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Select committees give everyone a voice

Select committees give everyone a voice

Recently I experienced quite a bit of what my mother would call “déjà vu all over again”. The New Zealand Law Society offered a link to an article on the New Zealand Parliament website headed “25th anniversary of the select committee system”.

Twenty-five years ago I had my first experience of making submissions to a select committee – on GST of all things. It was as a result of that experience that I decided to become a lawyer when I made a long-planned career change five years later.

Select committees carry out most of Parliament’s hard work on changes to legislation. They can also initiate inquiries within their subject areas (there are 13 of them), and they scrutinise the activities of government departments. We see this quite a bit on television when there are hard questions to be asked. What was new about the 1995 move was that they were opened up to the public – and the public was able to make submissions, sit in on most select committee hearings and speak directly to the lawmakers.

Select committees are a really significant part of our constitution as they allow us to have input into that most serious Parliamentary task – making the laws.

I learned early on that it didn’t matter who you were or where you came from, if you had some clear views on a point of law reform you could get it through and it would be listened to. I recently had the experience of getting my own back with the section of the GST Act 1985 that deems a provision into long-term contracts allowing the supplier to increase the price by the amount of the increase in GST (a 2.222 percent price increase, not 2.5 percent - work it out!).

If you are wondering why that provision is deemed to be in effect for a whole three months, the answer is historical: in 1985 we did not have direct debits – heck, most businesses were not even computerised, though mine was. So we had to contact all of our tens of thousands of customers one at a time and get them to sign new direct credit forms. It took a wee while, hence the three month window.

The important point is telling the select committee what will happen if a Bill goes ahead in its current form. “If you do it your way, this dreadful thing will happen so it’s better to do this” is pretty convincing. Most of the drafting is done by departmental officers in Wellington, who don’t have the benefit of our knowledge of what happens in real life. That’s why they need us and that’s what the select committee system is all about.

One of the scariest submissions I made was to the Commerce Select Committee about 10 years ago, on a serious point of law that would have affected the rights of all businesses to have confidential discussions with their lawyers. The committee chair thanked me and then told me that I was the only person who had made a submission on that Bill. What if I hadn’t taken the trouble to do it? Twenty-five years later, I’m still writing submissions - though usually for clients – either to select committees or to government departments when they publish discussion papers on what they would like to do next. But I never could get interested in tax law, which I’m sure comes as no surprise!

Rae Nield is a solicitor specialising in marketing law. This article is intended for general information, and should not be relied on as specific legal advice. You should consult a lawyer for advice relating to your own specific legal problems. Rae Nield can be contacted at raenield@marketinglaw.co.nz.


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