The 53rd Parliament of New Zealand has been officially opened over two days of ceremonies in Wellington. Here’s how it happened.
Day one: The Commission opening
This day has three main parts:
- Commissioners arrival
- Swearing in MPs
- Electing a Speaker
Commissioning a Parliament
Some people might commission a piece of art, the Sovereign commissions a Parliament.
But they don’t do this themselves. Queen Elizabeth II is sovereign of 16 Commonwealth realms and her last visit to New Zealand was in 2002.
Instead, this task is delegated to the Sovereign's representative; in New Zealand, that’s the Governor General Dame Patsy Reddy.
Tradition dictates that the Sovereign or Governor General do not enter the House of Representatives so three Commissioners are sent in their place to instruct Parliament to do whatever it needs to do to open.
The emphasis on the separation between the Sovereign and the House dates back to 1642 when King Charles I entered the House of Commons with a group of soldiers to try to arrest five Members whom he had accused of treason.
The continued separation is an acknowledgement of the House’s independence from the Sovereign and their representatives.
The Commissioners are Supreme Court judges and this year they were led by Chief Justice Dame Helen Winkelmann. Their job is to read a note from the Governor General asking Parliament to do whatever it needs to do to officially open.
New Zealand’s Parliament borrows many traditions from the Westminster system of which it is based. One of those is a figure called Black Rod so called because they hold a rod which is black.
The Acting Black Rod Sandra McKie led the Commissioners to the House and announced their arrival to the MP in the debating chamber.
Part of this instruction includes authorising the Clerk of the House David Wilson to swear in the Members of Parliament (MPs). Once that’s done the Commissioners leave.
MPs cannot sit or vote in the House or sit on a committee until they’ve been sworn in.
They can either swear the Oath of Allegiance to the Sovereign which includes a reference to a deity:
“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.”
Or they can make an affirmation:
“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.”
Altering the wording of the oath or affirmation isn’t allowed and MPs are not meant to make statements about their beliefs towards the oath when they’re being sworn in.
However, swearing the oath or making an affirmation doesn’t stop an MP from advocating for a different system of Government but pledging allegiance to a foreign power after swearing the oath would cost them their seat.
By law the oath or an affirmation can only be taken in English or te reo Māori but MPs can repeat it in any language they like.
Several of them took advantage of this with oaths and affirmations repeated in ten other languages including Mandarin, Samoan, Tongan, Rotuman, Korean, Dutch, Cantonese, Arabic, Sanskrit, and Cook Island Māori.
Some MPs have chosen to take the oath while holding a copy of the Bible but they can take the oath in any way they declare is binding on them.
Labour MP Louisa Wall held the ratana blue book, Green MP Elizabeth Kerekere held a copy of Te Tiriti o Waitangi.
ACT Party MP David Seymour chose the Bill of Rights Act 1990 and Labour MP Ibrahim Omer held the Koran.
Some MPs didn’t just hold a written text - Māori MP Debbie Ngarewa-Packer held a mere and Green MP Ricardo Menéndez-March held pounamu handed to him by the Auckland Action Against Poverty group for which he has been a spokesperson.
After the MPs are sworn in they elect one of them to be Speaker.
Electing a Speaker
The Speaker’s main job is to chair the House and relay its messages to the Governor General hence the title “speaker”.
The clerk calls for any nominations, a name is put forward (and seconded by another MP) and the House votes.
It’s common for the role of Speaker, their deputy and assistants to be decided amongst the parties beforehand and Labour MP Trevor Mallard was re-elected as Speaker without challenge.
The House then finishes up for the day and the Speaker goes to tell the Governor General he’s got the job.
Day two: The State Opening
Two main things happen on this day:
The Speech from the Throne
The Address in Reply debate
The Governor General turns up in person on this day but in keeping with tradition, they don’t enter the debating chamber.
Instead, they send a messenger, Black Rod, to bang on the door and summon the House to listen to her give a speech explaining why she wanted Parliament to open.
The Speech from the Throne is actually written by the Prime Minister’s office and outlines the Government’s agenda for the parliamentary term.
This Parliament the speech largely focused on how the Government will respond to the Covid-19 pandemic but also a priority on housing, investment in trades training, and a commitment to reduce move away from fossil fuels.
Once the Governor General has finished delivering the speech from the throne they pass it to the Speaker Trevor Mallard who takes it back to the House of Representatives.
The Address in Reply debate
The first proper debate in the House is technically about whether or not to send a nice note to the Governor General acknowledging their speech.
In reality, the Address in Reply debate is a 19-hour debate with two main functions: allowing debate on the Government’s agenda for the next three years and giving new MPs a chance to give their first speech.
It’s a tradition for the Address in Reply debate to be started by a new MP giving their maiden speech.
A maiden speech normally outlines an MP’s hopes and ambitions for their parliamentary career and gives some insight into their personal beliefs.
This Parliament the task was given to Labour MP Arena Williams
“The oath we swore yesterday was of allegiance to our country and a pledge to faithfully protect the democratic institutions which are a taonga for all New Zealanders,” she told the House.
“These institutions are woven strands in the whāriki of our democracy, and while checks and balances on their power are essential to human rights protections, we should tread lightly upon them, lest we risk undermining democracy itself.”
The motion for debate is often seconded by another new MP also giving their maiden speech.
“My journey to this place has been a long one. The story of my journey is the story of every refugee displaced and forced from their home country and their loved ones. My vision is for my journey to give hope to the many other people with stories like mine,” said Labour MP Ibrahim Omer.
“My journey began 15,000 kilometres away, in a peaceful, small East African country called Eritrea. My forebears were chiefs, warriors, who led their people free to defend their land from invaders, who handed down their values of social justice and defending human rights to me and to my family.”
Party leaders with six or more MPs followed the two maiden speeches with more of a focus on the Government’s legislative agenda.
MPs will continue to debate the address in reply over the next couple of months pausing it to pass other legislation in between.
And that’s the 53rd Parliament officially opened.