11 Feb 2024

Parliament's new bible

From The House , 7:30 am on 11 February 2024

In Parliament’s debating chamber, sitting at a desk in front of the Speaker presiding, there is always a clerk – a member of Parliament’s secretariat. They are the team that administer the House and its many committees, the brainy worker elves of democracy’s legislature.

They are also the experts on all things Parliament. They attend the chamber to take official note of everything that occurs and is agreed, but also to offer expert advice on the many and complex mysteries of parliamenting. 

Clerk of the House David Wilson at the Table

The Clerk of the House, David Wilson sitting at the Debating Chamber's Table, with reference volumes at hand. Photo: © VNP / Phil Smith

Thankfully this knowledge is not part of a hermetic mystery cult, known only to the initiates. It is freely available.

The Clerk of the House of Representatives and his staff regularly update Parliament’s very own bible, explaining all the many rules, practices and precedents, in a volume called Parliamentary Practice in New Zealand (PP). More than 700 pages of information about everything from how MPs are chosen (e.g. did you know the Clerk still has your physical election ballots under lock-and-key); through to how MPs can lose their jobs again (yes, MPs can be sacked for a variety of reasons). And everything in between.

Without Parliamentary Practice and the clerks’ help MPs would be lost in the byzantine ways of democracy, doomed to blindly stumble through their parliamentary careers making endless mistakes. You might think some do that regardless.  

Parliament’s bible, Parliamentary Practice has now been updated, with a new 2024 edition published.

It is available as a physical volume but can also be found on the Parliament website: in its entirety here (good for searching), or by browsing its many sections here.   

Last week the new edition had the kind of glitzy launch party that one might only dream about in a cash-crunch – i.e. there was a brief comms email to announce its existence. Heady with imaginary champagne I sat down to chat with its editor, the Clerk of the House of Representatives, David Wilson.

He calls Parliament Practice “a really comprehensive guide to how Parliament works” and it is. It’s a weighty tome, but without bumf.

It fills a necessary troika with its sister volumes: Standing Orders (Parliament’s procedural rules), and Speakers’ Rulings (Parliament’s compendium of precedent). 

“[Those volumes] can't incorporate [the] accepted ways of doing things which are not necessarily rules, but might be conventions. They can't give you context either because they simply set things out as they are, whereas the bigger volume can. It can give you context and explanation. And the other really key thing for clerks is the reference back to where the original decision, or convention, or rule came from. So that we can look at that context as well.” 

David Wilson points out that a ruling made by a Speaker might appear to be relevant to the current need until you note it in its original context and realise “it may or may not apply to the new circumstances you're looking at, it may or may have been very specific to a particular set of circumstances”. 

That extra information is only possible “in a book that's got a bit more space to, you know, to devote to discussing those things”.

One reason that Parliamentary Practice needs to be rewritten regularly is that New Zealand’s Parliament is unusually relaxed about toying with its own rules. David Wilson describes it as “dynamic”.

The previous edition was released in 2017 and there have been two momentous sets of changes to how Parliament does things since then. 

Typically senior MPs sit down and rethink the rules every three years (before each election), but they can also change tack in between those triennial reviews. It’s a lot to keep on top of. 

“During the term of Parliament, the parliament is willing to change its rules through sessional orders or temporary rules, either to experiment and try something new, or to adapt to changing circumstances as we had to during Covid-19.”

In my job as a journalist at Parliament I have needed to refer (sometimes daily) to three different editions of this book. When I began it was still referred to as McGee (for its first editor), and was a densely written tome that, while full of fascinating detail, was also a tough read occasionally in need of hermeneutic teasing. I understand that edition was a huge improvement on its predecessor that I never had inflicted on me.  

David Wilson and his team rewrote it entirely for the 2017 edition which managed to be both incredibly useful and somehow, surprisingly, also a good read. 

The 2024 edition is that and more, with much wider information on the workings of Parliament including a lot of new detail on the mysterious ways of Select Committees. 

The text is more digestible and referenceable, having been sieved into hundreds of usefully numbered subheadings. And it is still a fascinating read. How could it not be, Parliament is interestingly strange.

Thankfully there is still an extensive contents section (seven dense pages), a vast index (40 pages worth), a list of referenced court decisions (5 pages), and of statutes and instruments (11 pages). That’s all on top of many hundreds of footnotes. 

You can tell it is a working volume for clerks who need to be able to quickly find and cross-reference details about the workings of this living organism.

But it is also an incredibly useful reference volume for everyone wondering or needing to know how Parliament functions, from students to public service workers. 

It’s well worth a deep browse.

So grab a glass of port; pull up a deeply uncomfortable parliamentary Chesterfield and settle in for a read. A warning though: there's no fireside denouement at the end. It's not really a mystery. We already know it was the Clerk what did it. 

RNZ’s The House – journalism focussed on parliamentary legislation, issues and insights – is made with funding from Parliament’s Office of the Clerk.