Partying is more important than policy

MPs shove off this week. They could have stuck around for another two weeks and got some important legislation done but the rugby is bigger politics right now.

Some important people have to be seen partying in the right places. The party is bucking up national morale and politicians must do their bit. Policy can wait.

Policy is the boring part of politics. But it is policy that counts. Long after the histrionics and photo-opportunities, policy goes on biting or building. Legislation is a big part of policymaking. That is Parliament’s main job.

The current governing coterie has shifted the tone, focus and direction of legislation to reflect National’s different leanings from Labour’s and the different preoccupations the Maori party and ACT have from New Zealand First.

So for Pita Sharples and Tariana Turia there was, for example, a partial revision of the 2004 foreshore and seabed law which National characterises as cosmetic but which includes a section on which substantial change might possibly be pegged over time. There is whanau ora and next year a constitutional review. For Rodney Hide a legislative start has been made to remove redundant laws plus a nod towards stricter or more transparent rules for lawmaking.

For National itself a river of law has included a start on streamlining building controls and the Resource Management Act, freer aquaculture rules, some speeding up of justice and more attention to victims, some deregulation of the labour market and some shuffling of swivel chairs in the public service. Tax incidence was shifted from income to consumption. Auckland got repackaged.

There will be more in that vein next term, assuming National is in office, especially if it can act alone or turn, as now, either to ACT or the Maori party (which is important because ACT opposes most of the Maori party’s agenda and vice-versa).

The issue for this final week is one of lesser public policy importance: how far ACT’s arm can be twisted to allow police to snoop with impunity over back fences and be ruled to have done that legally in the past.

The issue for last week — in fact, the past several weeks — was of still lesser public policy importance: whether students associations should be able to vote to require all students to join. ACT billed this Heather Roy bill as one of freedom of association but in fact it is freedom of dissociation.

It echoes the long argument over compulsory workplace unionism. The Muldoon government passed legislation requiring unions to hold a vote on compulsion. But all votes favoured continuing compulsion, reflecting the principle of moral hazard (usually much revered by ACT people, as good neoliberals) that no one should benefit from unions’ actions and initiatives — wage rises and better conditions — without paying for them.

Jim Bolger was Minister of Labour then. In 1991 as Prime Minister he pushed through compulsory removal of compulsion in the Employment Contracts Act.

As with workers, so with students. The question now will be what access non-members will have to services the associations deliver and — taken together with a bill Steven Joyce has in the House giving the government leverage over what association services universities can pay for — how much of what they now do can be maintained.

That is a big issue for some students. It is a minor issue for the nation. But two extra “members days” were scheduled to get the bill through. Members days usually stop some weeks out from the end of a parliamentary term to expedite cabinet bills of major public importance.

Add to that the sloppy management that has led to the police snooping bill scramble, a demerit point for Simon Power as acting Leader of the House. There had been plenty of time to get the Search and Surveillance Bill through, with appropriate provisions, but it has dawdled through the parliamentary process and is still far down the list.

In its original draft the snooping bill also represented, in its retrospectivity, a disrespect for constitutional nicety — not a good look after the Warners labour law, John Key’s out-of-order push for an official cash rate cut after the February earthquake and his eagerness to give Sky City extra gaming licences in return for a convention centre. Moreover, the bill is in the name of Chris Finlayson who, as Attorney-General, is supposed to be the cabinet’s guardian of the constitution.

The two bills bespeak hubris, a government feeling so in command that it doesn’t have to fuss about what is left over at the end of this term.

On the order paper as of yesterday were 66 public bills plus one divided into 15 bills. Some low on the list are of real importance: on consumer reform, tax (two), insolvency, building regulation (two), removal of redundant laws, food, trade and patents.

Two weeks more sittings could have dented that list and sorted the police snooping problem in a measured way.

It doesn’t augur well for next term. But for now there is a party to go to.