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Source: New Zealand Parliament

9.10 am Wednesday 6 May 2009

Welcome to Parliament, New Zealand’s sovereign law-making body.

New Zealand inherited the Westminster parliamentary system’s history and tradition, much of which continues to influence 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 we have several times led the world in modernisation and achieving full democracy.

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 of all adults to vote – as a 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. However it was 1919 before we gave women the right to stand for Parliament.

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, 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 and the introduction of MMP – Mixed Member Proportional Representation – have brought major changes to our Parliament, including a greater number of MPs representing a wider public voice.

MMP has also influenced how the House is administered. Each party is allocated speaking time in the House on a strictly proportional basis according to party numbers in the House.

Even the allocation of questions and supplementary questions has a formal mechanism based on the party proportions in the House, excluding Ministers.

Thus over a 6-week period National is entitled to 80 questions, Labour 99, Green 21, ACT and Maori parties 7 each, Progressive 2, United Future 0.

When it comes to supplementary questions, over a week Labour, as the largest Opposition party, is entitled to 82 supplementary questions, National 67, Green 17, ACT and Maori parties 6 each, Progressive 2 and United Future 0.

Depending on their size, each party will have an opportunity to lead off question time and will have to take its fair share of less prominent positions in the questions order.

Parties are free to exchange slots with other parties, but they must advise the Clerk of the House when the question is lodged.

Constitutionally, the position of the Speaker of the House of Representatives is the third highest in the land. The Queen’s representative, the Governor-General, is highest of course, followed by the Prime Minister and then the Speaker.

This underscores the importance of Parliament in the democratic governance of our country.

When our Westminster system of parliamentary democracy was still developing in Britain, the presiding officer became known as “the Speaker” because the House of Commons would elect one of its members to be its “mouthpiece to the Crown”. The Speaker would convey the wishes of the House to the King (or Queen).

There is a widespread belief that several British Speakers were executed in the line of duty in the 15th and 16th Centuries because the King or Queen was unhappy with the message delivered on behalf of the House of Commons.

It is true that some people who held the office of Speaker went on to lose their heads, but it had more to do with their activities when they were not presiding in the House – taking part in the civil war, for instance and ending up on the losing side.

While the myth might be more interesting than the reality, it has served to highlight the responsibilities the Speaker had to the House.

My conduct as Speaker is governed by very clear conventions.

The first and most important is non-partisanship. I must never display favour or disdain for one party or side of the House. All Members of the House must be treated equally, regardless of their party affiliation and I have had to put aside my personal political beliefs when carrying out my functions as the Speaker.

Any Speaker who does otherwise would soon lose the confidence of the House.

The second principle, although related to non-partisanship, is independence from the Executive government.

My rulings and actions cannot be dictated or in any way swayed by Executive orders, or ministerial demands.

As Speaker I have several roles – I am a presiding officer when the House is sitting, a landlord, a committee chairperson, a spokesperson for the House, a quasi-Minister of the Crown, and of course, a Member of Parliament. I also chair the Parliamentary Service Commission, which is responsible for members’ administrative support.

My most visible job however is that of presiding over the House.

I am responsible for maintaining order and decorum enabling business to proceed without unnecessary disruption.

One of the most challenging sessions is the daily question time which you will be observing after lunch. It is during these sessions that Executive Government is held to account by the House. Ministers are on permanent notice that Government activity must always be capable of standing up to regular scrutiny by the Members of the House of Representatives.

It is my role to apply the Standing Orders – the rules governing House procedure – and adjudicate on matters of procedure.

In recent years I have become concerned that the way question time was being conducted was devaluing this critical accountability role of our Parliament.

The practice has developed whereby Ministers seem to be putting more effort into evading questions than providing answers the House, on behalf of the public, could reasonably expect.

I was determined, when I accepted the role of Speaker, that I was going to try and change that. Parliament was, in my view, too important, and the role of question time too vital a part of the accountability process, for the whole thing to reduce, as the public saw it, t0 a farce.

To the Government’s credit, Ministers have responded positively to my change in interpretation of the relevant Standing Order, and are now answering questions in a much more informative way. Judging by the flow of communications from the public, watching question time on the parliamentary television channel, the change has been well received.

While I am satisfied with the outcome, I must say I have made something of a rod for my own back in that question time now requires the Speaker to bring a high level of concentration and focus to the process.

One of my less-publicised roles is that of ‘Landlord’. Technically I control all of Parliament’s grounds and buildings; Parliament House, and the adjoining Beehive and Parliamentary Library as well as the lease on Bowen House which is, according to statute, administered by the Speaker.

I have the sometimes-unenviable task of allocating office space and controlling access to the buildings and grounds.

In adjudicating on matters of access it can be difficult to balance the right of those who work at Parliament to an orderly and respectful working environment with the democratic right of access by the news media and the public to their House of Representatives.

After all, every Member of Parliament is accountable to the public and it is essential that those they represent have access to them and that the news media, representing the public, can ask questions of them.

A large news media contingent occupies permanent offices within the Parliamentary complex and it is my job to approve their accreditation and occasionally issue rules for their conduct within the parliamentary complex. Again, it is a matter of balancing their needs with those of MPs.

The Speaker’s role also involves chairmanship of three select committees.

The Business Committee, which coordinates the business of the House, comprises representatives of all elected political parties. These members can discuss any problems they have to ensure the House can focus on debating issues rather than managing business.

The Officers of Parliament Committee covers the Controller and Auditor-General, the Ombudsman, and the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment; all of whom are directly responsible to Parliament.

The third body I chair is the Standing Orders Committee, which reviews the rules of the House.

The Speaker is also the Responsible Minister for a number of offices of state including the Parliamentary Service with a budget of around 130 million dollars and a staff of about 650 full-time equivalents and the Office of the Clerk with a budget of approximately 20 million dollars and a staff of about 125.

In addition to this, the Speaker chairs the Parliamentary Service Commission, a statutory committee of members which advises the Speaker on the nature of the services to be provided to Members of Parliament.

In carrying out these functions the Speaker is totally independent of Executive government. My role, however, ensures the same political accountability required of any government department.

But my fundamental role remains – that of being a Member of Parliament. In some countries the Speaker sheds official political party affiliations on election to the position.

Indeed, they stand almost unopposed in General Elections to ensure they are not involved in political campaigning. While that would have its undoubted attraction, I’m not advocating it here.

Our system is a little more practical and recognises that members have basic political values, beliefs, friendships and loyalties that do not magically disappear on resignation from a political party.

We only require that a Speaker actively and conscientiously approach the job in an impartial manner.

Under our MMP system the Speaker, like all other MPs, has a vote in debates, though never a casting vote. This differs from the first-past-the-post system where the Speaker did not vote except to make a casting vote in the event of a tie.

My vote maintains the proportionality of the results of the General Election, as decided by the party vote. I always vote the party stance except on issues that are designated matters of conscience.

As Parliament’s representative I regularly meet foreign ambassadors and high commissioners, visiting delegations and presiding officers on behalf of Parliament.

I also take an annual Speaker’s Delegation to visit other parliaments elsewhere in the world. The fact that a number of the Members on the 2008 delegation were to retire that year certainly brought the value of the Speaker’s Delegations into public question.

However, the Speaker’s Delegations can have real value for New Zealand. Throughout the democratic world, the position of Speaker is highly respected.

Because of that respect the Speaker can open doors for our diplomats and trade representatives that might otherwise take much longer without the Speaker’s support.

A recent example was when the 2009 Speaker’s Delegation visited Japan. In addition to valuable meetings with the Prime Minister and Minister of Finance, the delegation was able to meet with an extraordinary array of business interests in Hokkaido, and made crucial contacts with key players in the agriculture and tourist industries in that part of Japan, so crucial to advancing New Zealand’s economic relationship with Japan.

In addition, the warmth generated during our visit to both Viet Nam and Japan highlighted the value such delegations can bring to strengthening New Zealand’s relationships with crucially important economic partners.

From my time as Minister for International Trade, I was aware of the high regard in which New Zealand is held internationally. That reputation has been built by successive Ministers working internationally for peaceful stability, and prosperity through free and open trade. Because of the status of the office, the Speaker has an extraordinary opportunity to enhance and add value to that work.

This Parliament lies at the heart of our democratic process. It is the symbol of our freedom. As Speaker I will do all I can to enhance its standing in the eyes of my fellow New Zealanders.