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.
Seating in the House
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.
Crossing the floor
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:
- absolute freedom of speech in Parliament
- the right not to be detained by civil court processes such as arrest or summonses while the House is sitting
- the power to call people to appear or produce documents before select committees
- the power to punish MPs and others for contempt of the House and to discipline MPs
- the power to control its own proceedings.