10 Dec 2023

Parliament: A change of ends and a new referee

From The House , 7:30 am on 10 December 2023

The first week of the new Parliament has ended, and thank goodness. It was a whirlwind of state occasions, political minefields and around the edges, a little actual parliamentary business.

Wednesday saw the first debating shots in anger, and it was interesting to watch. Labour’s senior MPs seemed to be genuinely enjoying themselves, which was unexpected. National’s MPs were mostly still in campaign mode attacking the government-of-yore.  

Thursday was when Parliament finally got out of first gear. Thursday included the first debate that wasn’t a constitutional set-piece, the first question time, and the first chance for the new Speaker to limber up and show his early stylings.

Chris Hipkins first debate as Leader of the Opposition.

Chris Hipkins, the new Leader of the Opposition cracks up his caucus during his speech in the Address in Reply Debate.   Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

The first Question Time of the 54th Parliament was always going to be an interesting sortie. Two teams, back on the field after a change of ends, making probing attacks, looking for weak points. 

And with a change of ref – the new Speaker Gerry Brownlee. Like referees at a Rugby World Cup Final, speakers can have an enormous influence on the play and the outcome at Parliament. Particularly on a parliament’s effectiveness in keeping a watchful eye on government.

It is, of course, very early days and speakers take a while to find their feet and solidify an approach, but it’s surely worth poking through the entrails of the first day to see how it went. The first impression of Mr Brownlee was that he was both relaxed and confident, but willing to acknowledge errors and apologise with self-deprecation.  

Can a prayer also be an omen? 

Any change of speaker can add new rules and also alter their interpretation. They can also facilitate or impede approaches adopted by previous speakers. Will the new speaker be a revolutionary, a reactionary, or will he hold the current line? It will take time to tell – it is possible that the first week included a litmus test. 

Every sitting day at Parliament begins with a prayer and has done since its first sittings. The prayer is not set in stone though.

The modern prayer focuses on MPs’ ethical approach to their jobs. That they “lay aside personal interests, and work with wisdom, justice, mercy, and humility for the welfare and peace of New Zealand.”

You might remember that in early 2018 the then speaker Trevor Mallard secularised the prayer by removing specific reference to one of the Christian trinity. Now it just addresses itself to God in general. The change outraged the conservative end of New Zealand’s churches. 

It was however a very small Parliamentary change if compared to significant shifts of recent years, like the adoption of a Code of Conduct for MPs. 

Former Speaker Lockwood Smith visits the debating chamber on Gerry Brownlee's first day in the Chair.

The new Speaker Gerry Brownlee listens to MPs, alongside a parliamentary visitor. Like a parliamentary version of the Ghost of Christmas Past, Brownlee's first full day in the Chair is observed by former Speaker and National Party MP, Lockwood Smith. Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

By report Mr Brownlee is a conservative who appreciates tradition. Precinct staff have wondered whether he might consider reverting recent changes. Either small things like the wearing of ties or maybe even larger shifts. 

If returning Jesus to the supplication is a litmus test of Gerry Brownlee’s appetite for the current trend for repeal, it hasn’t happened yet. The prayer was the same this week as it has been for the last few years.

We hope to sit down soon with the new Speaker and ask about his plans and approach to the stressful, strange and difficult job of parliamentary referee.  Fingers crossed. 

Question Time

Most voters neither notice nor care about Oral Questions to Ministers, but politicians and journalists take the daily skirmishes of Question Time very seriously. Poor performance can deflate a party or MP quickly. A good outing can buoy the troops.

This week included just one Question Time (on Thursday), but there were still a number of strong engagements (especially Robertson v Willis and Verrall v Reti), and one occasion where National tactically outflanked the Opposition.

The primary questions within Oral Questions are set in stone hours before the House begins. Chris Hipkins’ first question as Leader of the Opposition to the new Prime Minister was this.

"Does he stand by his statement, 'We also want to see steps made towards a ceasefire'?"

Apparently Chris Hipkins had opted for the topic confident that Parliament wouldn’t discuss a motion on Gaza until next week. He was forewarned because it had apparently been raised at the Business Committee where senior members from every party meet weekly to pre-agree business so the House operates more efficiently and collegially. Determinations of the committee are taken as gospel in the Chamber.

But on Thursday, after the question topics were finalised it became apparent National was not waiting until next week, it was debating Gaza before Oral Questions. By the time Hipkins got to ask his questions the topic was pretty moot. He still managed some solid questions to Christopher Luxon, but Hipkins would have expected a much stronger opening stanza. Basically he had been gazzumped, maybe even fallen victim to a bait and switch.

Christopher Luxon in action during the first debate of the 54th Parliament.

The new Prime Minister Christopher Luxon in his first outing in the 54th Parliament  Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

It was arguably a clever move from National to hasten the debate (presuming it was tactical). It ensured Christopher Luxon a smoother kick-off in what is a new skill area. Labour saw the tactic as dirty-pool. Chris Hipkins raised it with the Speaker in the pause between the Gaza debate and Question Time, describing it as a “breach of good faith.”

One could argue that National hoodwinked Labour and pulled a fast one to protect their leader, leaving Hipkins stuck with a lame duck topic and many fewer bullets in his gun. You might also argue that the opposition shouldn't use advance knowledge of next week’s plan to help plan an attack this week.

Either way, it got messy. Things would go a lot less smoothly during this Parliament if the Business Committee itself becomes a tool in the chess game.

You have to presume that the new Speaker was not in on a plan if one existed. Speakers traditionally stand well apart from their own team’s tactics. For example they typically don’t attend Caucus or other occasions where tactics might be discussed. How far back this tradition of political asceticism goes I’m not sure but I do know that at least the four previous speakers stayed aloof. Doing so can leave them a bit cut off from their colleagues but is necessary to keep them ‘above the fray’.

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