I watched the opening of Parliament on TV, and then listened to the Māori party co-leaders discuss how their concerns were not dealt with effectively. I noticed there was a significant amount of quite patronising racism in the response to the co-leaders, which is pretty typical. Whenever Māori speak up from their cultural perspective, there is an unfortunate tendency to label them as ignorant, or troublemakers, or not understanding protocol or blah blah blah.
The reality is that Parliament is long overdue for some significant reform to reflect the needs and situation of an increasingly diverse New Zealand. Everyone should have been reminded of this when NZ’s ‘Black Rod’ banged on the door seeking entry. Why does this happen? Because in 1642 King Charles 1 sought to arrest 5 members of the British Parliament. So the sovereign’s representative is now required to bang three times on the door seeking entry, at the other end of the world.
Similarly, the Speaker of the House is required to feign reluctance to take on the role. Why is this? Because, the Speaker of the British Parliament was often required, in times past, to take messages between the sovereign and the Parliament. When the messages were unwelcome, the job could become quite chancy from a health and safety viewpoint, with the odd smattering of torture and summary incarceration.
I am not opposed to a bit of pageantry, a bit of dressing up and play-acting, a nice dramatic turn. Outside of the Marae, New Zealand has very little of this, and I would like to see more, not less.
But really, we are getting towards a quarter of the way into the 21st century, and it is well beyond time to ditch the outdated ceremonies of the British colonists, and settle on an approach that more effectively meets our needs.
James Shaw raised the question of the compulsory wearing of ties in the House. This opens up the issue of dress codes per se. Does our Parliament need to be so uniform, like an English boarding school? Could our men wear a wider range of dress options? Could we dress a little more diversely? Of course we could!
All of this is merely throat clearing for the bigger question: is our Parliament fit for purpose? While the focus is on debates and the words in Hansard, most of the work goes on behind the scenes, in Select Committees and the like.
For Ministers, most of the policy work is dealt with in Cabinet meetings under conditions of significant secrecy. The New Zealand public is not supposed to know about the content of these deliberations, just the outcomes. Not very inclusive is it? Such a model might be forced on government’s under an adversarial system, but this is not the only way to organise the political world.
While the debating chamber is crucial for law-making, the set-piece debates are dull and formalistic. There is virtually no scope for authentic interventions of the kind that the Māori Party MPs attempted to achieve. In the MMP Parliament, every speaking moment is shared out between parties based on their numbers, like a giant cake cut unevenly to reflect the size of the recipient.
The only real opportunities for discussion about what is on MPs minds are Parliamentary Questions and Private Members Bills. The former are completely captured by the oppositional political process. The rules of PQs are (a) you must already know the answer to the question you are asking, and (b) your role is to either embarrass the government or be its patsy, helping extol the virtues of a ministerial announcement, or sometimes to counter-attack the opposition.
As we have seen with the End of Life Bill, Private Members bills can be powerful and lead to change. Most end up in the graveyard of disappointment, however. Many are simply political acts to highlight work that the government is not achieving.
There is a small amount of opportunity for MPs to have their say, most poignantly in the ‘personal statement’. These are highly bound by rules (as one might imagine) and usually seek to mitigate some recent behaviour. They usually, but not always, herald the end of a career.
It has been a long time since fundamental questions have been asked about how our Parliament runs. Is it fit for purpose in the modern age? Does it truly reflect a contest of ideas, or is it just a formalised testosterone fest for personal and political dominance? Can the diversity of Parliament truly be reflected in the approach to the work that is done therein?
What might a parliament look like if we designed it today, rather than back then? Would ‘Standing Orders,’ that regulate every aspect of what goes on, look the same if we started from scratch?
Finally, can that fractious and divided institution even agree on whether tie-wearing should be compulsory, let alone some fundamental reforms to ensure its own relevance for the future?
Dr Liz Gordon is a researcher and a barrister, with interests in destroying neo-liberalism in all its forms and moving towards a socially just society. She usually blogs on justice, social welfare and education topics.