26 Nov 2020

Claiming rights and privileges

From The House , 6:55 pm on 26 November 2020

When Parliament elected Trevor Mallard to be Speaker again one of the first things he did was leave the building.

That may sound bad, but he was off to see the Governor General to inform her of his election and receive confirmation. He told MPs he would “at that time claim on all of our behalf the rights and privileges of this House.”

When the House met again on Thursday the Speaker reported that her excellency had confirmed him and confirmed all the rights and privileges of the House of Representatives which have ever been granted.

She had also said, "I assure you that the House of Representatives shall always have ready access to me, and that I will at all times place the most favourable construction upon its proceedings."

Speaker Trevor Mallard begins Parliament's day with a prayer as Clerk of the House David Wilson listens from The Table

Speaker Trevor Mallard begins Parliament's day with a prayer as Clerk of the House David Wilson listens from The Table Photo: ©VNP / Phil Smith

So what does that mean: rights, privileges, and a favourable construction?  

Parliament has quite a few rights and privileges. Many were inherited from the Westminster Parliament in London. Others have been specifically codified in various laws. They exist to allow the smooth functioning of an independent Parliament.

Amongst them are archaic things like freedom from civil arrest. No-one gets imprisoned for personal debt any longer; but a debtors prison would once have been an excellent way of sidelining a troublesome MP.

Note that MPs are not above the law though and are still liable to criminal arrest.

Parliament also has rights like the ability to punish individuals for contempt, to obtain evidence, run inquiries, administer oaths, control its own proceedings, and to control access to Parliament.

Parliament even has the power to arrest people. Not that they have. 

There were three things that the Speaker particularly referred to in his chat with the Head of State.

Freedom of Speech

This is not quite the same freedom of speech that is guaranteed to the rest of us in the Bill of Rights. The House’s freedom of speech goes further and is often referred to as ‘parliamentary privilege’ and means that MPs cannot be prosecuted for what they say inside the Debating Chamber. Nor can Parliament for publishing what they said. 

MPs give themselves standards and rules of debate, and can punish each other for breaking them - but they can’t be sued for defamation. This is meant to stop the possibility of debate being restricted. 

MPs sometimes take advantage of this privilege to publicly make claims in the House that would likely be considered slanderous if repeated outside.

Governor-General Dame Patsy Reddy at the State Opening of Parliament

Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone 

Free Access

Free access to the Head of State is a practical thing. It’s the House being able to talk to the Sovereign. This refers to the House, not its subset the Government, which has its own channels.

The Governor General is actually a part of both Parliament and the Executive but she is not a member of the House. But as she operates at a remove it is necessary for the House to be able to communicate with her.   

In early New Zealand this was particularly important because the then Governor once ran the executive and ministers weren’t really available to be quizzed by the Legislature like they are today. Today with our form of responsible government (i.e. government responsible to the legislature) messages to the are less common, but still necessary.

In fact the Sovereign still gets to have a say on rare bills that might impact on her directly. 

This doesn’t by the way allow any old MP to rock up to Government House and demand an audience. This privilege is for the House as a whole through the Speaker. 

Construction on Milford Track.

Construction on Milford Track. Photo: RNZ / Tess Brunton

A Favourable Construction

This has nothing to do with being good with infrastructure. And it isn’t strictly speaking a right but it is listed as one. It’s more a plea not to be misinterpreted. 

It dates from the days when suspicion and conflict were common between the legislature and the crown.

The English Civil War, after all, was a bloody campaign fought between the King and his own Parliament. Back then heads might literally roll if the monarch took exception to something an MP said in the House. 

You’ll likely not be surprised to hear that the Governor General was in agreement on all of these things.

This is a traditional form of making nice at the beginning of a new parliament. It's not strictly necessary, but it reminds everyone of the norms.

In reality it is generally understood that the rights of Parliament are set in law regardless of whether the Sovereign concurs, but it’s nice to start on a positive note.