Creating laws like making sausages

Parliamentary procedure – a brief guide for the perplexed

Publication April 11, 2016

When our parliament is in session I am reminded of one of my favourite quotes, was arguably said: If you like the law or sausages you should not see either being made. That before the era of the television but at least we now have the off button. There are good reasons for orderly procedures in meetings. Henry M. Robert, famous for Robert’s Rules of Order, pointed out that “where there is no law, but every person does what is right in their own eyes, then there is the least of real liberty”. Believe it or not, our parliament does have a formal set of Rules of the National Assembly, 332 rules in all.

We are all consumers of laws. We have the right to expect that those making them, like sausage-makers, are concentrating on getting the right ingredients under the skin and not getting under each other’s skin. There are many good laws going through parliament, most of which you will never have noticed. They float gently through the process beneath the waves of points of order. Right now there are good laws in process to protect children, plants and performing animals. So what you get is not always what you see.

What we do see is an endless stream of points of order and fruitless motions doomed to failure except as grandstanding exercises.

Let me tell you about points of order. A point of order is an appeal to the speaker for clarification or a ruling on procedure when the business of the house is under way, such as a speech being made. A member can interrupt a speaker to raise a point of order. The point of order is succinctly stated giving the reason why the interrupter thinks some procedure is incorrect. Perhaps, for instance, something is being discussed which is not on the order paper at the time. The speaker immediately makes a ruling on the point of order. Debate or discussion is not permitted. The speaker briefly gives reasons for the finding and takes any action that is necessary perhaps to curtail the debate on an incorrect matter. And that is that. Once the speaker has made the ruling, it’s dealt with and the same point may not be raised again in that session. The formal rules of debate encourage freedom of speech. You can’t interrupt a speaker unless it is a point of order or a point of privilege (for instance you can’t hear the speaker and want them to speak up) and you can’t debate either.

When we watch these rules being ignored I am sure all of us wish they would get on with the job at hand and pass some rational useful laws prioritising, for instance, job creation.

I have a suggestion. We have a law called the Public Funding of Represented Political Parties Act which hands out taxpayer money to political parties in proportion to their representation in parliament. If someone can keep score how many times the rules of order are ignored and reduce the funding of parties according to how often they breach the rules of parliament, perhaps our money would be better spent.

Some years under the previous regime, a successful businessman I knew was persuaded to go to parliament for an opposition party after he retired. After a week in parliament he said to me “If it was a company I would sell my shares”. Sausage-making also hasn’t changed much.

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