making laws. These principles are designed to make governments consider traditional liberal principles of law-making that the National/ACT government believes are being increasingly ignored.

Firstly, the legislation should comply with common notions of the rule of law, such as not imposing obligations retrospectively. This principle won’t be too controversial. Secondly, laws should not take away the liberty of people unless it is necessary to protect the liberty of others. Thirdly, laws should not take property from people unless they are compensated for their loss. This is a well-established constitutional rule in the USA and Australia, but the principle is strongly opposed by public health advocates such as Wilson, who don’t want to compensate alcohol and tobacco companies when they suffer losses due to regulation.

Fourthly, the government is not to impose a charge for goods or services (such as passports) unless this charge is a reasonable one. Fifthly, legislation should not interfere with the role of courts in reviewing decisions made by government departments. Finally, governments should take into account principles of good law-making, including conducting a “careful evaluation” of the costs and benefits of the legislation.

If a proposed law would be incompatible with one of these principles, the Minister in charge of the bill must acknowledge this and give reasons for the incompatibility. Courts will have the power to declare laws to be inconsistent with the principles; this will have no legal effect but will put pressure on the government of the day.

Will the Regulatory Standards Bill be good or bad for law-making in New Zealand? That depends on your ideological perspective. If you want governments to pass fewer laws and prioritise property rights over other public concerns, you’ll love it. If you like governments being able to pass without fuss any laws they believe are in the interests of society, this bill is not for you. Either way, the Bill will likely be passed by the end of the year.
This article first appeared in Issue 12, 2012.
Posted 7:58pm Sunday 20th May 2012 by Callum Fredric.