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Source: New Zealand Parliament

The New Zealand Business and Parliament Trust seminar session

Legislative Council Chamber, Parliament House

Wednesday 11 May 2005, 9.00 am

It is my pleasure, as Speaker and as the President of the NZ Business and Parliament Trust, to welcome you all to Parliament and to your seminar.

As Barry Dineen said in his introduction, this is the first time I have had the opportunity of addressing these seminars in my capacity as Speaker of the House of Representatives, but not the first time I have taken part in these seminars.

In the past 14 years the New Zealand Business and Parliament Trust has provided opportunities for groups such as yourselves from the business sector, to spend a day here in Parliament, learning about how the Parliamentary system works by hearing from key participants, seeing Select Committees at work and the House in session.

You will also have the opportunity to meet ministers and Members of Parliament, in particular those whose portfolios or interests reflect your own.

These seminars are complemented by Business Study Programmes that enable Members of Parliament to spend time in the business field and to experience the world from your perspective.

Each of these programmes is a valuable initiative toward greater understanding of the particular environments we each operate in.

The relevance of Parliament

Within our system of democratic governance, Parliament is the central elected representative body which provides a responsible government, scrutinizes and controls the actions of that government and generally holds it to account between elections.

Parliament is this country’s sovereign law making body.

Historical perspective

New Zealand inherited the Westminster Parliamentary system and much of that history and tradition influences what we do and how we do it.

Our own history and experience has, however, brought some monumental changes to the face – and body – of New Zealand’s Parliament and indeed we have several times led the world in modernisation and the realisation of full democracy.

On the 24th of May 1854, just 14 years after the 1840 signing of the Treaty of Waitangi New Zealand’s Parliament – or General Assembly as it was then – sat for the first time.

Thus for all but the first 14 years since European settlement we have had an elected Parliament, a record that puts us pretty near to the top of the list of the world’s democratic legislative assemblies.

In fact if you accept universal suffrage – the right for all adults to have the right to vote – as an essential prerequisite for a fully representative, elected assembly, then New Zealand heads the list, having achieved full manhood suffrage in 1879 and female suffrage in 1893.

In another break with Westminster and several of our Commonwealth counterparts, we dispensed with our Upper House, or Legislative Council, in 1950.

In the absence of a second house in New Zealand, Select Committees now perform a robust series of checks on the Executive as well as giving the public extremely good access to parliamentary deliberations.

The Select Committee system together with the introduction of MMP – Mixed Member Proportional Representation – has brought remarkable changes to our Parliament, including a greater number of MPs representing a much wider public voice.

Select committees have become more independent of Government control because proportions in the House must be reflected in the committees and the chairperson – usually, but not always, a Government member – does not have a casting vote.

As a result a minority government does not have the numbers to control committee decision-making.

Select committees are also able to initiate their own inquiries and this has significantly increased the extent to which government activity is publicly scrutinised.

The increased number of seats and the emergence of smaller parties may well also mean that a career in Parliament becomes an end in itself rather than a Cabinet post being the main aim of a new MP.

There is also the likelihood that some MPs will be less inclined to “toe the party line”.

Under the old First-Past-the-Post system the demarcation between Her Majesty’s Government and Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition was usually very clear:

“The Opposition” was unequivocally the party that wasn’t in government.

The same term can hardly apply to a party that has a confidence-and-supply agreement with the Government but has not entered full coalition.

Perhaps we might now speak of “degrees of opposition”: where a Government might have previously expected opposition from one quarter, it now comes from several sources, making Question Time a daily endurance test.

1985 saw another major change in the interests of modernising the New Zealand Parliament.

The Legislative Department, which had existed since 1912 and was originally headed by the Clerk of the House, was abolished and replaced by the Parliamentary Service and the Office of the Clerk.

This increased the autonomy of Parliament from the Executive and modernised the organisation throughout.

At the same time, Members of Parliament were given funding to establish electorate offices and employ secretaries, enabling them to spend more time in their electorates and putting the job of representing the people of their electorates on a more professional basis.

As I said at the start, this is my first opportunity to join you as Speaker of the House.

The title of Speaker derives from the practice of the early English Parliaments to elect from one member to “speak” for the Parliament in meetings with the King or Queen.

Because the House cannot sit without first appointing a Speaker the first task of a newly sworn Parliament to elect one to hold office till the first meeting of the next Parliament.

The Speaker chairs meetings of the House of Representatives, presiding over its deliberations, keeping order and determining points of procedure.

While the role is perhaps the most central and publicly visible and involves a degree of ceremonial there is quite a list of additional tasks and roles.

For example, I chair three Select Committees: Standing Orders, Officers of Parliament, and Business.

I am also the “Responsible Minister” for a several Offices of State, namely those of the Auditor General, the Clerk of the House of Representatives, the Ombudsmen, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment and the Parliamentary Service.

The Speaker’s role in respect of each of these offices varies but includes chairing the Parliamentary Service Commission which represents all parties in the Parliament; safeguarding the rights and privileges of the House and its members in relation to proceedings in the courts; welcoming and hosting on behalf of the Parliament visiting delegations from other Parliaments; and acting as “landlord” responsible for the buildings and grounds of Parliament, in which role I have great pleasure in welcoming you here today.