18
December
2019

A Parliamentary Eye on the Future:

Global and national frameworks

Jonathan Boston

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.

https://www.parliament.nz/en/get-involved/features/keeping-a-keen-eye-on-the-future/

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:

  • strengthening incentives for MPs to devote more attention to long-term policy matters,
  • changing Parliament’s rules so scrutiny of long-term governance occurs more regularly and systematically, and
  • increasing the use of independent research, analysis and advice.

Particular options include:

  • change the size and structure of select committees, for example by establishing a Committee for the Future or a Governance Committee, or adding a new specialist committee function focused on scrutinising long-term governance;
  • improve the government’s long-term reporting, including better reporting of progress towards long-term objectives;
  • enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of select committees, particularly during their financial scrutiny activities;
  • encourage cross-party pre-legislative consultation to foster durable legislative solutions;
  • encourage committees to undertake more forward-looking inquiries;
  • track and follow up on the government’s progress in implementing select committee recommendations;
  • encourage greater use by committees of advice from Officers of Parliament and independent experts, including the possible appointment of a Chief Parliamentary Science Advisor;
  • consider establishing a cross-party futures forum of MPs working in association with respected research organisations and sector groups to examine long-term issues; and
  • explore a range of possible policy, legislative and constitutional reforms.

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:

  • Finland: Parliament’s Committee for the Future
  • Scotland: Parliament’s Futures Forum
  • Israel: the Knesset’s Commission for Future Generations (2001-06)
  • Wales: Future Generations Commissioner, and the 2015 Wellbeing of Future Generations (Wales) Act
  • United Kingdom: Parliament’s Office of Science and Technology

The conclusions we drew from our study of these and other examples include the following:

  1. Many parliaments, especially those in smaller democracies and at the sub-national level, undertake relatively little systematic scrutiny of an explicitly long-term or forward-looking nature (e.g. assessing how well governments are preparing for the future or mitigating and managing risks).
  2. There is no obvious best model for ensuring high-quality legislative oversight, including scrutiny of long-term governance. Certainly there is no ‘silver bullet’. However, if forward-looking legislative scrutiny is to be undertaken well (e.g. in a proactive, systematic and rigorous manner), a comprehensive approach with multiple mechanisms (including specific institutions and procedural triggers) is almost certainly necessary.
  3. Efforts to improve forward-looking scrutiny need to take proper account of the distinctive features of each parliamentary jurisdiction (e.g. whether parliament is bicameral or unicameral, and the size of the legislature). Approaches that may be effective, or at least durable, in one jurisdiction may be less effective in others. Equally, to be durable, cross-party support is essential.
  4. In designing any system of forward-looking parliamentary scrutiny it is vital to consider the nature of the formal obligations that governments have in relation to such matters as foresight, planning, risk assessment, long-term fiscal projections and infrastructure investment, and to tailor the arrangements for parliamentary oversight accordingly. Ideally, the two spheres of activity – executive and legislative – should go hand-in-hand and the various ‘commitment devices’ to encourage sound long-term governance should be planned concurrently.
  5. It is vital for parliamentarians to have access to the resources and expertise necessary for rigorous, independent and systematic scrutiny. This is likely to be all the more important in smaller parliaments, where fewer legislators are available to undertake such activities.

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.

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