The most recent UN climate change conference (COP-25) has just completed in its usual state of indecision and rancour. Meanwhile, the forests of Brazil and Australia, among others, are burning. The planet is in crisis mode. Effective policy responses are urgently needed – domestically and internationally.
How well do governments in New Zealand prepare for an uncertain future in the 21st century?
How effectively does Parliament scrutinise the country’s long-term governance?
Earlier this year I was engaged in a collaborative effort between the Institute for Governance and Policy Studies (IGPS) at Victoria University of Wellington and Parliament’s Office of the Clerk to explore such issues. This resulted in a substantial report published in June by the IGPS: Foresight, insight and oversight: Enhancing long-term governance through better parliamentary scrutiny.
As Dr Simon Chapple (the Director of the IGPS) points out in his Foreword, there is concern that our governmental systems and policy processes are too focused on the immediate issues of the day, and less on the variety of long-term problems that may be, or indeed are, around future corners.
In New Zealand, he says, democratic government is one of our strengths. Our democracy operates on the basis of parliamentary sovereignty, where Parliament, consisting of the elected representatives of the people, is the supreme power. Yet like any human institution, our systems of governance are less than perfect and, more positively, capable of improvement following rational consideration.
Indeed, Members of Parliament, former MPs and other regular participants in parliamentary processes, who were interviewed for our report, generally considered that parliamentary scrutiny of long-term matters to be deficient.
During debates in the House, MPs often talk about their hopes for the future and are interested in long-term matters, and there are some good examples of forward-looking select committee inquiries. But the political focus is usually on short-term considerations, and Parliament’s rules do not mandate regular examination of long-term issues. Our report found that advice from independent experts is under-used by select committees.
Many options and ideas are included in the report for improving parliamentary scrutiny of long-term governance. These suggestions are designed to enhance scrutiny by:
Particular options include:
Our report was prepared to stimulate discussion about how Parliament and the government can more systematically anticipate, assess and prepare for future developments and issues. In particular, it provides ideas that can be considered during the three-yearly review of Parliament’s Standing Orders (rules), which commenced towards the end of 2019.
Of special interest to the Centre for Global Studies, I think, is the chapter on ‘foreign approaches, models and practices’. My colleagues and I looked at five other jurisdictions, which provide lessons and insights into different ways of considering futures planning in various political systems. Specially, we addressed the following:
The conclusions we drew from our study of these and other examples include the following:
While our report explored a range of international models for improving long-term governance, our focus was primarily at the national level. But most of the major issues facing humanity – whether ecological, security-related, or technological – are global in nature and thus require global responses.
Currently, there is a range of reputable academic institutes around the world addressing such issues, including the Future of Humanity Institute (Oxford), the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (Cambridge), the Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere (Stanford) and the Stockholm Resilience Centre (SU).
Without question, the Centre for Global Studies has an important role to play in our part of the world in encouraging research and debate about ways to improve long-term planning and anticipatory governance – at national, regional and global levels.
Dr Jonathan Boston is Professor of Public Policy in the Wellington School of Business and Government at Victoria University of Wellington. He has published widely on public management, social policy, climate change policy, tertiary education policy, and comparative government.