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PM's Speech For 150th Anniversary Of House

Monday 21 May 2004

Rt Hon Helen Clark
Prime Minister

Speech on the Occasion of the 150th Anniversary of the
House of Representatives in New Zealand


2.00 pm

Monday 21 May 2004

I move that a respectful Address be presented to Her Excellency, the Governor-General, to mark the 150th anniversary today of the first sitting of this House.

Mr Speaker, I wish to begin my speech today by congratulating you, the Office of the Clerk, and the Parliamentary Service for the steps you have jointly taken to ensure that the 150th anniversary of the first sitting of the House of Representatives is appropriately recognised.

The most important of those steps in my view was the commissioning of an official history of Parliament. This new work by historian John Martin records the workings of the House from the time it was first convened in 1854. In the 150 years which followed, Parliament has both contributed to and reflected the changes taking place in the nation at large.

From the 1850s, the House established ways of working which have endured to this day. Much was modeled on the procedures of the British House of Commons, and the similarities can be seen from the pomp and ceremony of the opening, to the standing orders and the institution of Bellamys.

It is well known that New Zealand led the world in 1893 by being the first country where women won the right to vote.

But the holding of Parliamentary elections in 1853 was also novel.

When the Deputy Governor, Lieutenant-Colonel Wynyard, delivered the first speech from the Throne in 1854, he described the new House of Representatives as “an experiment in constitutional government’. John Martin, our parliamentary historian, agrees that that was an accurate description, because, as he says, “New Zealand parliamentary democracy was one of the earliest colonial examples”.

History records that what was early has also endured. New Zealand was one of the very few countries in the world which was able to maintain democratic government throughout the turbulent twentieth century.

From these islands of relative stability our people went forth in the Second World War to Europe to fight against fascism and see democracy restored. Around the walls of this chamber, the engagements of our forces in two world wars are recorded. Members of Parliament themselves volunteered for military service and not all returned.

My lifetime has spanned a little over one third of the history of the New Zealand Parliament. My earliest recollections of it are of an institution which was taken very seriously, and whose members were generally looked up to.

Parliament was of course rather more distant from our daily lives during my childhood in the 1950s than it is today. It met less frequently, with sittings normally confined to the winter months when there was less activity on the farms. In an age when cars were slow, roads were poor, air travel was a luxury, and before the coming of television, the public saw relatively little of its politicians.

From the time of the first Labour Government, however, the public was able to hear the daily proceedings of Parliament broadcast on radio. My first memories of Parliament are indeed of that static, crackling sound in our living room in the evenings when Parliament was sitting.

When I was first elected to Parliament in 1981, women MPs were somewhat rare, and the selection of women candidates was still considered somewhat risky, particularly for marginal seats. The greatest number ever elected to a Parliament had been four.

In 1981, the numbers of women, doubled to eight, and then kept increasing steadily. There was a quantum leap in the numbers with the introduction of MMP, from around twenty to thirty per cent of all members. There, unfortunately, the numbers seem to have plateaued, leaving women still significantly under-represented here.

Nonetheless Parliaments since 1996 have reflected the diversity of New Zealand’s population better than in the past. Not only are there many more women, but also the numbers of Maori MPs closely reflect the proportion of Maori in the population. In addition, the election of MPs from the Pasifika and Asian communities adds to the ability of this House to represent the diversity of New Zealand today.

Significant changes to Parliament’s standing orders and organisation have been made on two occasions since my election to the House.

The first set of changes came in 1985 when Rt Hon Geoffrey Palmer was Leader of the House.

The Legislative Department was abolished and replaced by the Parliamentary Service. The select committee system was overhauled, and the committees were given wide terms of reference. This enabled them to go beyond scrutinising estimates, annual reports, and legislation to conducting inquiries.

As the chair of the Foreign Affairs and Defence Select Committee at the time, I found that this gave new life to a committee whose predecessors had never had much legislation to occupy their time. Our committee conducted a wide ranging inquiry into New Zealand’s relations with China, and a shorter one into relations with Canada. The committee has continued with such enquiries to this day.

Prior to 1984, it was also rare for select committees to sit outside Wellington. From the time of the Palmer reforms, committees began to travel to hear submissions and ensure that the parliamentary process was more accessible to the public.

The New Zealand Parliament’s select committee system is in my view one of the most progressive in the world. Almost all bills go to committees, and all government spending and operations can be thoroughly scrutinised.

Since the advent of MMP, governments cannot necessarily count on a majority in select committees, and, in this term, the numbers of committees chaired by non-government MPs has increased further.

In practice MMP also means that a government cannot take for granted a majority in Parliament. For a minority government, that means majorities must be sought, on a case by case basis, for legislation. Confidence and supply arrangements must also be nurtured.

Another major change made in Geoffrey Palmer’s time was to the timetable of the House, to ensure that it sat more regularly throughout the year.

In my first year here in 1982, Parliament sat for six weeks from the beginning of April, and then adjourned until late July. It then sat every week until just before Christmas. When the House went into urgency it sat throughout the night. Parliament also sat late three nights a week, and on Fridays until 1.00 pm.

The Palmer reforms saw the House convened in February with regular short recesses scheduled through the year. Few lamented the passing of the Friday morning sitting !

More changes to standing orders came with MMP to cope with the increased numbers of parties. Speaking times in Parliament and places on select committees had to be fairly apportioned. Pairs were dispensed with; many changes were made to the legislative process, and the Business Committee was established to bring all parties into the loop on the running of the House. Prior to that the timetable for government business tended to be a fairly tightly guarded secret !

Over the years the services available to MPs have steadily improved. Going back thirty years or so, the secretarial support was very limited, with many members writing their own correspondence by hand.

In my early years here, one secretary served two MPs; and there were neither xerox nor fax machines, nor cell phones. Now we wonder how we could ever have done without them. E-mail and computers began to appear in the mid-1980s.

There was also much greater control in those early years of what was sent out under the Parliamentary postal frank. For example, the Clerk of the House, Mr Littlejohn, used to scrutinise each member’s electorate newsletter to ensure that it did not obtain overtly political material !

Now with MMP and the use of party logos on MPs’ communications, it is accepted that the politics can’t be taken out of politics in Parliament.

The history of Parliament records that debate has always been robust and that drama and the chamber go together. In the early days, ministries didn’t last long. Indeed John Martin records that “at each of the five short sessions between 1861 and 1965, a ministry was defeated or resigned”.

The establishment of party politics brought greater stability, but in the end it was the excess of power wielded by majority governments which brought about the demise of the first past the post system. Governments had come to be described as elective dictatorships with public opinion seemingly counting for little in between elections. Popular revulsion against radical reform for which there was no perceived mandate brought about the introduction of MMP.

Now with minority or majority coalition governments as the norm, a great deal of care has to be taken to build majorities around specific legislation and government programmes.

Over 150 years, the New Zealand House of Representatives has developed strong and enduring traditions, but it has also been able to move with the times, by adopting new technologies, and adapting its procedures for the new demands of MMP.

The life of a member of Parliament has gone from being a part time, winter season pursuit, to a demanding profession which consumes all the time a member can give it.

While as a group, Members of Parliament are not rated highly alongside other occupations, the contributions of most as individuals is more readily acknowledged.

What should also be acknowledged is that the Parliament of this small country has chalked up some remarkable achievements.

Legislation passed by this Parliament was world leading with respect to women’s suffrage and representation of indigenous people, workers’ rights, social security, and nuclear disarmament.

May this Parliament continue to serve the public interest by reflecting the people’s will over the next 150 years as it has over its first one and a half centuries.


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