10 Sep 2019

The Westminster crisis and NZ

From The House , 6:55 pm on 10 September 2019

New Zealand’s Parliament was founded on the model of the UK's Westminster Parliament. But much has changed since, mostly here (Westminster is a sucker for tradition). So how many of the current events could happen in New Zealand?

Please Parliament, can we have an election?

Parliamentary terms in the UK last five long years. In New Zealand they last only three years. At the end of each term, if an election hasn’t already been called and Parliament dissolved, it expires all by itself (like a raw chicken it even has an expiry date).

But elections are usually called before Parliament’s expire (although one New Zealand Parliament forgot and kept on going). In New Zealand the Prime Minister goes to the Governor General and requests one, as simple as that.

Boris Johnston at 10th September vote defeat

Boris Johnston at 10th September vote defeat Photo: UK Parliament Live TV

But in the UK they passed a law in 2011 that prevents the Prime Minister from simply naming an early date without Parliament overwhelmingly agreeing (two thirds of MPs). 

There are ways around the rule, but Boris Johnson would need to resign and have no-one else able to form a government; or else move and lose a confidence motion in himself. It’d be ugly and embarrassing, and also might not work. Nothing vaguely like that is likely in New Zealand.

By-laws in Zealand can also require a super-majority. The Electoral Act has some elements (MMP, three year terms etc) that are 'entrenched', and so need 75% of MPs or a majority in a public referendum to change them. Oddly you could get around that with a simple majority overturning the underlying law, but it would be a bad look.  

It’s my Parliament and I’m switching it off (or proroguing)

Proroguing Parliament is something the Governor General (here) or the Queen (there) can do at any time. It closes Parliament but doesn’t end it. The MPs go home and don’t return until summoned for a new session. In the UK it happens every year and in New Zealand it is very rare. 

The reason is that some decades ago being an MP was a part-time job. They would come to Parliament, pass a budget, pass some bills and then shut up shop until next year (prorogue). The government would continue and when it required the Parliament again the Governor General would summon the MPs back and a new session would begin. The new session would be kicked off with a speech from the throne outlining why they had been recalled.

In New Zealand New terms of Parliament (after an election) are kicked off by a speech from the throne, but the term has just one session, so no more openings or speeches happen until after the next election.

Proroguing can still happen here but there’s no practical reason for it, unless an excuse is needed for the Queen to give a speech from the throne in the middle of a Parliamentary term (yes that has happened).

New Zealand MPs are now full time professionals and Parliament sits in blocks of a few weeks each  throughout the year, taking short recesses so MPs can go home and meet with constituents and remember the names of their pets or children.

In the UK MPs also sit through the year but have never stopped proroguing Parliament once a year. That way they get to have a fresh speech from the throne every year. On the downside though, every time the UK Parliament is prorogued they abandon every piece of legislation they were working on (that hasn’t yet been signed off by the Queen) and have to start again from scratch.

In New Zealand that only happens at the end of a three year term, but when MPs return after an election they can (and do) just vote to reinstate everything and carry on as usual. So much more practical.

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Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

Losing the Whip

Recently when conservative MPs rebelled against their prime minister they were punished by ‘losing the whip’. This does not refer to clumsiness during a Tory bondage and discipline session. It means they were expelled from their caucus and are now treated as independents. 

The same thing can happen in New Zealand (see Ross, J.L.). Each party here has their own rules about how and why they do it but we call it expulsion (which is much less confusing). 

In New Zealand the only use of the term whip refers to the role of the MPs in each party whose job is maintaining party and voting discipline. They are called the Whips (or in the Green Party, a musterer). The reason that the Greens chose a variant term is that Whip derives from the control of the hounds during fox hunting. Mustering is less blood-sporty.

A whip, handcuffs and choker sit on a heart-shaped pillow. In the background, people go about their everyday lives - representing how you can't tell what someone's into just by looking at them.

The Conservative Party whip is not what you might think. Photo: RNZ / Pinky Fang

How do you steer this thing?

The UK government is regularly described as having ‘lost control of the Parliamentary agenda’. It’s true, they have. Can this happen here?

Absolutely it could but not like it has there. The Government's agenda for the House (the order paper) is determined by the Leader of the House, a ministerial position (except for Member's days which are determined on a cab-rank principle). 

But Parliament is the boss of government. And in New Zealand like in Britain a majority of MPs can do pretty much anything they please, including bossing the Government around. In New Zealand if this had happened the Prime Minister would have already called an election.

Mr Johnson would also like to call an election before Brexit hits the fan and things potentially go awry and the public wants to blame someone, but he can't. The UK’s rather unusual Fixed Term Parliaments Act prevents Boris Johnson from pulling the eject lever.

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Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

Losing a Speaker

The Speaker of the House of Commons has announced his resignation. That's not common. John Bercow has been in the job for a decade. In Britain once chosen the Speaker is Speaker as long as they remain an MP. In New Zealand the Speaker only lasts as long as a term (three years) and needs to be re-elected.

Here the Speaker remains in their party but steps back from caucus and becomes a list MP.  In the UK they formally leave their party but still need to be elected so there’s a tradition of no-one standing against them. This also means their constituency gets no choice of MPs. John Bercow was originally a Conservative Party MP, but he has become so unpopular with his own party they were considering standing someone against him in his electorate to topple him.

The Speaker, Trevor Mallard

the Speaker of New Zealand's House of Representatives, Trevor Mallard. Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

Quaint but really?

There are many huge differences between the UK and NZ Parliaments. They have an upper House (The Lords), we have MMP. They have to vote in person on every single thing. We have a chamber that you can actually fit our MPs in. Both Parliaments have their own very different book of rules. 

Things in New Zealand’s parliament have evolved enormously over 151 years and moved very quickly since MMP was adopted. The rules adjust at the every three year Parliament and  just this week the Speaker has called for ideas on further rules changes.

Things in the British Parliament only change very slowly. Traditions are held onto tightly. There are, for example, still cords to hang your sword from in the MP's cloakrooms.

To this day, before the Queen arrives to deliver the speech from the throne a troop of Beefeaters in Tudor uniforms march the basements of Westminster thumping a staff on the floor to listen for stashes of gunpowder. I hope they use modern methods as well.