12 Aug 2020

Dissolving Parliament - what is that?

From The House , 1:54 pm on 12 August 2020

The dissolution of Parliament has been postponed following the discovery of Covid-19 cases in the community but what is dissolution and why is it important? The House asks the Clerk of the House David Wilson to explain.

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Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

What is dissolution?

It’s the official end of a Parliament when the Governor General has a proclamation read out in public.

“It has to be witnessed by the Clerk of the House and two other witnesses,” said Clerk of the House David Wilson. “Once that’s done and we sign a paper to say we’ve witnessed it, it officially ends the Parliament.” 

This starts the election process beginning with the issuing of the ‘Writ’ by the Governor General - her formal call for an election to be held. 

Why Dissolve Parliament?

22 August 2017

The then Clerk-Assistant Suze Jones (left), the Deputy Clerk of the House, Rafael Gonzalez-Montero (centre) and Clerk of the House David Wilson, (right) on the steps of Parliament to witness the dissolution in 2017. Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

The Writ can’t be issued until Parliament ends. If you want an election before Parliament expires you need to dissolve it.

Parliament comes to an end after three years, or when it’s dissolved. This 52nd Parliament will expire on the 13th of October.

The House can’t sit or pass laws or hold question time once the Parliament is dissolved said Wilson.

“No questions can be asked [and] select committees no longer exist,” he said.

“So while Members are still Members of Parliament and the Government still continues to exist, there is no House for them to do any business in.”

Who decides to do it?

The Governor General does but acts on advice of the Prime Minister as they do on all constitutional matters. The Prime Minister sets the date and advises the Governor General who then issues the proclamation and authorises someone to read it. 


New Zealand Herald of Arms Extraordinary to the Queen Phillip O'Shea signs the proclamation dissolving the 51st Parliament.

New Zealand Herald of Arms Extraordinary to the Queen Phillip O'Shea signs the proclamation dissolving the 51st Parliament. Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

It’s a formal document that has to be read out, or ‘proclaimed’, to the public. It cannot be just written down or said to someone privately. The Herald of Arms Extraordinary to the Queen is the person who holds the authority from the Governor General to read this particular proclamation. While this method sounds very ‘olde worlde’ it dates all the way back to 1986.

Can you bring back a dissolved Parliament?

Parliament is adjourned at the moment and scheduled to sit next Tuesday (18 August), so MPs could be back in the House then if the Parliament isn’t dissolved.
However, the Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has announced Monday 17 August as the new dissolution date.
But even if Parliament is dissolved it could actually be called back by the Governor General if, say, it needed to pass emergency legislation. It could do this until it ‘expires’ when it hits its three year time limit (see below). 

It hasn’t happened before though so it would be new territory. 

“That, I think, would be novel constitutional ground to explore,” said Wilson. 

“Probably the more straightforward way is just not to dissolve it until people are sure they no longer need the Parliament to either legislate or scrutinise the Government.” 

Does delaying the dissolution affect the Election

There are a lot of moving parts in organising an election. Those parts begin moving in sequence once Parliament dissolves. Then the Writ can be issued, candidates officially be declared, etc. Moving the dissolution has an effect on all the parts.

“If it’s delayed for too long it’s probably not possible to fit all those things that are required by law into the gap between dissolution and election day,” said Wilson.

So delay dissolution too long and you probably have to delay the election.

Can you delay an election and keep Parliament sitting? 

Yes and No. 

The election date doesn’t have to be September 19th, it could happen a little later - up until November 23rd - but Parliament can’t keep sitting until then. 

“If nothing is done, Parliament expires three years after the ‘return of the Writ’ (the official results from the election beforehand), so by the 13th of October this year,” said Wilson.

At that point the Parliament loses its authority.  

In 1946 Parliament forgot to the mark the calendar, forgot the previous election had been earlier than usual and accidentally ran for two extra months.

This could happen on purpose (see below), but it would need a law change.

22 August 2017

Clerk of the House David Wilson (left), Serjeant at Arms Steve Streefkerk (centre), and New Zealand Herald of Arms Extraordinary to The Queen Philip O'Shea (right) at the dissolution of Parliament 2017. Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

What if it becomes difficult to hold an election because of a pandemic?

Once the election is officially called (when the Governor General has issued a writ), decisions about the election become the Electoral Commission’s responsibility. 

With spooky foresight the current parliament changed the Electoral Act to give the Commission the power to adjust both the timing and the means of an election if events demand it (specifically including a health outbreak as a reason).

The Commission can delay the election by an initial three days and then by up to a week at a time in a rolling adjournment. This can happen for a single electorate, an area or the whole country. 

The Act said this can happen if there is an “unavoidable disruption” likely to prevent voters voting at the polling place or places, or pose a risk to the proper conduct of the election.

None of this would extend the authority of the Parliament though.

And if you need to extend Parliament without holding an election?

If MPs wanted to keep sitting beyond October 13th but delay the election (until, say, next year), they would need to change the Constitution Act before Parliament expired which would require 75 percent of MPs to agree.

Parliament extended itself twice during World War One, but the law was a bit different then.

Does the Government cease to exist without Parliament?

The Government continues after Parliament dissolves or expires. When Parliament dissolves backbench-MPs head home but the ministers keep being ministers and running the country. 

Even after the election they stay ministers (though in a more caretaker role) until new ministers are appointed. Ministerial authority derives from the Governor General (not Parliament) though the individuals are always Members of Parliament. This can only last so long though. 

“There is also a requirement that the Governor General does call the new parliament back so it can’t continue forever without a parliament and with the government in charge of things,” said Wilson.

Without a parliament any government would run out of money pretty quickly. Only Parliament can approve the bills that provide cash to run the country.