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Oaths Modernisation Bill, first reading

Phil Goff speech: Oaths Modernisation Bill, first reading

Madam Speaker, I move that the Oaths Modernisation Bill be now read a first time.

It is my intention to move that this Bill be referred to the Government Administration Select Committee for consideration.

Members of Parliament, and many other public office holders in New Zealand are required to take an oath that asks them to acknowledge who they undertake to serve or give loyalty to, and to make promises about how they will behave and conduct themselves when performing their duties.

Oaths in New Zealand have not been reviewed for nearly fifty years. Ad hoc amendments to the law applying to oaths over the years have led to the situation where many of the oaths are now outdated, are inconsistent and use language that is old fashioned and difficult to understand. As oaths are a matter of public record it is important that they are easy to understand by everyone, are relevant, and reflect the values and beliefs of all New Zealanders.

Most of the Oaths in New Zealand are set out in the Oaths and Declarations Act 1957. However, several other pieces of legislation also contain rules about particular oaths, such as the Citizenship Act, Constitution Act, Education Act, Police Act, Local Government Act as well as the Summary Proceedings Regulations and the Defence Regulations, all of which are amended through this Bill.

The Bill updates and modernises the language of a range of oaths set out in statute as well as one declaration and the words of affirmation that may be used instead of an oath.

The Bill inserts a new Parliamentary Oath and substitutes modernised forms of the oath of Allegiance, the Judicial Oath, Executive Councillor’s Oath, Parliamentary Under-Secretary’s Oath, the Armed Forces oath, Citizenship Oath, Local Government member’s declaration, Police oath and Special Constable’s Oath. Some people choose to take an affirmation instead of an oath and the Bill amends the Oaths and Declarations Act 1957 to make the wording of written and oral affirmations consistent.

Some oaths are not set out in legislation like the Governor General’s oath, which is set out in the Letters patent. That oath and other non-legislative oaths are being amended separately in line with the changes in this Bill.

The Bill provides Maori language versions of the oaths set out in legislation and ensures that an oath or affirmation given in either English or Maori is acceptable. The Bill also prescribes a Maori language version of the words that an affirmation must begin with.

Setting out Maori language versions of the oaths in the Bill acknowledges the official status of the Maori language. Members in this House can choose to take their oath in Maori, in order to reflect their identity.

The process of modernising and updating the oaths has been achieved by removing archaic language and redundant words or phrases, simplifying the language, removing or replacing words that lack clear meaning and ensure consistency of language where appropriate. Currently, there are particular references and ideas expressed in a variety of ways across different oaths. For example, there are several permutations of the reference to the Sovereign, which the Bill replaces with one consistent reference.

Oaths symbolise tradition, history and continuity, as well as loyalty and commitment. This should not mean that the language and values cannot reflect modern society while still retaining the traditional and historical aspects of the oaths. This Bill does just that. As far as possible, the essential meaning or substance of each oath and the formality and solemnity of the oaths are retained.

An important part of the process of modernising and updating the oaths was to ask the New Zealand public through a discussion document released last year whether they felt the oaths reflected the values and beliefs important to New Zealanders in the 21st century. The views of the public were also sought on whether the language of oaths required modernising and various options for changing, modernising, replacing or removing the oaths under review.

While there was a limited response, there was clear support from the public for retaining the current values and beliefs, particularly loyalty to the Queen, references to religious belief, and promises as to how an office or role should be carried out.

Additional values and beliefs have been incorporated into two oaths. A new Parliamentary oath and a substitute Citizenship Oath will include loyalty to New Zealand, respect for New Zealand’s democratic values and respect for the rights and freedoms of the people of New Zealand.

The new Parliamentary oath better acknowledges the actual role undertaken by members and more accurately reflects that members owe loyalty to New Zealand and that members will respect the rights and freedoms of the people of New Zealand. This change is consistent with the desire expressed by many Members of Parliament over the years that the oath we take should better reflect that we serve the people of New Zealand. The new Parliamentary Oath also includes promises to uphold democratic values that are fundamental to our duties and responsibilities as Members of Parliament.

The same elements that are to be included in the new Parliamentary oath will be incorporated in the Citizenship Oath. This will allow new citizens to better express their loyalty and commitment to their new country.

It is important that the public can have confidence that when those people holding public office take an oath, the principles and expectations that go with the promises being made in the oath are understood by everyone. This can be better achieved if the oaths are easy to understand, use modern day language and reflect the values and principles of New Zealand in the 21st century, all of which this Bill provides for.

I commend this Bill to the House.

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