Parliamentary Progress on Tuesday

The Privileges Committee tabled a highly critical report of the Henry Inquiry and four bills were introduced to the house, along with plenty more parliamentary action at the beginning of the last session before the Christmas break.

Tabled - The highly critical Privileges Committee report into the handing of personal information to a prime ministerial inquiry was tabled. The information included email, phone and swipe card records of press gallery journalist Andrea Vance and former minister Peter Dunne which were given by Parliamentary Services to the inquiry investigating the alleged leak of a classified document (the Kitteridge report into potentially illegal spying by the GCSB).

The Privileges Committee report said the incident raised important questions about protecting the privileges and immunities of the House, including the freedom of speech of members, and the ability of Parliament to maintain control within its precincts. It said the conduct of the agencies and individuals involved was of grave concern and displayed a "seeming lack of regard" for the separation of the Executive from Parliament and for the need for confidentiality of sensitive information and for the freedom of the press.

It blamed the merging of IT services in 2009 for a "blurred understanding of accountabilities within the Parliamentary Service" and said there was a lack of formal communication and interaction at a senior level between inquiry head David Henry and Parliamentary Service General Manager Geoff Thorn but "persistent approaches by the Henry inquiry to third-tier and more junior staff". It also criticised their failure to consult or inform the Speaker.

Dunne said the Henry Inquiry showed a complete indifference to protecting personal privacy and had gone about its work with "the finesse of a bull in a china shop". He said in hindsight his decision to resign as a Minister "was both unfortunate and a hurried over-reaction”.

Prime Minister John Key said "time moves on and heals most things" and it was a "possibility" that Dunne could get his ministerial portfolio back.

Also tabled were the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) annual report, and the Security Intelligence Service (SIS) annual report.

And both GCSB director Ian Fletcher and SIS director Warren Tucker appeared before the Intelligence and Security Committee, where they faced questions over the Kim Dotcom case and whether New Zealanders were spied on by other members of the "5 Eyes" partnersnip. It is the first time the security agencies had appeared in a public hearing of this type.

Introduced - Four bills were introduced to the House.

The Taxation (Annual Rates, Employee Allowances, and Remedial Matters) Bill is an omnibus bill introducing amendments to various Inland Revenue Acts. It addresses the contentious issue of fringe benefit tax on worker accomodation (essentially back-tracking from Inland Revenue 's stance last year that all employer-provided accommodation was taxable even if the worker had a home elsewhere and did not benefit financially from the arrangement).

The proposed amendments would ensure that when employees were working away from their normal workplace for up to two years, employer-provided accommodation would be tax-exempt. This exemption would extend to up to three years for employees working on capital projects and up to five years for Canterbury earthquake recovery projects. Accommodation or accommodation payments for those working at more than one workplace on an on-going basis would be tax exempt without an upper time limit.

The Bill also addresses meal payments and clothing allowances (particularly for plain-clothed police officers) as well as proposing amendments to the interest apportionment rules, to regulations relating to the business expenditure of a capital nature that is not immediately deductible for tax purposes and does not give rise to a depreciable asset ("black hole expenditure") and to various other taxation regulations.

The Judicature Modernisation Bill aims to move the court system away from paper-based processes. It requires all written judgments to be published online, unless there is good reason not to. The Judiciary will also be required to publish how many outstanding judgments they have, and how to obtain information about a reserved judgment. Justice Minister Judith Collins said “New Zealanders are paying for this justice; they should be able to access it. The higher courts already publish decisions of interest but the biggest gap is in the district courts, where the bulk of cases are heard."

The Parliamentary Privilege Bill seeks to implement the recommendations in the Report of the Privileges Committee into the defamation action Attorney-General and Gow v Leigh (2013). The Committee concluded that the Court decision in that defamation action represented a significant shift in the interpretation of the scope of privilege and moved New Zealand away from the position in comparable Commonwealth jurisdictions. The key purpose of the Bill is to reaffirm, and clarify the purpose and certain other aspects of the operation and scope of, parliamentary privilege. This Bill does this by providing statutory guidance for the interpretation of certain legal terms relating to privilege, and affirming in legislation certain other accepted aspects of parliamentary privilege.

The Accounting Infrastructure Reform Bill aims to make the accounting and audit industry more efficient and effective. It widens the scope for qualified members of accredited professional accounting bodies to perform statutory audits as long as they are recognised by their professional body as qualified to do so. References to “chartered accountant” in various Acts would be replaced with “qualified accountant”, when specifying who may perform an accounting-related statutory role.

The BilI would also remove the ban on companies performing statutory audits (by allowing audit firms to incorporate using the company form) and allow certain incorporated overseas audit firms to operate in New Zealand. The New Zealand Institute of Chartered Accountants Act 1996 would also be amended to allow the NZ Institute of Chartered Accountants (NZICA) to join the Institute of Chartered Accountants in Australia in a combined new trans-Tasman institute. It also aims to improve the quality of financial reporting of charities by requiring all registered charities with an annual operating expenditure of $500,000 or more to have their financial statements reviewed by a qualified auditor.

Appropriations Bill - The Appropriation (2012/13 Financial Review) Bill was read a first time.

Drink Driving - The Land Transport Amendment Bill - which lowers the legal breath and blood alcohol limits for drivers - was read a first time and referred to the Transport and Industrial Relations Committee.

Local Government - The Local Government Act 2002 Amendment Bill (No 3) had its first reading and was referred to the Local Government and Environment Committee. The Bill is the second phase of legislative reform to improve the operation of local government and makes local boards available more widely as an option that can be considered by the Local Government Commission during any reorganisations of local government.

It includes measures to encourage and facilitate shared services, joint delivery, and other collaborative arrangements between councils. It does away with some consultation, decision-making, and planning provisions that are seen as limiting councils’ abilities to design efficient and effective processes and introduces instead a new, focused consultation document for long-term and annual plans, and reduces duplication between these plans. The Bill also removes most of the Act’s requirements to use the special consultative procedure, and allows for new techniques for communicating and consulting with the public.

Cyber-Bullying - The Harmful Digital Communications Bill was read a first time and referred to the Justice and Electoral Committee.

Consumer Law - The committee stage of the Consumer Law Reform Bill was completed and the bill was reported without amendment and divided into six bills.

Arts Council - The committee stage of the Arts Council of New Zealand Toi Aotearoa Bill began but was interrupted with one Part and the preliminary clauses still to be considered. (The bill replaces the current structure of the Arts Council with a single board responsible for strategy and policy for the whole organisation and for funding allocation decisions).