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’.
Setting a record
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. 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 after losing office earlier in the year, 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.