Parliament is where New Zealand’s elected representatives assemble to pass laws, scrutinise the government and approve the money it requires. It is the institution through which democratic government works.
New Zealand’s Parliament evolved from the British parliamentary system. It has existed since 1854, and is one of the oldest continuously functioning parliaments in the world.
Parliament consists of the House of Representatives (an elected assembly of members of Parliament) and the sovereign – since 1952, Queen Elizabeth II. Although the sovereign is the source of all legal executive authority, in practice she or her representative in New Zealand, the governor-general, acts on the advice of the government. The governor-general’s role includes opening and dissolving Parliament, and giving the royal assent to bills passed by the House of Representatives.
In the early 2000s democratic elections under the mixed-member proportional representation (MMP) system return candidates who win the most votes in each local electorate, as well as candidates on party lists. Each elector has two votes: one for a local MP and one for their preferred party. Political parties are represented in Parliament in proportion to their share of party votes, often with a mix of electorate MPs and those selected from lists of candidates prepared by the parties.
In 2020 the parliamentary complex in Wellington consisted of four buildings of different ages: Bowen House on Lambton Quay (which provided additional offices for MPs from the 1980s), the ‘Beehive’ (housing the executive wing, 1970s), Parliament House (1910s) and the Parliamentary Library (1890s). In the early 1990s the older buildings were refurbished and earthquake-strengthened. The aim was to make them an ‘open house’ for the people of New Zealand, and visitor numbers leapt.
Following an election the majority party (with more than half of the MPs) forms a government. If there is no single majority party, parties negotiate to form a coalition or come to an agreement with other parties to create a majority. A government’s usual term of office is three years.
A government must be able to secure the confidence of Parliament by keeping the support of more than half of MPs. In the 19th century governments were made on the floor of the House amid fluid alliances between factions. For much of the 20th century, under the first-past-the-post electoral system, each voter had a single vote for their local MP, and the party that won a majority of seats became the government. Following the introduction of MMP in 1996, no single party commanded a majority in the House until 2020, and governments needed coalition partners or support agreements relating to confidence and supply of public funds. Labour won a majority in the 2020 general election, but chose to give ministerial positions to the Green Party’s co-leaders.
The highest elected office of Parliament is the speaker of the House of Representatives. This is the country’s third-ranked official position, after the governor-general and the prime minister. The speaker is elected by MPs at the start of each new Parliament, to chair meetings of the House, rule on matters of procedure and administer Parliament. Although usually a member of the governing party, the speaker must act fairly to all parties in the House, allow them time to speak in debates, and make decisions impartially.
In the debating chamber of the House, the speaker’s chair is at one end, with MPs’ seats arranged in a horseshoe pattern around a central table. The clerk of the House is the principal permanent officer of the House. A non-political appointee, the clerk advises on parliamentary law and procedure, and sits in front of the speaker.
Parties’ seats are allocated in blocks, with government parties on the speaker’s right and opposition parties on the left. Within each party block, the most highly ranked MPs sit in the front seats (the front benches) and others behind them (the back benches).
Standing orders set out the rules and procedures of the House and its select committees. Precedents for the speaker’s decisions on how standing orders are to be applied are published as speakers’ rulings. An MP who thinks that the standing orders have been breached may raise a point of order, on which the speaker must rule.
Occasionally an MP may vote against the view of their party. This is called ‘crossing the floor’, and can cause shock waves. The 1984 snap election was called after National MP Marilyn Waring told Prime Minister Robert Muldoon that she would no longer vote with the government against opposition-sponsored anti-nuclear legislation.
Parliamentary business, including the sitting programme – the days on which the House will meet during the year – is tightly organised.
An agenda called an order paper is produced for each day that the House sits, usually Tuesday to Thursday. This starts with general business, such as the announcement of petitions, reports from select committee and the introduction of bills, and is followed by question time. It then lists orders of the day, which include debates on bills. Government orders of the day have precedence on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Whips are chosen by each party to organise their MPs. They marshal speakers for debates, keep track of MPs and organise their attendance, and communicate and liaise with other parties.
MPs vote on motions before the House. Voting is often verbal – MPs simply say ‘Aye’ (yes) or ‘No’. If an MP asks for a formal vote, each party will announce the number of its votes for or against. Occasionally, if the speaker decides that the vote is a ‘personal’ one (with each MP allowed to decide on the basis of personal belief), MPs proceed to the Ayes and Noes lobbies outside the debating chamber to record their votes individually.
Parliamentary privilege allows Parliament to operate without interference from outside. It involves both immunities (exemptions from general law) and powers. It includes:
An important function of Parliament is to pass legislation (laws) – indeed, the House of Representatives is often called the legislature. Before it is passed, a piece of legislation is known as a bill. After it is passed it becomes an act of Parliament.
Parliament deals with four kinds of legislation:
To be passed, a bill must be ‘read’ three times in the House. The readings follow the formal introduction of a bill, when it is circulated to the House. Several days must usually elapse before the first reading to give MPs time to consider the measure. Each reading involves debate on the bill. When the debate is completed, the House votes on the bill. This process, which also includes consideration by a select committee, ensures that bills are rigorously examined.
The term ‘reading’ refers to the days when bills were literally read out in the British Parliament.
At the first reading, the MP responsible for the bill gives the reasons for its introduction. Then the various parties state their initial positions on it. At the end of the debate, the House votes on whether to ‘read the bill a first time’ and consider it further. If the majority vote in favour, the bill is sent to a select committee, which examines it, hears public submissions and reports to the House. The select committee may recommend amendments to the bill. The government’s financial legislation and some bills given urgency bypass select committees.
After the select committee has reported, the bill has its second reading. This debate concerns whether Parliament should adopt the bill in principle, and is the main debate on the bill.
If it passes the second-reading vote, the bill is considered by a committee of the whole House. It is assessed in detail – clause by clause or part by part. At this stage, MPs can propose further amendments to the bill. These amendments are often published on a supplementary order paper. The committee of the whole House then votes on whether to amend the bill as proposed.
At the third reading, the bill’s general principles are reviewed again, and MPs may summarise issues raised, particularly during the committee-of-the-whole-House stage. After being read a third time, the bill is passed in the House. The clerk then checks the bill and it is reprinted and taken to the governor-general for royal assent.
Government legislation has dominated business since the early 20th century. In the 19th century members’ bills featured more often. However, since mixed-member proportional representation (MMP) was introduced, members’ bills (which are considered every second Wednesday that the House sits) have become more numerous and had a higher profile. They are often introduced simply to highlight issues. Occasionally they pass in their own right or are adopted by the government. As only a limited number of members’ bills can be dealt with, they are selected by ballot.
Local and private bills are also dealt with on alternate Wednesdays. These bills are infrequent, and those requesting them pay a fee to cover the processing costs.
The government is separate from Parliament constitutionally, but governments depend on Parliament for their hold on power. This system is known as responsible government. The government comprises a prime minister (leader of the government) and ministers in charge of government departments and areas of government policy. The government is drawn from the governing party or parties in the House of Representatives. The government meets weekly in cabinet to make decisions and run the country. It must have the confidence of the House to continue to govern. It is also accountable to the House for its policies.
The government works through Parliament to pass laws supporting its policies. It may levy taxes and spend money, but only with parliamentary authority. Public finance reforms in 1989 and 2004 mean that Parliament authorises not only the spending of public money but also the use to which it is put.
The opposition, which consists of all parties not in government, has the role of holding the government to account. The opposition usually opposes the government’s policies, questions its actions, draws attention to issues, promotes alternative policies and debates proposed legislation.
The speech from the throne, delivered by the governor-general at the state opening of Parliament after a general election, sets the scene for government plans. The address-in-reply debate following this is an opportunity for the House to respond to these plans. At the beginning of each year, the government’s plans are outlined in the prime minister’s statement.
The presentation of the government’s Budget (financial statement of intentions) and the subsequent debate is the main event of the year. There are also debates on other financial business and on bills introduced into the House. Time is allocated for a general debate on Wednesdays, and – when the speaker agrees – for debates on matters of ‘urgent public importance’.
New Zealand’s Hansard was one of the first official independent records of parliamentary debates in the world, predating the UK Parliament’s official Hansard by over 40 years.
Debates are transcribed for an official publication called Hansard (named after an early printer of parliamentary debate transcripts in the United Kingdom). This was established in 1867 to provide an accurate record of speeches in the House. The notes of proceedings of the House are published as the Journals of the House of Representatives.
The opportunity for MPs to ask questions is an important dimension of the accountability of government. Question time became a regular part of daily business in 1962. At the beginning of each sitting day MPs can ask 12 questions (distributed proportionately among the parties) of ministers about their areas of responsibility. Ministers have a few hours to prepare a reply, usually with the assistance of their departments. MPs can follow up with supplementary questions. They also ask many thousands of written questions each year, which ministers must answer in writing within six working days. These are published on the Parliament website.
Debates in the House can involve the trading of brutal, scathing and sometimes witty insults between parties. Former Prime Minister Robert Muldoon once described Labour leader Bill Rowling as ‘a shiver looking for a spine to run down’. When Muldoon was knighted in 1984, Prime Minister David Lange quipped (in reference to Muldoon’s stature) that ‘after a very long year, we’ve got a very short knight’. In the 2000s some memorable witticisms included Deputy Prime Minister Michael Cullen’s remark that New Zealand First Leader Winston Peters was ‘the blowfly of New Zealand politics’, and UnitedFuture leader Peter Dunne’s comment that the Green Party had ‘never yet found a drug they’re not in favour of’.1
Select committees are a prominent feature of New Zealand’s Parliament. Apart from cabinet ministers, all MPs serve on select committees. Ministers attend when committees consider bills they are responsible for, and appear as witnesses in relation to their departmental spending.
The ‘subject’ committees have an important role in legislation, and also examine the policies, administration and expenditure of government agencies. They deal with petitions and examine international treaties, and can initiate inquiries in their areas of responsibility.
Select committees allow all political parties to contribute to the functioning of Parliament. In the absence of a second chamber of Parliament, they are an important method of improving legislation, giving MPs valuable experience and providing scrutiny of government.
There are various ways the public can learn about the work of Parliament and make their views known to MPs.
People can view proceedings in the debating chamber from the public gallery. Until 1945 there was a separate ladies’ gallery. In the 1990s it became common for Māori visitors to sing waiata from the gallery on occasions of significance.
Historically, most people learned about parliamentary matters through newspaper reports. These were written by journalists who viewed proceedings from the press gallery in the chamber. Press gallery journalists still play an important role in reporting on and analysing politicians’ performance.
Because the Labour Party was concerned that major newspapers opposed the party politically, on becoming the government it introduced radio broadcasts of debates in 1936. New Zealand was the first Parliament in the world to provide regular radio coverage. It became a key way for politicians to promote their policies and themselves to the public.
In 1962 the opening of Parliament was televised for the first time, and in 1991 Ruth Richardson’s ‘Mother of all Budgets’ was broadcast live. From 2007 Parliament provided live television coverage of all proceedings in the chamber. This service now includes the simultaneous translation of Māori-language speeches into English.
The Parliament website provides access to parliamentary business including the order paper, questions, Journals, Hansard, select committees, parliamentary papers and live TV coverage. It also provides information about MPs and how Parliament works.
The right to petition Parliament over grievances dates back to medieval Britain, when parliaments petitioned the king on injustices they wanted to correct. Over time, instead of sending petitions, they sent ‘bills’, and from this practice the legislative process developed.
Citizens have the right to petition Parliament on any subject. Petitions were particularly numerous in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In the 21st century petitions are still presented, but it is expected that the Ombudsman and legal remedies for grievances will be tried first. Petitions are referred to a select committee for consideration. The committee may hear submissions and make recommendations to the government on a petition.
Select committees usually advertise for submissions from the public on bills and other matters they consider. Members of the public with views on proposed legislation can make their case in writing or verbally. Committees hear the submissions in public.
Many people and interest groups lobby MPs, trying to persuade them to share their viewpoint. Electorate MPs will often raise local concerns at a national level as well as assisting their constituents with problems. List MPs may perform this function in electorates that the party does not otherwise represent. Some MPs serve a broader constituency such as an ethnic group.
New Zealand became a colony of Britain in 1840, and was initially ruled by governors, who took the advice of local appointed councils but answered to the Colonial Office in Britain.
The New Zealand Constitution Act 1852, passed by the British Parliament, granted the colony representative and responsible self-government. It created a bicameral Parliament: a lower House (the House of Representatives) consisting of elected members, and an upper chamber (the Legislative Council) of members appointed for life. The General Assembly, as it was then called – the House of Representatives and the Legislative Council – first met in 1854.
There were just 37 MPs in the House of Representatives in 1854. This grew to 95 by 1881. Following the economic depression of the 1880s the number of MPs was reduced to 74 in 1890. The Legislative Council began with 11 members, and fluctuated between 35 and 50 members after limits on its size were removed in the 1860s.
New Zealand’s first Parliament met in 1854 in Auckland, which was then the capital. The first Parliament Building was on ‘Constitution Hill’, between Official Bay and Mechanics Bay. It was so plain and lacking in amenities that it was known as the ‘Shedifice’. When the seat of government shifted to Wellington in 1865, so did Parliament. The original Parliament buildings on the present site in Thorndon were added to until most were destroyed by fire in 1907. The present-day Parliament House was then built.
The New zealand Constitution Act also allowed for provincial councils, which exercised some of the powers of government. They made laws for the provinces until 1876, when the provinces were abolished by Parliament.
The Legislative Council was expected to provide an independent check on the legislation of the House of Representatives. It also initiated legislation. Over time, as members were appointed by governments, the council lost its independence, and the House of Representatives gained supremacy.
Unlike other countries, New Zealand had representatives of indigenous people in Parliament from an early date. From 1867 Māori men aged 21 and over, whether or not they owned property, could vote to elect four Māori MPs.
Parliament assisted the Māori MPs by translating relevant proceedings and establishing a select committee for Māori issues. Interpreters were employed until the early 20th century, when it was ruled that Māori should speak in English if they could do so.
At times of uncertain majorities and the formation of new governments, Māori MPs could temporarily play a significant role. Most of the time, however, they were marginalised.
New Zealand was the first country to introduce votes for women. The possibility was discussed in Parliament from the 1870s but was not taken seriously until the Women’s Christian Temperance Union organised in the late 1880s and petitioned Parliament. In the early 1890s many MPs opposed legislation allowing women to vote, including Premier Richard John Seddon. In 1893 a bill went through Parliament after two Legislative Council members unexpectedly gave it their support. Women flocked to the polls at the end of the year and at subsequent elections.
In the 1890s, when the Liberals established the first formal political party, political power shifted from the House of Representatives to elections, parties and leaders. The Reform Party was formed in 1909, and the Labour Party in 1916. The National Party emerged in 1936 from the fusion of Reform and the other main conservative party, United (formerly the Liberals).
In the 20th century, following a transitional period of three-party politics, a two-party political structure existed in New Zealand. The two main parties – National and Labour – developed huge grassroots memberships.
The number of MPs remained at 80 from 1902 until 1966. About 30% were farmers, but the election of a Labour government in 1935 increased the number of trade unionists in Parliament.
From the early 1900s the Young Maori Party MPs had some impact. In the 1930s the Rātana Church entered an alliance with Labour, and by 1943 all the Māori seats were held by Labour MPs who were Rātana members.
Some rituals of Parliament, along with certain positions, have English origins. The serjeant at arms leads the speaker in and out of the debating chamber, carrying the mace, which is a symbol of the speaker’s authority. The equivalent for the Legislative Council was what was then known as the gentleman usher of the black rod (the ceremonial staff of office). In the 21st century the usher of the black rod summons MPs into the governor-general’s presence in the Legislative Council chamber to hear the speech from the throne by knocking three times on the door of the House of Representatives chamber.
Women were not eligible to stand for Parliament until 1919, and it was not until 1933 that the first woman, Elizabeth McCombs, was elected. Mabel Howard became the first female cabinet minister in 1947 and Iriaka Rātana the first Māori woman MP in 1949. However, overall there were very few female MPs before the 1980s.
From the 1890s the government began to exercise greater control over both the business and administration of Parliament. A minister was responsible for Parliament and its expenditure from 1912.
Until after the Second World War, in theory Parliament did not have full legislative powers but had to seek the approval of Britain. In practice, Britain’s role was minimal from the 1890s. In 1947 all restrictions were removed when New Zealand adopted the Statute of Westminster. This had been passed by the British Parliament in 1931, and confirmed that the New Zealand Parliament had full power to make the country’s laws.
From 1892 appointment to the Legislative Council was for a seven-year term, making it easier for governments to control the council. Successive governments ‘stacked’ the Legislative Council with their own appointees. When the Labour government did so in the 1940s, the National Party advocated the abolition of the council. After National came to power in 1949 it made its own appointees, known as the ‘suicide squad’, to the council. This new council accepted a bill passed by the House of Representatives to abolish it. The Legislative Council ceased on 1 January 1951, and Parliament became unicameral (comprising a single House).
During the period of prosperity after the Second World War MPs’ salaries rose. While there were more MPs with professional or business backgrounds, farming remained the most common occupation.
The number of MPs increased from 80 in 1965 to 99 by 1993. Government powers increased at the same time. The actions of successive governments from 1975 to the early 1990s gave rise to public discontent. Many people saw the government as unresponsive to the people, and challenged the domination of big parties.
In 1985 the Labour government reformed Parliament and modernised its procedure. Parliament now sat for longer sessions throughout the year. The Parliamentary Service Act 1985 gave the speaker more power to run Parliament. It also created the Parliamentary Service for administrative support and the Office of the Clerk for procedural and legal advice, and reporting and select-committee assistance. For the first time, MPs received funding for secretaries and offices in their electorates.
A long-standing parliamentary institution, which followed the British tradition, was a catering service for MPs called Bellamy’s. From the earliest days of the New Zealand Parliament, this provided food and – at times controversially – liquor. Entry to Bellamy’s was restricted. Journalist Tom Scott described the bar in the early 1970s: ‘Thin partitions segregated the various castes. At the far end messengers got a bare wooden floor. Next door the press got stained lino. The Members and Guests and Members Only bars graduated to greasy carpet flecked with cigarette burns.’1
From the 1960s select committees began to take a larger role, dealing more with legislation. From the 1970s they became more open to the public and the media, and from 1979 they handled nearly all legislation. In 1985 a new select committee system was created to promote accountability and a greater separation of Parliament from government. Thirteen ‘subject’ committees were created, and ministers were required to appear before relevant committees for their portfolio areas.
Labour appointed a royal commission to consider electoral reform, which in 1986 recommended the mixed-member proportional representation system (MMP). In a 1993 referendum, 53.9% of voters supported the adoption of MMP. Around this time, a number of small parties were formed.
Following the introduction of MMP in 1996, the number of MPs was increased from 99 to 120 (60 general electorate seats, five Māori electorate seats, and 55 party list seats). Parliament’s standing orders were modified to deal with the developing multi-party environment. Speaking time, question time and membership of select committees were allocated to parties according to their proportions in the House.
MMP spelled the end of some long-standing voting practices. Once, all voting was by ‘divisions’ – MPs had to be present in the chamber and went into the Ayes and Noes lobbies to cast their votes. This practice was retained only for personal or conscience votes. Pairing, an arrangement to cancel the vote of one MP from a party if an MP from the opposing party was absent, could no longer work with many parties. It was replaced by proxy voting: MPs could cast a vote even if they were not present in the chamber, enabling them to attend to other business. The speaker’s right to a casting vote (the deciding vote in case of a tied vote) was also dropped.
The traditional annual sessions were replaced by three-year sessions corresponding to the electoral cycle. An annual sitting programme, spread through the year with regular adjournments, was adopted. A business committee with a representative of each party was created to plan the business of the House.
Following the first eight elections held under mixed-member proportional representation (MMP), from 1996 to 2017, no single political party was able to govern alone. Government was by coalition or by minority governments with agreements from minor parties for support on confidence and supply (matters to do with the government’s Budget). After the 2020 election, Labour was able to govern alone but chose to offer ministerial positions to the Green Party’s two co-leaders.
Parliament became more open to the public and more autonomous of the government. A wider range of political parties were represented in the House. Its select committees became more active and provided a forum for MPs and the public to air alternative viewpoints. During the Level 4 phase of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic in 2020, Parliament did not sit, but an Epidemic Response Committee chaired by the Leader of the Opposition and with a majority of opposition members provided a check on the actions of the government.
More diverse social groups and interests were represented in Parliament. The first Pacific Island MP (Taito Phillip Field) was elected in 1993 and the first Asian MP (Pansy Wong) in 1996. Ethnic diversity has increased over time. Eighteen Māori, five Pacific Islanders and two Asian MPs were elected in 2008. In 2020, 21% of MPs identified as Māori, compared to 13% in 1996; 8% of MPs were Pacific Islanders (3% in 1996) and 7% were Asian (1% in 1996).
The number of women in Parliament, which had been rising from the 1980s, settled at a level of about a third of MPs. Women attained many positions of high office. Replacing Jim Bolger in late 1997, Jenny Shipley became the first female prime minister. In 1999 Helen Clark was the first woman to become prime minister following an election. She remained in power until 2008. The first female speaker of the House of Representatives, Margaret Wilson, held office from 2005 to 2008. Following the 2020 election there were 58 women MPs, the highest number and proportion (48.3%) ever; collectively they were 33% of the 175 women ever elected to the House.
Under MMP, the number of Māori electorate seats was determined by the number of Māori who chose to be on the Māori electoral roll rather than the general roll. The number of Māori seats rose to five in 1996, six in 1999 and seven in 2002. Other Māori were elected for general electorates or on party lists. The Māori presence in the House rose to slightly above the proportion of Māori in the population as a whole at the 2008 election. Peter Tapsell was the first Māori speaker of the House, from 1993 to 1996.
In 2004 the Māori Party was formed. It won five seats in 2008 and entered into a confidence and supply agreement with the National-led government formed following that election. It entered into similar agreements after the 2011 and 2014 elections, though holding fewer seats – three in 2011 and two in 2014. No Māori Party MPs were returned in 2017, but two were elected in 2020.
In the late 1990s some MPs changed their party allegiance while in Parliament – a phenomenon described as ‘party-hopping’ or ‘waka-jumping’. The Labour-led government passed legislation in 2001 that required those resigning from their parties to vacate their seats. This legislation expired at the election of 2005, by which time the ‘party-hopping’ epidemic of the previous decade had diminished.
In the 2000s a number of MPs were prosecuted for criminal acts. ACT MP Donna Awatere Huata’s seat was declared vacant in 2004, and she was convicted of fraud in 2005. Labour’s Taito Phillip Field lost his ministerial position in 2005. Defeated in the 2008 election, he was charged with bribery and corruption and convicted in 2009.
Aspects of MPs’ remuneration, such as accommodation allowances and travel, and the parliamentary funding of political parties, have sometimes been controversial. Some argued that an independent body should set and administer MPs’ entitlements. Legislation to this end was introduced in 2002 but not passed. From 2009 information on expenses began to be released, and in 2010 the government expressed support for an independent authority to deal with MPs’ entitlements.
After a period of flux when MMP was introduced, some minor parties struggled to maintain their presence and there was a shift in voter support back towards the two major parties. Despite an expectation that government would be less decisive under MMP, New Zealand adapted well and stable government resulted. However, minority governments have needed the support of other parties for legislation. This has made the legislative process more complicated and has reduced the amount of legislation passed.
McGee, David. Parliamentary practice in New Zealand. 3rd ed. Wellington: Dunmore publications, 2005.
Martin, John E. The House: New Zealand’s House of Representatives, 1854–2004. Palmerston North: Dunmore Press, 2004.
Palmer, Geoffrey, and Matthew Palmer. Bridled power: New Zealand’s constitution and government. 4th ed. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Wilson, Margaret. ‘Reforming Parliament.’ In New Zealand: government and politics, edited by Raymond Miller. 5th ed. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2010.