It’s like Lotto for laws, and it’s drawn from a humble biscuit tin bought from Deka. It’s brought about marriage equality, sex work law reform and ‘anti-smacking’ legislation. 1News political reporter Felix Desmarais breaks down what the member’s bill ballot is, and what’s in the tin at the beginning of this new term.

Cushla Tangaere-Manuel was sworn in as an MP on a Tuesday, and by Thursday she had a bill on the legislative agenda.

But the newbie MP – who just swiped Ikaroa-Rāwhiti from Meka Whaitiri – is not even part of the Government. She’s a Labour MP.

Her bill, the Local Government (Facilitation of Remote Participation) Amendment Bill, will be debated in Parliament because it was drawn from the member’s bill ballot on December 7. The bill would allow local councillors to attend meetings virtually, rather than being required to be physically present. A temporary change allowed it during the pandemic, but Tangaere-Manuel said it was welcomed by the sector and particularly useful in her electorate when roads were inaccessible.

There are four kinds of bills that can pass through Parliament – government, local, private and members’ bills.

The big dogs are government bills, which are introduced by Ministers. Provided a government has a majority of the votes in Parliament (which it normally does, unless there’s some disagreement in a coalition) these bills will pass.

Local authorities can put forward local bills to deal with specific issues in their area, and the local MP is usually the sponsor of that bill. Private bills are the rarest type of bill – they apply to a specific person or group.

The fourth kind, members’ bills, have a very special way of getting before Parliament.

Any MP who is not a minister can have one member’s bill in the ballot at a time. Bills are placed on a numbered list, and tokens with each number is placed inside the biscuit tin. Every time space is freed up on Parliament’s order paper, a small ceremony, conducted by the Clerk of the House, takes place. It’s usually held in the Parliamentary Library.

An invited politically neutral person, sometimes a lucky school kid, will have the honour of reaching into the tin and drawing out a token, and announcing the number. The Clerk then reads out which bill is the lucky one that day.

And Tangaere-Manuel was that lucky MP in her first official week on the job. It doesn’t mean the bill will pass into law, though – that’s up to Parliament. But it does mean it will be introduced to the House and face a first reading debate and vote.

Tangaere-Manuel’s bill is not the only one drawn so far this term. On December 14, Green co-leader James Shaw’s bill that would add the “right to a sustainable environment” to the Bill of Rights was also drawn.

What’s in the tin right now?

There are currently about 64 bills in the ballot, most of which are from Labour, National and Green MPs. When an MP becomes a minister, a member’s bill is often handed over to a less senior MP in the same party, or it may be removed to become a Government bill.

Here’s a taste of what’s in the biscuit tin at the moment, hoping for its moment to shine, legislatively-speaking.

  • Simon Court, ACT: A bill that would allow for New Zealand to use offshore mitigation to meet its emissions targets,
  • Cameron Brewer, National: A bill that would mean recreational craft of six metres or less cannot be used unless every person on board under the age of 15 years wore a life jacket.
  • Rawiri Waititi, Te Pāti Māori: A bill that would remove GST from all food products and non-alcoholic beverages.
  • Cameron Luxton, ACT: A bill would remove the restriction on trading and selling alcohol on Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
  • Carl Bates, National: A bill that would make it an offence to know a child has been or is likely to be assaulted and not inform police. It would be punishable by up to three years in prison.
  • Teanau Tuiono, Greens: A bill that would prohibit launching military hardware into space from New Zealand.
  • Arena Williams, Labour: A bill that would enable consumers to cancel subscriptions using the same method by which they signed up or in any way (oral or written) that shows their intention to cancel or withdraw from the subscription.
  • Efeso Collins, Greens: A bill that would require manufacturers to make repair parts and information available to consumers.
  • Willow-Jean Prime, Labour: A bill that would reduce the frequency with which landlords do regular inspections of residential premises.

New Green MP Kahurangi Carter’s member’s bill would allow artists and writers to re-use copyrighted material if it was for parody or satirical purposes, something Carter said would bring New Zealand into line with other countries and promoted freedom of speech.

New Plymouth MP David MacLeod inherited his bill, which would make a specific offence for a so-called coward punch that caused injury or death. However, the bill had a personal resonance for him as his son was hit from behind when trying to break up a fight, he said.

Being drawn from the ballot is one thing, but being passed is another. The vast majority of members’ bills may not make it to law – or even pass their first reading (the first of three votes to progress a bill), to select committee. A government can also veto a member’s bill, if, in that their view, the proposal would have “more than a minor impact” on the government’s fiscals should it become law.

This happened in 2016 to former Labour MP Sue Moroney’s Parental Leave and Employment Protection (6 Months’ Paid Leave) Amendment Bill.

But members’ bills can still have an effect even if they don’t pass. Some can inspire government legislation, or spark a debate or discussion on a topic, or provide a barometer on public opinion on an issue. Some members’ bills can even be adopted by the government. This happened in 2008, when the Helen Clark Labour-led Government adopted Green MP Nandor Tanczos’s Waste Minimisation Bill, which became law.

National MP Dan Bidois has taken over a members’ bill drawn from the ballot last year. The bill, which had been in Melissa Lee’s name, had to be transferred to another MP after Lee was made a minister in the new government. The bill would make a standard timeframe for the expiry of gift cards, so people didn’t get caught out. It passed its first reading and is now in the select committee stage.

Bidois said while it “may not be the biggest issue in the world” it was a “tangible” issue that could be fixed with a view to making things a bit fairer. It was opposed by ACT at its first reading but otherwise had the support of the former Parliament at its first reading.

You can see the full list in the ballot here, which is regularly updated by Parliament.

A little biscuit tin waits

The ballot system is relatively new, introduced in 1992. It replaced the previous, first-in-first-served system, where members’ bills were set down on the Order Paper in the order they were received by the Clerk.

A ballot is held whenever the first reading of a member’s bill creates a vacancy on the Order Paper – that’s currently eight members’ bills, maximum.

The members' bill biscuit tin.

In 2011, another change was made: members’ bills had to be prepared and distributed in advance of a ballot. Before that, only a title and brief description was needed, but that meant members often repeatedly postponed the first reading of their drawn member’s bill to promote it. It meant the House occasionally ran out of business to attend to on members’ days, where the bills were debated. Now members’ bills are available and able to be scrutinised while they are in the ballot.

Members’ bills can now stay in the ballot until they’re drawn, withdrawn, or lapse at the end of a parliamentary term.

The most powerful biscuit tin in the country

While most bills drawn from the ballot end up in the recycling, some members’ bills – either from the ballot or its former first-in-first-served system – have led to significant societal shifts.

Both homosexual law reform in 1986 – which decriminalised sexual relations between men aged 16 and over – and marriage equality in 2013 owe their existence to the biscuit tin ballot.

While the last use of the death penalty in New Zealand was the death of Walter Bolton in 1957, it officially ended through the Abolition of the Death Penalty Act in 1989, which began as a member’s bill.

In 2003 came the Prostitution Reform Bill, which decriminalised sex work, which, like homosexual law reform before it and marriage equality after it, triggered torrid debate before ultimately passing into law.

Four years later, in 2007, came the Crimes (Substituted Section 59) Amendment Bill, which had formerly been the Crimes (Abolition of Force as a Justification for Child Discipline) Amendment Bill, a member’s bill in the name of Green MP Sue Bradford.

The members' bill ballot draw.

It’s better known now as the so-called “anti-smacking bill”. It removed the legal defence of “reasonable force” for parents prosecuted for assault on their children, and was hotly debated, including triggering a referendum question.

In 2011, another members’ bill, under ACT’s Heather Roy, was passed. It meant university students’ associations no longer automatically drew down students’ membership fees, changing it to an opt-in membership model. The bill was heavily debated in the tertiary sector.

In 2014, a member’s bill drawn from the ballot and ultimately passed meant it became an offence to possess a high-powered hand-held laser. It had cross-party support and aimed to protect pilots and truck drivers from being targeted with the powerful beams.

From lasers to life jackets, the Member’s Bill tin has seen it all, and continues its quiet business in New Zealand’s democracy.