3 Dec 2023

What to Expect when you’re Expecting a Parliament

From The House , 5:08 pm on 3 December 2023
Black Rod and the Commissioners enter Parliament's Debating Chamber

The Commissioners arrive with the Black Rod for the 2020 Commission Opening.  Photo: ©VNP / Phil Smith

New Zealand has a government, but still no sitting parliament. That changes this week when the 54th Parliament finally gets underway. 

It is not simply a case of opening the debating chamber doors for MPs to take up their seats and argue. First, a number of formalities must take place. Here’s a run-through of the opening days of parliament.

Prequel: Grinning while swearing

This first step - which happened last week - was swearing in a new executive, namely, the ministers and parliamentary under secretaries. They weren’t officially in charge until swearing oaths before the Governor-General. 

It is normal for ministers to be sworn in prior to being sworn in as MPs. This is partly because Parliament is usually summoned by the Governor-General on the advice of the Prime Minister, so it helps to begin with a prime minister. Not essential, but helpful.

The ceremony involved a lot of very excited people trying very hard to look suitably serious. Some tried out appropriate faces as their turn neared. Those not feeling nervous in such situations are either very experienced or worryingly overconfident.

The executive typically includes 28 MPs. Between them, the three governing parties have 11 MPs with ministerial experience - though not all are ministers this time around. So two-thirds of the incoming ministers will be as excited as new puppies. 

Becoming a member of the executive: Pakuranga MP Simeon Brown of the National Party swears allegiance before the Governor-General at Government House, 27 November 2023.

Becoming a member of the executive: Pakuranga MP Simeon Brown of the National Party swears allegiance before the Governor-General at Government House, 27 November 2023. Photo: Johnny Blades

Day 1: Enter the Commissioners 

The Governor-General summons parliaments. This doesn’t have to happen immediately on formation of a government, but it does have to occur by 21 December.

Opening Parliament is such fun, it happens twice. Parliament’s first day is called the Commission Opening. 

Before Parliament deliberates on anything at all, the MPs need to be sworn in. The authority for this comes from the Sovereign (via the Governor-General), but the Governor-General does not attend in person. Instead, they send three commissioners, usually the Chief Justice and two colleagues. 

Weather permitting, the Commissioners process to Parliament from their own institution a block away, and arrive with appropriate ceremony. But this is Wellington, where weather can turn foul quickly, so fingers crossed.

At Parliament, the Commissioners don’t hang around long. They stay only long enough to delegate the Clerk of the House of Representatives to carry out the rest of the business.

Cue a lot more swearing

All the MPs are sworn in by the Clerk. Like the ministers, they sign documents and make oaths (or affirmations). Both the new and re-elected MPs have to be sworn in.

They are sworn in on a book (or an object) that has significance to them. Usually, it’s one of the many kinds of religious scripture or a constitutional item, such as Te Tiriti. The Bible is common, as is the Book of Ratana.

Once they are "real" MPs, they perform the only other business for day 1 – choosing themselves a boss. 

Another election already?

The MPs' first order of business is to elect a Speaker to be their landlord, umpire, spokesperson and figurehead. The Speaker is the head of the legislative branch of Government, so it is no small thing.

Crucially, the election of Speaker is by a majority of the MPs sworn in so far. Sometimes MPs may not be present and therefore haven't yet been sworn in, so this reduces the total and also the required majority. Not understanding this is what caused a kerfuffle at the Speaker’s election in 2017

Usually Speaker’s elections are pre-agreed and by unanimous consent. But this doesn’t always hold. In 2017 the National Party, still surprised at being in Opposition, reportedly reneged on a deal and threatened to vote for an alternative to Trevor Mallard. They believed the incoming governing coalition didn’t have a majority because MPs were absent. They were wrong (see lowered majority rule, above). 

This was also a tit-for-tat for Labour not giving unanimous consent to David Carter’s election the previous time. Who knows what will occur this time, but Chris Bishop announced that National will nominate Gerry Brownlee for the role, and Chris Hipkins said that Labour had invited Brownlee to address their caucus prior to the Speaker's election, so the caucus could ask him questions and decide how to vote.

Having elected a Speaker, Parliament breaks for the day, except for the Speaker-elect.

Speaker-elect Adrian Rurawhe shakes the hand of Speaker's Assistant Roland Todd, August 2022. Photo:

One final bout of swearing 

The Speaker-elect doesn’t stop for lunch. Instead, they trundle off to Government House to be sworn in by the Governor-General. Speakers have particular powers and responsibilities, so they also swear an oath.

And that ends the first day.

Day 2: Pomp and speeches - the State Opening

At the Commission Opening, the Commissioners deliver a message from the Governor-General to MPs, asking them to return the following day to attend on the Sovereign’s representative. That event is to hear a speech.

Once upon a time, the Sovereign would have taken this opportunity to make demands about what the parliament would do. These days, sovereigns have no say in it. The speech is written for the Governor-General by the office of the new Prime Minister and will outline the new administration’s plans. Presumably, the staff of governors-general have some input into the tone, making sure that they will be outlining the policies of ‘their’ ministers, but not acting as cheerleaders for any particular policy or party. 

The State Opening usually involves plenty of pomp, including a military parade and band. 

Here are a few points to note:    

  • The new Speaker gets their first procession from their office through the debating chamber, behind the mace carried by the Sergeant-at-Arms. 
  • The Governor-General arrives in full pomp preceded by Black Rod, who pounds with his eponymous stick on the debating chamber door to summon the fresh, beamish MPs through to Parliament’s former upper chamber (the Legislative Council Chamber next door), to hear the Speech from the Throne.
  • This will be the first arrival at Parliament by a governor-general that will make use of the new Te Kāhui Mōuri, including the mōuri markers and an entry between the majestic new pou at Parliament House.
  • It is not just MPs who come to hear the Governor-General; they are joined by other figures including senior justices and the combined heads of the NZ Defence Force.
  • The speech outlines the new government’s intentions. Often, there are many. Pity any Governor-General – it’s usually a long read.
  • Post-speech, the MPs return to the chamber and at 2pm begin a 19-hour-long debate called the Address in Reply. The official purpose of this debate is to decide how to reply to the Sovereign about the ideas in the speech. In reality, it’s a wide-ranging, general debate.
  • The debate is both a very long argument over the new government’s priorities, and also the place where most new MPs give their first, or maiden, speeches. In fact, it is traditionally led off by brand-new MPs.
  • After a couple of hours, this debate usually pauses so the House can move on to other business. 
  • On the State Opening day, MPs will also elect the Deputy Speaker and Assistant Speakers.

Parliament's website has a handy set of summaries of the procedures that will open the 54th legislature, including an explanation of what it's all about, an outline of the key players involved, and how you can watch or listen to it all happening.