Legal Beagle by Graeme Edgeler


All over bar the drinking? (updated)

The House of Representatives has just voted to retain 18 as the age at which people can lawfully purchase alcoholic beverages in New Zealand.

Except maybe it hasn't.

The ordinary passage of a bill into law is relatively simple. A bill is introduced, and the House holds a debate on the first reading of the bill. If the House gives a bill a first "reading", it then sends it to a select committee.

The select committee lets people give their views, and can suggest amendments to the bill in it's report on the Bill. After select committee consideration, the House holds a debate on whether to "read" the bill a second time. If it does, any amendments proposed unanimously by the select committee are adopted as part of the bill, and a vote is held on whether to adopt any amendments the select committee proposed by majority (this invariably passes). These changes then become part of the bill that the House sitting as a committee (with all members permitted to take part) discusses.

The Committee of the Whole debates the bill (in the form it emerges after the second reading debate has agreed to adopt changes proposed by the select committee) part by part, or sometimes, clause by clause. It can look at the fine detail. MPs can move amendments proposing new bits be added, to make changes to other bits, or to delete things. The can argue over whether a particular comma should be where it is, or whether an "and" should be an "or". I have seen amendments which didn't change a word, except to make it in bold-faced type. Importantly, MPs are proposing to change the bill from the form it left select committee/passed second reading into something different.

This is the stage the Alcohol Reform Bill is at. The Alcohol Reform Bill that left the select committee, and passed its second reading, had a split age for purchasing alcohol: 18 for on-licences, but 20 for off-licences. Auckland Central MP Nikki Kaye proposed an amendment to change this to 18 for both on-licences and off-licences, and Hamilton West MP Tim Macindoe proposed an amendment to change it to 20 for both.

But these amendments weren't what was being debated, or voted on today. I explained the intriguing process the House would use for this afternoon's debate in my piece this morning. Yesterday, the House agreed to dispense with the ordinary debating structure, and instead:

"for the Committee stage on part two of the Alcohol Reform Bill to take the form of an in principle debate on the issue of age for sale and purchase for alcohol on licenced premises and the issue to be decided ... by way of an election from the three options: 18 years, 20 years, and a split age; and that if this election does not produce a majority decision from the votes cast, for the option receiving the fewest votes to be eliminated and the issue to be decided between the remaining two options by personal vote without any debate, and for the Committee to report progress at the conclusion of the voting, following which any amendments to the bill necessary to implement the Committee's decision will be drafted by Parliamentary Counsel."

Which seems conclusive ("the issue to be decided..."), but may not be.

The simple point is that the Alcohol Reform Bill is still in the form it left the select committee. The House has voted in favour of changing the bill from the split age it currently provides, but it didn't adopt Nikki Kaye's amendments, and hasn't decided what the words to replace those currently requiring a split vote will actually be. Unless the House has given Parliamentary Counsel the power to actually amend the bill by themselves (and if it wanted to do that I'd expect much clearer language), it will still need to agree to those words in the future.

The House can easily do this. It can do it by everyone agreeing, or by holding a voice vote, but in either case, all it takes is one MP to say "no, I want another full vote." That vote would be between what the bill says now, and the amendments that are proposed by Parliamentary Counsel. And when the option that voted for today had 50 in favour and 71 against, who is to say what will result?

I do not expect this to happen. I anticipate that MPs, when discussing how to conduct today's debate, also discussed how to incorporate the proposal it adopted, and agreed informally that it would be done by leave, or on a voice vote only, when the consideration of this bill by the Committee of the Whole continues. They made a deal, and I reckon they'll stick with it. I could probably just ask Trevor Mallard over Twitter, but the idea that they might not have agreed to this, or might not have appreciated that there would need to be another vote formally adopting the amendment (which hasn't even been drafted yet) is kinda funny. And all it takes is one MP :-)

[Update: Hutt South MP Trevor Mallard advises by tweet that the decision of the House will be adopted into the bill by "government SoP. might not be needed - other than to drop clauses. The deal was whatever decided would go in no debate."]

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