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Tea and Strumpets
FotLG Oliver has graciously agreed to write us a post on how – and why – to make a submission to a select committee.
So, it may be of some minor interest to a few of you that something called the Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Bill has been referred to a select committee of Parliament. That committee, the evocatively named Government Administration Committee, may well ask people to tell them what they think of it. So a couple of the Ladies thought it might be useful if I wrote a little bit on how that works and some tips on doing it well.
The short version is: It is definitely worth your time to make a submission, even if it’s just to say that you approve of the bill. (Or indeed disapprove, though if that’s you, you might be in the wrong place) The committee is likely to get a lot of submission s on this one, so everything you can do to make it easier for them to consider yours is a Good Thing. Make it readable, make it memorable, and keep it focused on the Bill.
The mechanics of making a submission on a bill are fairly straightforward. You can make a submission through Parliament’s website once the Committee has agreed to receive submissions. As I write this, the select committee page says “submissions not called for”. Don’t worry, that’s just because the Committee needs to formally agree to receive submissions. In theory, they don’t have to, but that’s not very likely. Use the web form, because it’s free and easier for the committee staff, but attach a nicely formatted document —the text box on the web form produces ugly courier type text.
Once submissions close, they’re all bundled together and sent to the members of the committee, and to the advisors, who will be people from the Ministry of Justice, most likely. The advisors will read and summarise them for the committee. One very important thing is that submissions become the property of the committee, and are published on Parliament’s website. After written submissions are all in, the Committee will make arrangements to hearoral evidence. For this one, they’ll probably do at least a couple of sessions out of Wellington, as well as hearing some people by teleconference. Being heard in person can be an extremely daunting experience. The committee knows that, and will bend over backwards to make you feel comfortable. They get you to summarise your submission, and make any extra points, and then they’ll ask questions. If you want to be heard in person, say that in your written submission.
The booklet published by Parliament is the best guide to the details. (Warning: .pdf)
Having read a lot of submissions, I can assure you that the most important thing is to make your submission readable, and the most important part of that is to make it short. The Committee is going to receive an awful lot of submissions, and they’re much more likely to read yours if it is a page. The officials will read nearly all the submissions, and at least skim over the rest, but if your submission is more than three pages, no one will read it, unless you happen to be the Law Society or similar. I could talk for a long time about the writing, but the best tip I can give you is to get someone to read it and tell you if it makes sense.
The most common mistake I’ve seen in submissions is irrelevance. Keep it focused on the Bill. That doesn’t mean you can’t talk generally about the effects such a measure will have, and stories about despair and suicide are some of the most powerful. It does mean you shouldn’t talk about how people shouldn’t be allowed to get married unless both parties are present; or about how the marriage license form is too difficult to fill in, or how marriage is just an evil plot to encourage breeding and thus hasten the End Times. I’m making up examples, but not exaggerated ones. Also, don’t be mean about anyone. Committees don’t like it, and I was at a meeting a few weeks ago where a committee decided to expunge someone’s evidence from their record because it was potentially defamatory. Focus on why you think it’s a good idea.
The Committee is made up of humans, and what they will be most concerned about is how a proposal affects actual people. If you have a personal example, use it. If you want to get married but can’t yet, say that. If you had a civil union because you weren’t going to get married unless everyone could, say that. Those very personal stories are good to go and say in person, because the committee will remember them, and often refer to them in the next stages of the debate. But even if you have nothing to say except, “This is a wonderful bill, and I think it should be passed immediately”, say that. Those submissions are counted, rather than considered, but they are counted, and the only thing every politician agrees on is that numbers are the most important thing there is.
And that’s about all I have to say. It’s worth your time — make a submission. Make it readable, personal, and focused. Participate in your democracy, so that, in the brighter future, when the children ask, you can say, “yes, I was there, and I told them they should make the commencement a month after the Royal assent, so that people had time to get new forms printed”.
 “Immediately” in government time means within a year.