Where Does Democracy Belong in Select Committees?

In the light of enormous public engagement with select committees, Will Dreyer wonders if we are missing something. (From the April 2022 edition of Public Sector Journal)

Last year, a record-breaking number of submissions were made to the Justice Select Committee on the Conversion Practices Prohibition Legislation Bill: a massive 106,700 submissions. Assuming – conservatively – that each submission was on behalf of one individual, then this is equivalent to just under one out of every twenty-seven voters in the 2020 General Election submitting on this bill. 

This is not an isolated event; the rate of submissions to select committees is increasing. Hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of people are regularly engaging in the legislative process. It seems that select committees are being transformed into sites of direct and participatory democracy. As told by interest groups, our voices are powerful and if enough people submit, then MPs will have to listen to the people, to democracy. Indeed, the ability to submit has been described as a constitutional right by academics and parliamentarians alike. Providing an underlying legitimacy to legislation, submissions are a democratic act.

But are they? Select committees contain competing and often conflicting inputs – the views and decisions of our elected representatives do not always align with the views or desires of submitters. Nor are select committees required to act in line with what the majority of submitters demand. The right to submit is not the same as the right to have your way. What then, is the point of a submission? What makes a submission valuable or influential?

Submissions, when called for, are a tool for select committees to use. Primarily, their function is to educate our lawmakers – to provide and generate insight into the impact and consequences of proposed legislation, through lived experience and expertise that lawmakers do not always have. It seems to me that there is a misalignment in the understandings of submissions. To parliament, submissions are a tool; to the public, they are a democratic act, some strange version of an opinion poll or a vote. That submissions can be used as a political tool has only fuelled this misconception – for government disagreement with the majority of submissions allows opposition parties to proclaim the illegitimacy of the government regardless of broader public opinion or election manifestos. Competing views on the role of submissions risks a loss of trust in and a delegitimisation of the committee process, and in turn, a loss of trust in parliament. Submissions are not – formally – a democratic act. They are an epistemic tool. But this seems an unambitious and uninspiring model of public engagement. Should we not strive for better and more responsive forms of democracy?

At the turn of the century, parliament’s engagement with the public through select committees was well-regarded. Twenty years on, little about parliament’s fundamental approach to submitters has changed (beyond increased accessibility through the internet). Meanwhile, other jurisdictions have been taking steps to improve their own select committee process – by actively aiming to address the gender imbalance of witnesses, engaging with marginalised communities, and trialling innovative democratic models (such as mini-publics linked into select committee operations). Strong public engagement with select committees is an opportunity for parliament to experiment – to replicate and build on the endeavours of these other jurisdictions, embedding the public in decision-making processes in a manner that honours Te Tiriti o Waitangi and is equitable, representative, and innovative. Desire for such experimentation is hinted at in the Standing Orders Review 2020, but it needs the will of select committees to drive it, as well as visions of alternative democratic models around the committee table and within the public sector.