Former PM calls for legislative reform

7 October 2014

Sir Geoffrey Palmer

New Zealand law-making: Sir Geoffrey presented the 2014 Harkness Henry Lecture at the University of Waikato about the need to improve New Zealand law-making.

Former prime minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer says Parliament needs to improve the quality of its law-making. He says New Zealand law-making is rushed and often ill thought out, so a lot of legislation is poorly designed at the beginning. We can do so much better, he says.

When Sir Geoffrey presented the 2014 Harkness Henry Lecture at the University of Waikato he told his audience that New Zealand now has 90,000 pages of statute law plus over 36,000 pages of other legislative instruments, much of it obsolete, or subjected time and time again to amendments so the original legislation loses its meaning and vital issues become scrambled.

The former president of the Law Commission has looked at aspects of law-making from a number of perspectives; as an academic, legal practitioner and former politician, and he said the system needs urgent attention.

Transparency needed

“It’s never asked rigorously enough why a law is necessary, and there’s a misplaced faith in the efficacy of legislation,” Sir Geoffrey said. “The whole process should be changed to be made to be more transparent, especially before proposed legislation gets to bill stage.

He said part of the problem is our three-year electoral term, because bills get rushed through before they’re right while others languish for years. “Legislate too quickly and you get it wrong, too slowly and important issues are neglected.”

But Sir Geoffrey had some solutions to reform the unmanageable quantity and quality of statutory law and to reduce the tendency for amendments.

Some solutions

First, he proposed a four-year electoral term, which would reduce the rush to get legislation through. He also advocated better planning, which would halt the propensity to pass changes when they weren’t needed. He wants to increase the transparency, clarity and technical scrutiny of bills in their draft stage. “Take care at the beginning and let the public know what the legislative programme is. Transparency will allow for better planning.”

Sir Geoffrey said rather than different ministries drafting up bills, there should be a new legislation office where one agency prepares the bills under the control of the Attorney General, with three months for consideration and debate before going to a select committee. “You need to give people information and time to respond. You also need to cut the clutter and keep statutes clear. We need to repeal old law and get rid of the dross, and we also need to analyse the consequences of legislation. That’s missing at present.”

The full text of Sir Geoffrey Palmer’s Harkness Henry lecture will be published in the next Waikato Law Review.

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