The year has gone ridiculously quickly and yet it still feels like a very long one, which may have something to do with the way it began at Parliament.
Disruptive events unfolding on the very first week when Parliament sat for 2022 played a part in wearing people down early in the piece. Still, as the dust settles on the year, quite a lot of work has been done on precinct.
People participating in an anti-vaccine mandate protest decided to occupy an area on and around the Parliament precinct, particularly its front lawns, plus a main road and junction, over three and a half weeks in February and March before police forced them out. The occupation culminated in unrest and violence that caused significant damage to the precinct and - according to some of those in the firing line at Parliament - a range of human costs.
That experience left a lot of people who work on Parliament precinct with a renewed appreciation for the work of security staff, who keep this place secure day and night. They’re just one of various components who work on precinct at night. The business of Parliament regularly continues into night time, when the precinct has been likened to an industrious ant hill.
In 2022, a total of 85 bills were passed, the same number as in 2019, the equivalent year in the three-year parliamentary cycle from the previous term. The legislation ranged from the major health reforms and the Fair Pay Agreement Act to the creation of a new public holiday for Matariki, and the Conversion Practices Prohibition Legislation ACT which drew a record-breaking 107,000 written submissions.
Don’t forget, someone has to do the hard yards of drafting all these bills to turn a policy idea into law. That would be the Parliamentary Counsel Office. It was also a busy year for the staff of the House Office, the hub of information that MPs and the presiding officers of the House require to conduct the work of Parliament.
The Queen's death in September prompted the adjournment of Parliament for a week, and the change of Speaker lost another day, but the Government ensured it later made up for lost time. The legislative agenda picked up pace in the second half of the year with an extra morning’s sitting on each sitting week.
There was also a week late last month when Parliament went into urgency as 23 bills went through 32 stages, a marathon effort that led to some MPs quietly complaining of being held prisoner on precinct. One of the things done that week, an amendment during the committee stage of the Water Services Bill which involved reservation of a provision, was subsequently flagged as being constitutionally unwise and then consequently undone by the Government amid much political flak.
It’s a hectic job being an MP. So it’s good to know that a member can find a support network and a little inner peace in MP groups such as the MPs Parliamentary Prayer Breakfast. Also, as I witnessed last month in Westport in a community outreach visit by MPs, spending time talking about Parliament with school children is therapeutic, with members opening up about the personal impacts of their job.
Meanwhile, the 53rd Parliament plows on. Recording all of it word-for-word is the Hansard team, whose job includes taking turns to sit in the middle of the debating chamber, right in the thick of the political circus without usually being noticed. And of course transcribing tens of thousands of words each week.
Covid-19 infections have accounted for a fair share of sickness among staff in most branches of Parliament this year. Mask use in the chamber and in the wider precinct dropped off substantially in September when the Government dropped requirements for it in most settings. Likewise the Hybrid Parliament approach (with MPs contributing to the debate from a distance) has diminished.
But another pandemic era feature, select committees being held by Zoom meetings, continues to be used at times. In its own clunky way Zoom is a good leveller, and some committee chairs say it has helped make the Parliament more approachable for the public. It even enabled the Ukrainian President to address MPs from (very) afar.
In the later part of this year, the group of MPs known as the Standing Orders Committee began public hearings on reviewing Parliament’s rules as it does every three years. Not only have they absorbed submissions from heavyweights of New Zealand’s constitutional and parliamentary arrangements, but they also heard from The House’s own Phil Smith who submitted with a view to changing archaic parliamentary language, also getting some useful advice for people on how to go about submitting.
One of the big political stories of the year - the developments around the expulsion of Gaurav Sharma from the Labour Party - brought a spotlight onto several parts of the Parliament system including the relationships that MPs have with their staff who are employed by the Parliamentary Service, a large employer with nearly 700 staff.
Whether Sharma’s brief stint in Parliament will be remembered in years to come is unclear. But there are plenty of other mementos from New Zealand’s Parliamentary history that are kept and preserved, alongside a remarkable art collection, as part of the Parliamentary Collection, including a lock of Queen Victoria's hair, and items salvaged from the wreck of the occupation.
Speaker Trevor Mallard, who was also the longest serving MP in the Parliament, called curtains on a long and colourful career in Parliament. He sat down with Phil to take stock of his time as Speaker and the importance of MPs knowing the rules of the House.
Labour MP for Te Tai Hauāuru Adrian Rurawhe was elected Speaker of Parliament and immediately signalled a different approach to that of his predecessor, including letting exchanges in the chamber flow a bit more. He also spoke to The House about his background and his approach.
Along with the usual retirement of a number of MPs and new ones being sworn in, the shape of Parliament is ever dynamic, adding to the sense that it’s been a year of disruption - perhaps warming us all up for the following, election year, bound to be even crazier.