Dr Liz Gordon: Reform Parliament now!


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But really, we are getting towards a quarter of the way into the 21st century, and it is well beyond time to ditch the outdated ceremonies of the British colonists, and settle on an approach that more effectively meets our needs.

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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.


  1. Liz, the discrediting of the necktie by associating it with English boarding schools is pushing it a bit – even if clobbering anything perceived as English is now a way to butter up people. I’ve always thought of the tie as quintessentially French, but gather that the Parisian tie was actually a little later on the scene than it’s appearance elsewhere on the continent.

    It had various practical purposes, including ties designed to help soldiers hold their heads up – nothing wrong with a head-held-up man; ties/cravats to gather perspiration – not everyone likes a sweaty man, especially in the workplace; it evolved into something decorative, with variations to enable people like Peter Dunne to show how they differ from other men, and to stop pathologists’ decoration from being tipped in deceased blood.
    Donald Trump apparently wears extra long ties, perhaps to suggest you-know-what.

    Some ties are earned eg New Zealand Alpine Club ties, where membership of that club requires a specific track record. I was with colleagues in London wearing their NZAC ties when a supercilious female from the Royal Marsden Hospital, queried the origin of the men’s ties, then exclaimed, “ How could a country like New Zealand possibly have alps?” Ignorant Pom.

    Nowadays men wear the things not just as identifiers, but for decorative purposes. Given the number of badly behaved men all over the place, I say make all the buggers wear them, and maybe microchip them as well.
    And let them keep their wee opportunity to be decorative, or worse could occur.

    A manager from the MSD’s Specialist Services Dept in Wellington told me that their male tie requirement
    was part of getting men to dress reasonably when coming to work: some used to turn up in t shirts and jandals. Jandals in enclosed spaces can be a bit rough with smelly feet factored in, but I daresay socks with sandals would suit the Greens. Casual Friday in some Government Depts can descend into some waddling around the workplace barefooted, and not everyone likes the look of other people’s feet.Especially big naked male feet.

    Let them take off their ties, and anything could be unleashed. Segueing tielessness into leading to a reform of
    Parliamentary practices or behaviour may be unrealistic. Parliamentary proceedings being televised has forced some to up their game, and to be more devious in concealing their smart phone distractions, and whatever else they do with their heads bent down like humble monks.

    Good old James, coming up with a trivial diversion when there are massively important issues impacting on
    people, all sorts of people under pressure, today, and every day for the foreseeable future. Shame if it’s now becoming yet another race issue, we really do not need that either.

    • Well maybe Parliament can rush a Bill through under urgency applicable just to James, and stop him wasting time. Ties are in fact, very important to some males. My bro could spend fifteen minutes selecting one in the morning. Sort of. When my husband played up, I took a tie from his wardrobe and chopped the end off. In time this evolved into taking the whole tie, and popping it in the litter bin outside the corner dairy. I was never a violent person, so to speak.

      The Crown Prince of Denmark does look good without a tie; those Mediterranean males substituting a gold chain, not quite so good; freedom of the neck for Parliamentary males could disturb the equilibrium, and without a tie to chop, mean girls could go straight for the jugular – and dads get nothing but socks for Christmas forevermore. But it’s up to them. And James. Trev.

  2. Absolutely. Start from scratch.

    In the meantime, make this simple change. Seat MPs randomly in the house (a new allocation every three months) not in these silly blocs. That simple move would start to break down the adversarial ethos of the place and cost almost nothing to implement.

  3. My dad was a hat wearer and he he always removed his hat when he entered a building.
    I do not think that it is respectful to be wearing a hat in Parliament.
    i also think that past or present respect is important and the Maori Party interlude was a testosterone motivated performance to gain attention.
    The real work of Parliament starts with respect and the Government has much diversity which is a good start.

    • Hey Dotti – My dad was a hat wearer too, essential head gear biking to work under the freezing shadows of the Alps. And yes, they were nice little symbols of respect too – real men would doff them as a courtesy to women – Mr McGlinchy fell off his bicycle in the process of doffing his hat to my grandmother. I’d like to know where they put them when entering churches – and I have yet to have a bloke take off his beanie to me. This could be something up James’s alley when he gets the issue of the ties sorted.

      They (hats) were also handy for concealing bald heads, but nowadays the shaved gleaming pate seems to be some sort of symbol of masculinity – as is shaving chests and legs, for those who have the time to do so.

    • “ Performance to gain attention ? “ That ‘s ok. It worked – it’s not like they threw Molotov cocktails or used
      rude words.

      James’s removal of the tie was likely an attention seeker too – any publicity is welcome to a pollie. Mabel Howard brandished ladies’ bloomers in Parliament to show how discrepancies in sizing impacted upon women – the effect of that may be better left unsaid – poor chappies – but she had a point – and that was prior to buying online from China and discovering what misfits western femmes may be. There could be more to James’s tie aversion than meets the eye – there often is with married men – but I wouldn’t dwell on it on a lovely summer’s day…

  4. Ties will fade away of their own accord.

    There are fewer and fewer New Zealand men capable of tying one.

    I suspect that lace-up shoes will be next on the list.

  5. Ah God dang it to Hell!
    I was outside happily sanding a door but I was drawn in by my bile after reading this earlier.
    RNZ. Mouth peace to the U$A riche, soulless and shiny.
    “US billionaire increases share in Weta Digital ownership”
    Doesn’t it strike you as a little odd that Stuff raises cloaking racist dust just as another riche yank comes here with his little dick out? ( As a fellow who’s been around I know, the bigger the fortune, the smaller the diddle.)
    How is it that a fucker like sean parker a 39-year-old yank and ex zuckerberg play mate estimated to be worth about US$2.7 billion can come here and buy our subservience as if he already assumes we’re his bitches? ! ! ! ! ! !! ??? After jonky/warner bros and sir pete jandles-man jackson I guess I can hardly blame him.
    God man, it makes me quite petulant.
    peter theil of pay pal and now this shiny little dollar strumpet.
    Anyone might assume that the Stuff storm raging in the royal dalton tea cup was as a diversionary tactic foisted on us by our own now no doubt american owned media to distract us while rich fucking yanks buy up our stuff and things.
    @ Maori. No disrespect intended.

    • Sanding a door is a great activity for reducing tension and contemplating the world. Go do some more sanding, Countryboy. Get those doors real smooth, ‘cos what else can ya do?

  6. Te Maori Parti, had its first run at asking a question today in the house, only to be interrupted by the speaker, if its a question,make it a question, if its a point of order, not start with the Maori Party.
    Surprised myself, to hear that the Maori Party, have given their right of supplementary questions to the A.C.T. Party weird.


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