24 Nov 2020

A run-up on Parliament’s kick-off

From The House , 6:55 pm on 24 November 2020

We’ve had an election, we have a government, and on Wednesday we complete the set with a Parliament.

Below is a blow-by-blow run-down of the major events for the opening week of the 53rd Parliament. There's a fair bit happening. Much of it public, some of it behind the scenes.

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Photo: RNZ / Benedict Collins

Wednesday - the actual opening (a little pomp)

As the body-double for New Zealand’s Queen, the Governor-General can’t enter Parliament’s debating chamber so she sends three commissioners to declare the Parliament open on her behalf. 

The commissioners will be Chief Justice Helen Winkelman, Justice Sir William Young and Justice Dame Susan Glazebrook. If you’re in Wellington you can watch them process (on foot) from the Supreme Court (possibly New Zealand’s most beautiful building - at least internally) to Parliament. They will be led by the Sheriff of the High Court (New Zealand's best job title).

That will happen a few minutes before 11am.

They will be received at the main steps of Parliament by mana whenua with a karanga, and give a response. 

Black Rod accompanies the Governor General's Commissioners to the Commission Opening in 2017

Black Rod at the Commission Opening in in 2017. Photo: ©VNP

Black Rod will lead them to the debating chamber and announce them to the awaiting MPs.

The Commissioners will: 

  • declare Parliament in session, 
  • empower the Clerk of the House, David Wilson to swear in the MPs, 
  • invite MPs to attend again tomorrow to hear the Head of State outline her Parliament’s agenda,
  • and depart the way they came.

The once and future MPs

The MPs are actually already MPs (they have been since they were elected), but until they are sworn in they cannot speak in the chamber, vote or serve on committees. Which is, after all, quite a chunk of the job of being an MP.

Once the commissioners have left, the Clerk will swear in all 120 MPs in alphabetical order (sorry Michael Woodhouse). Some will choose to make an affirmation, some will make an oath. 

They may use a Bible, a Qur'an, Book of Mormon, or anything similarly important to them. What would you choose?

Once they have done this they also sign on the dotted line.

In English, the oath is:

"I, …, swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Her heirs and successors, according to law. So help me God."

The affirmation runs:

"I, …, solemnly, sincerely, and truly declare and affirm that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Her heirs and successors, according to law."

Labour MP Kiri Allan being sworn in in 2017

Labour MP Kiri Allan being sworn in in 2017 Photo: ©VNP

Choosing a Speaker and listener both

Once the MPs are all sworn in they can elect one of their number to be Speaker. The Speaker is the ‘head’ of the Parliament, being both its leading presiding officer and the person who communicates with the Head of State on behalf of the Legislature.

The name Speaker derives from their being empowered by Parliament to speak on its behalf to the Head of State. 

In reality they spend most of their time being a listener instead, because they are also the person at whom all debate in the House is directed. Exhausting.

The House will rise on Wednesday soon after the Speaker is elected and the Speaker will head off to inform the Governor-General and “lay claim to the rights and privileges” of the Parliament. 

This is a polite way of saying that speakers traditionally tell the Queen to back off and let them do their job without interference. 

Note: The Speaker only needs the majority of the MPs in the room. Three years ago, the Opposition appear to have wrongly presumed a Speaker needed 61 votes to be elected and might fall short without their support (as not all MPs were yet present). There are no proxies on this personal vote and it is only of the MPs already sworn in, so half+1 will suffice.

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Gerry Brownlee grins while Chris Hipkins shakes hands with then National Whip Jamee-Lee Ross. National were agreeing not to contest the election of Speaker, a vote they appear to have mistakenly thought Labour would lose.  Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

Nailing down a Parliament

With the Speaker formally in office, among his first duties will be calling the initial meeting of this Parliament's Business Committee, a powerful cross-party committee that meets weekly to agree practical nuts and bolts of Parliament's operation.

This first meeting will likely confirm the membership of the 13 specialist subject Select Committees, and the rota for Question Time.

With the committee memberships agreed, they will be able to begin meeting as early as next Wednesday to each formalise their own leadership (though this too will have been hammered out beforehand).

Thursday - the ‘state’ opening (with extra pomp)

On Thursday morning, the MPs will again gather in the House and await a summons to hear the Speech from the Throne. 

If you like Pomp and are nearby this might be the time to come to Parliament’s lawn to watch. From about 10am, there will be an honour guard composed from members of the Navy, Army and Airforce with a band, paraded and awaiting the Governor-General. She will likely arrive about 10.20am for a 10-minute welcome before arriving inside around 10.30am.

There will be a party of mana whenua waiting to welcome the head of state, as well as the Chief and various heads of the Defence Force. 

The mana whenua welcome will begin with a conch shell calling the winds and include a rākau tapu (the ceremonial challenge), karanga (and response), Haka Pōwhiri and Ruruku. 

These will be followed by a 21-gun salute from Point Jerningham and an inspection of the Royal tri-Service Guard of Honour. They literally pull out the big guns for the state opening.

There’s even a fanfare from one of Parliament’s balconies.

The State Opening of Parliament.

The State Opening of Parliament. Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

Outlining the plan

Once the Governor-General gets inside the building, she heads for the Legislative Assembly Chamber (the Head of State is allowed to enter Parliament’s redundant ‘Upper House’) and waits for Black Rod to summon the MPs to her.

All this splendor is so the MPs can hear her deliver the Speech from the Throne outlining her government’s agenda for the new term of Parliament. The agenda will not be a surprise to government ministers as it is written for the Governor-General at the direction of the prime minister.

It is after all her ministry and their agenda.

The Loose Ends

Once the Governor-General has ended her triennial pilgrimage, the MPs return to the debating chamber to tie up loose ends. 

This includes the appointment of the remaining presiding officers - the deputy speaker and assistant speakers.

It also includes the ‘reinstatement of business’. This is a new Parliament and begins with nothing on the Order Paper. Rather than start from scratch, the Parliament will vote to load back onto the Order Paper the things it still wants there at the point they were up to at the end of the previous parliament.

Labour MP Adrian Rurawhe visits Tupou College in Tonga as part of the Speaker-led delegation to the Pacific

Already announced as the intended Deputy Speaker is Labour MP Adrian Rurawhe, here visiting Tupou College in Tonga as part of the Speaker-led delegation to the Pacific. Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

The First Verbal Fist Fight

Parliament’s first job after lunch on Thursday is coming up with a suitable response to the Governor-General regarding the agenda she outlined.

The actual reply is not written directly by the House, but the House does have a very long debate about the merits of that plan. 

That debate is called the Address in Reply Debate, which is a polite form of “well, how do we reply to that plan then?”

It will include maiden speeches from many new MPs and is allowed to cover pretty much anything.

The very first speeches (moving and seconding the motion) are traditionally from two new MPs from the government side. It is considered an honour given to promising talent. This year, they will be made by Labour MPs Arena Williams and Ibrahim Omer.

After that, the four major party leaders get a crack for a couple of hours and then eventually everyone else.

And that will more than take up the rest of the week.

Welcome to Parliament 53.