Opinion | What’s the Rush? The Use of Urgency in Parliament

Opinion | What’s the Rush? The Use of Urgency in Parliament

By Riley Parnwell


Fair pay agreements: gone. Te Aka Whai Ora: out by the end of June. Three Waters: not happening. The Acts behind each policy have been repealed by the government under urgency at all stages of the legislative process. And yet, they represent only a few of the bills considered under urgency so far—most also at every stage.1

The changes mentioned above were campaigned on. They were also part of the government’s 100-day plan.2 But are those good reasons to violate democratic principles? Putting aside the validity of each policy, we need to confront how urgency is used.

What is urgency?

There are multiple steps for a bill to pass through the House of Representatives and become law with the Governor-General’s assent. After introduction it goes to a first reading. If it passes, the bill often goes to a select committee where MPs from multiple parties may receive public submissions and amend the draft legislation. It then returns to the House for the second reading, committee of the whole House and third reading stages. Here, parliamentarians debate the bill’s pros and cons and may propose changes. The Standing Orders—the rulebook dictating Parliament’s procedure—impose “breathing periods” after each step to allow MPs and the public the chance to be aware of any changes to a bill.3

Motions for urgency have two forms. They can simply extend the House’s sitting to allow longer debate, or they can be used to eliminate the select committee stage and remove turnaround periods.4 The latter is problematic. By March 25th, thirteen pieces of legislation were passed “entirely under urgency”.5

Effects on Democracy:

The government overtook the average for bills passed entirely under urgency in a full term of Parliament “with more than 90 per cent” of this term left.6 That was a choice. The 100-day plan and their electoral mandate have both been claimed as justifications for these bills although there are no criteria under the Standing Orders to invoke urgency as long as the House is notified. 7

One of the responsibilities of the House is providing a check on the government’s power. MPs need to hear testimony from experts and the general public at select committees. Only then can they provide adequate scrutiny of bills. The importance of scrutiny goes beyond the balance of powers: practical problems in legislation may go uncovered as a consequence of urgency. An arbitrary 100-day rush to get through a set of objectives may be effective political marketing, but it fails to account for the lack of scrutiny. The government is giving itself an incentive to ignore proper process and make their 100-day plan the priority. Our lack of other functions for scrutiny like an upper house makes this point more important.

The argument that an electoral mandate legitimises urgency is also unconvincing. Parties often sell ideas: during campaigns they present policies, not draft legislation. There are good reasons for the difference between campaigning and governing. For the government to suggest a majority voted for the policies they campaigned on allows them to be passed under urgency is also to suggest those who did not should be prevented from expressing their dissent by getting involved in the law-making process. Electoral mandates cannot extend to unnecessarily fast legislating. Our Prime Minister recognises his government’s actions are problematic, saying that for their next priority list, the “right method through Parliament” will be followed.9

Is this just a problem for the right-wing?

Opposition leader Chris Hipkins has said the government’s election win cannot allow them “to act like a dictatorship”.10 While opposition parties have a duty to hold the government accountable, his comments seem hypocritical. The Labour government passed five bills under urgency at every step in its first hundred days—fewer, but still problematic.11 Governments may use urgency for fear of letting issues be exposed, because they want to get through their agenda before an election, or because they think it signals to their supporters that they are getting things done. Even if used just to extend the hours of the House and allow for more consideration or debate, the use of urgency by governments of any persuasion creates the perception that the House is ignoring its own rules. In doing so they undermine trust in our institutions. 12 What stops the view that Parliament is not worthy of trust if governments keep bending its rules? Especially if National and Labour continue to make accusations they are guilty of themselves.

Where to for urgency?

It seems clear political motivations will rarely justify the use of urgency. Governments may not need good reason, but democratic principles indicate that it would be best kept for emergencies or where loopholes in existing laws need to be covered. To his credit, former Greens co-leader James Shaw has said “there has to be a point at which we’re able to debate whether it’s appropriate” for such extreme uses of urgency.13 The time has come for discussions about reform. Imposing a clear standard for urgency might be a good start. 



1 New Zealand Parliament, “Progress of Legislation,” March 25, 2024, https://www.parliament.nz/en/pb/bills-and-laws/progress-of-legislation/document/54HOOOCProgressLegislation1/progress-of-legislation.

2 National Party, “100-Day Plan,” accessed April 4, 2024, https://national.org.nz/100-dayplan.

3 Claudia Geiringer, Polly Higbee, and Elizabeth McLeay, What’s the Hurry? (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2011), 31.

4 Geiringer, Higbee, and McLeay, What’s the Hurry?, 36. 

5 Marc Daalder, “Govt sets record for laws passed under urgency in first 100 days,” Newsroom, March 8, 2024. 

6 Phil Smith, “Parliament: Why so much urgency?”, RNZ, March 3, 2024.

7 Standing Orders of the House of Representatives 2023, SO 57.

8 Geiringer, Higbee, and McLeay, What’s the Hurry?, 16.

9 Craig McCulloch, “Prime Minister lays out his priority list for next three months,” RNZ, April 2, 2024.

10 Russell Palmer, “‘Unambitious’ Luxon vs ‘irrelevant’ Hipkins: Leaders trade barbs from the regions”, RNZ, March 14, 2024.

11 Marc Daalder, “Govt sets record for laws passed under urgency in first 100 days”, Newsroom, March 8, 2024.

12 Geiringer, Higbee, and McLeay, What’s the Hurry?, 123.

13 Phil Smith, “Parliament: Why so much urgency?”, RNZ, March 3, 2024. 

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