7 Aug 2018

Baedeker’s Parliament 1. The Committee Rooms

From The House , 11:37 am on 7 August 2018

Baedeker's Guides have helped tourists find the best places to see and stay since the 1830s. Now Phil Smith's taps into that spirit to guide visitors to New Zealand's Parliament.

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Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

Baedeker’s Parliament:  1. The Committee Rooms

Where to Go:

Many visitors go to Parliament to see the carbon-neutral Debating Chamber (heated by vented opinion, cooled by reasoned evidence), or the giant rubber seismic blocks that prevent Parliament from jolting too far to the right or the left (no kidding). But add the committee rooms to your list.

Select Committee rooms at Bowen House in Wellington.

Committee Rooms 1 & 2 are also Parliament's emergency debating chamber, deep underground below the Treasury (less excitingly they are also at street level from Bowen House on Lambton Quay)  Photo: RNZ / Daniela Maoate-Cox

  • Bills and inquiries that are open for submissions can be found on the Parliament website here.
  • Information on other ways to get involved with Parliament, like starting a referendum, can be found here.
  • The schedule for select committee times can be found here. Allow time to get through security and keep in mind that committees can start early or run later than planned.
  • Parliament also has a page with information on visiting in general which can be found here.

What to Look for:

Watch actual thought and evidence going into the making of laws (who knew). See the often overlooked spectacle of cross-party MPs working together. Observe ordinary kiwis influencing government.     


It’s free to turn up and watch, although mental effort is required if you want the ‘full experience’ of  participating by giving evidence or voicing opinion about legislation under review. The full experience combines the view with a thrill of nerves.  

When to Go:

You don’t need to join a tour to see a Select Committee in action. Just turn up to Parliament on a Wednesday or Thursday and go watch the show. Even better make a submission and be the show. Outside Wellington, look out for committees visiting your area. They frequently travel, especially for feedback on laws with huge public interest, or local impacts.  

Select Committee Room clock

The time and nothing but the time - a committee room clock  Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

A Guide to the Committee Rooms...

Many Select Committee Rooms have a tinge of courtroom. It’s the native timber panelling and the ‘time-and-nothing-but-the-time’ clocks. It’s also the hanging glass lights, floating above the MPs like Victorian jellies, ready to splash down without warning.

Unlike court, the committee rooms all have individual personalities to break the doleful air. Six rooms have particular themes, and three of them express cultural themes with notable artistry.

The period light shades in Parliament's old Select Committee Rooms hang like jellies about to fall

These dangerously jelly-like lights are ubiquitous in the Parliament House rooms Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

The Old Māori Affairs Room (the old crown)

The former Māori Affairs committee room (Matangireia) is tucked away from the tour route, and seldom seen but is a sight to behold. It’s no longer a committee room, but used for special events and visiting groups. It is exquisitely carved, and panelled with tukutuku, but in a darker, more somber tone than its replacement (Committee Room 5, below).

The room is designed to ‘place’ the visitor outdoors on the marae ātea in front of a wharenui (the gables and koruru of which are one end wall). Whether meetings were once set out with tangata whenua (locals) and manuhiri (guests) facing each other across the marae ātea I don’t know.

The room and the corridor around it memorialise Māori MPs. It’s worth noting that among this number are eight current ministers.

Committee Room 5  (Māui Tikitiki-a-Taranga)  

The entrance to the Maori Affairs Select Committee room at Parliament 23 Feb 2018

The entrance to the Maori Affairs Select Committee room at Parliament Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

The carved and linteled door to the Maori Select Committee Room

The door to the Maori Select Committee Room Photo: NZ Parliament

By contrast with the old Māori Affairs Committee Room, the new room takes the visitor across the lintel and into the wharenui, with the implication that the visitor has been formally made welcome and joined the tangata whenua on equal footing. 

Room five has its own name, Māui tikitiki-a-taranga. It’s the full name of Māui, the hero and trickster who (among other deeds) raised New Zealand’s North Island from the sea. Whether MPs named their space for Māui’s trickster guise or his hero facet is unknown.

Māui tikitiki-a-taranga is one of the most beautiful rooms in New Zealand. Its doorway has a carved gable and surround including koruru.

Inside are more detailed carvings and tukutuku panel walls. The room requires an article of its own to explore the symbolism within its design.

Maori Affairs Select Committee room at Parliament 23 Feb 2018

Carving with tukutuku behind from the Māori Committee Room  Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

Room 7 The Pacific Room

Stained Glass Window at entrance to Pacific Committee Room

Stained Glass Window at entrance to Pacific Committee Room Photo: NZ Parliament

The door to the Pasifika Room was designed by Cook Island carver Ian George, who carved one of the four cultural totems that frame the door, topped by a stained glass lintel. The other three are from Samoan, Tongan and Niuean carvers.

The room’s interior is relatively plain but is crammed with gifts, art and cultural items from across the Pacific. On the walls are works by Fatu Feu’u, Lefuta Taniela, Michel Tuffery, Larry Santana, Albert Wendt, and Fa-afeitai Amituanai

The quite recent arrival of Pasifika MPs as a political force is shown by the portraits of MPs in the room. Half of the 14 MPs portrayed in the room are currently sitting, including four current ministers.

One of the four carved totems that guard the entrance to Parliament's Pasifika Select Committee Room

One of four totem figures that guard the door of the Pasifika Committee Room  Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

Committee Rooms 3, 4 & 10: (Parliament as art gallery)

I write this from the thrillingly named Committee Room 3, which has windows onto Parliament’s museum-like internal atrium, and art on the walls. Parliament’s enormous art collection is almost entirely local, possibly making Parliament the best ‘Artearoa’ mecca after Te Papa. And yes, there are art tours.

Parliamentary art is peripatetic, so may differ for every visit, but today Room 3 (and its twin, the quirkily named Committee Room 4), include an array of beautiful engravings from New Zealand printmaker Stanley Palmer, including from his Katherine Mansfield inspired ‘At the Bay’ series.

Room 10 is currently showing collections of photography by Janel Bayly and Ans Westra, as well as works by Cathy Carter and Brian Donovan and Leigh Mitchell-Anyon.

'Parliament Buildings' by Sean Chen

'Parliament Buildings' by Sean Chen Photo: Parliamentary Service

Beware the art - it's a trap!

The art that fills the corridors and rooms of Parliament vanishes regularly, only to reappear elsewhere.  The shifting hangings disorient newcomers who attempt to differentiate the identical, labyrinthine corridors by the pictures on their walls. Having found their feet, it all shuffles, rendering their landmarks irrelevant.

It’s only one way Parliament is like Hogwarts. Thankfully the staircases stay put, but the warring parties are spookily like the inter-house rivalry. If you can decide which party is which.

I await the day the Speaker rises crying, “Order, order, that’s ten points to Ravenclaw!”

Committee Room 5 - (The Suffrage Room - A Shrine of Fem)

Room 5 is not recommended for low-confidence denizens of anti-fem sub-reddits. It may be inspiring for everyone else though. Room 5 is dedicated to the history of women in New Zealand’s parliament.

New Zealand was the first country in the world to allow women to vote (1893), but should we gloat? Getting one into Parliament took another 40 years (Elizabeth McCombs in 1933).  

The wall, filled with dozens of portraits of strong, successful female MPs and Prime Ministers may cause a righteous determination for parity.  Along with surprise at just how young they all once were. 

Art in the suffrage Select Committee Room

Fabric art hanging in the women's suffrage committee room Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

Committee Room 9 - The Asia Room

The Asia Room will help you realise that Parliament’s cultural depth has a lot to do with the MMP era, and quite recent. Among the asian art and gifts the room’s MP portraits highlight that 8 of the 13 MPs with asian ancestry are currently sitting.

Committee Room 11 - The Rainbow Room

Mana Takatapui 2012 by Elizabeth Kerekere, hanging in the Rainbow Select Committee Room at Parliament

Mana Takatapui 2012 by Elizabeth Kerekere, hanging in the Rainbow Select Committee Room at Parliament Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

“What are ya scared of?” asks one of David Hindley’s photos from the 1985 campaign for Homosexual Law Reform. It’s a compelling series, part of which hangs in the Rainbow committee room on loan from LAGANZ and the photographer.

It's easy to forget, now that a Parliamentary vote on the same bill would receive unanimous support, just how emotive the issue was at the time. The photos, complete with pointed fingers and fury, bring it back to life.    

The room celebrates the LGBTQI community and particularly the long, slow fight for legality and equality.  I imagine there are not too many Parliaments that have a rainbow committee room. So, regardless of the art it's worth seeing just for the scarcity value.

Rooms 1 and 2 - The Buried Parliament

Rooms 1 and 2 are not like or with the other Committee Rooms. They are new rooms built underground below the Treasury, but accessed through Bowen House on Lambton Quay, or (for insiders) via Parliament’s underground travelator that rumbles under Bowen Street.  

Select Committee in Bowen House

Committee Room 2 in Bowen, including the ubiquitous select committee coffee trolley   Photo: NZ Parliament

Rooms 1 and 2 are a matched pair, separated at birth but joinable by lifting a wall. The unified space is New Zealand’s alternative, emergency debating chamber.  It’s was used as the actual chamber for a while during the restoration of the real one.

The travelator that takes you there from the Beehive is a self-propelled art gallery. The art tours of Parliament will take you this way. The walls are bedecked with historical political cartoons from Low, Heath, Scott and the other greats, which flick past slightly too quickly to read, forcing you to walk backwards, against the flow, in order to get the joke.

The potential to trip up cabinet ministers and scatter the papers of their advisors in order to achieve this possibly only adds a layer to the irony.

Tom Scott cartoon of Helen Clark's balancing of Maori and Pakeha opinion over the foreshore and seabed legislation

Tom Scott cartoon of Helen Clark Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library NP-1054-B4