The New Zealand Parliament is the legislative body of the New Zealand government.
Technically, the term "Parliament" encompasses both the monarch and the 120-member House of Representatives, but to most people, "Parliament" refers to the House of Representatives alone. Under the Constitution Act 1986, this usage became formal.
Originally, as specified in the British Parliament's New Zealand Constitution Act 1852, the New Zealand had a bicameral Parliament, with the House of Represenatives acting as the lower house and the Legislative Council acting as the upper house. Since the abolition of the Legislative Council in 1951, however, the Parliament has remained unicameral.
New Zealand essentially follows the Westminster System of government.
Members of Parliament
The House of Representatives takes as its model the British House of Commons. It consists of one hundred and twenty delegates, known as "Members of Parliament" or MPs. Until 1951, they had the title of 'Members of the House of Representatives' or MHRs. Seats in the debating chamber form a horseshoe pattern, with members of the governing party or coalition sitting on one side and members of the opposition sitting opposite. The Speaker of the House of Representatives acts as the presiding officer.
The executive branch of the New Zealand government (the Cabinet) draws its membership exclusively from Parliament, based on which party or parties can claim a majority. The Prime Minister (PM) leads the government: the Governor-General appoints the PM from a party or from a coalition which appears to have enough support in the House to govern. This support is immediately tested through a Motion of Confidence. The current government is a coalition between Labour and the Progressive Party; the Prime Minister is Helen Clark. The Leader of the Opposition is the leader of the largest opposition party. Currently the Leader of the Opposition is Don Brash of the National Party.
For information on current members of Parliament, see 47th New Zealand Parliament.
Election to the New Zealand Parliament is by the MMP electoral system, which provides for proportional representation. The MMP system means that there are usually more than two parties present in Parliament — at present, there are eight. The MMP system replaced the old "First Past the Post" system after a referendum in 1993. The first MMP vote was at the 1996 election.
Under the MMP system, the size of Parliament is capped at 120 MPs. Slightly more than half of these (referred to as 'electorate MPs') are chosen from geographical constituencies on a first-past-the-post basis; the remainder are chosen from closed party lists and are known as 'list MPs'. A candidate may contest an electorate and appear on the party list, only contest an electorate, or only appear on the list; candidates who have won electorate seats are eliminated from party lists before the list MPs are named.
The number of electorate MPs is calculated in three steps. The less populated of New Zealand's two principal islands, the South Island, has a fixed quota of sixteen seats. The number of seats for the North Island and the number of special reserved seats for Maori are then calculated in proportion to these. (The Maori seats have their own special electoral roll; people of Maori descent may opt to enroll either on this roll or on the general roll, and the number of Maori seats is determined with reference to the proportion of adult Maori who opt for the Maori roll.)
The number of electorates is recalculated, and the boundaries of each redrawn so as to make them approximately equal in population within a tolerance of plus or minus 5%, after each quinquennial census. After the 2001 census, there were 7 Maori electorates and 62 general electorates, or 69 electorates in total. There were therefore 51 list MPs. By a quirk of timing, the 2005 election will be the first election since 1990 at which the electorates have not been redrawn since the last election. The next census will be in 2006 and will apply to the 2008 election.
A party is not entitled to any list MPs unless it either wins 5% of the "party vote" (the more important of the two votes in MMP, which determines the overall proportionality of Parliament) or wins at least one electorate seat. The electorate-seat escape clause has twice saved parties from Parliamentary oblivion: New Zealand First in 1999 gained 4.26% of the party vote and five MPs thanks to its leader's razor-thin 63-vote margin in his home electorate of Tauranga, and Jim Anderton's Progressive Coalition (since renamed the less ponderous "Progressive Party") gained two MPs from 1.7% of the vote after its leader comfortably held his electorate of Wigram. In addition, in both 1996 and 1999 the United Party won an electorate, but not enough party votes to entitle it to any additional list MPs.
In the event that a party wins an electorate seat, but not enough party votes to entitle it to a seat in Parliament (less than 0.5% of the party vote), the size of Parliament is increased by the number of these so-called "overhang MPs" until the next election. As of the 2002 election, this has not occurred.
Passage of legislation
The New Zealand Parliament's model for passing Acts of Parliament is similar (but not identical) to that of other Westminster System governments.
Laws are initially proposed to Parliament as bills. They become Acts after being approved three times by Parliamentary votes and then receiving Royal Assent from the Governor-General. The majority of bills are promulgated by the government of the day (that is, the party or parties that have a majority in Parliament). It is rare for government bills to be defeated. It is also possible for individual MPs to promote their own bills (called private members' bills) — these are usually put forward by opposition parties, or by MPs who wish to deal with a matter that parties do not take positions on.
The first stage of the process is the first reading, a vote which occurs after MPs have had time to read and debate a new bill. If a majority of Parliament approves the bill, it is sent to an appropriate Select Committee (see below). This committee will scrutinise the bill, going over it in more detail than can be achieved by the whole membership of Parliament. The committee will then send the bill back to the House, generally making recommendations for amendments. The bill (possibly altered) will then receive its second reading, where MPs debate the principles of the bill. Another vote will be taken, and if Parliament votes to proceed, the bill will then be considered by a "Committee of the House" — this involves Parliament debating and voting on the bill clause by clause. Finally, the bill receives its third reading, which involves a summary of debate and the final vote. If a bill passes its third reading, it is passed on to the Governor-General, who will (assuming constitutional conventions are followed) give it Royal Assent as a matter of course. It then becomes law.
Legislation is scrutinised by Select Committees. The Committees call for submissions from the public, thereby meaning that there is a degree of public consultation before a parliamentary bill proceeds into law. The strengthening of the Committee system was in response to concerns that legislation was being forced through, without receiving due examination and revision. Each Select Committee has a Chairperson and a Deputy Chairperson. MPs may be members of more than one Select Committee. There are 18 Select Committees in the House of Representatives, as follows:
- Education and Science
- Finance and Expenditure
- Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade
- Justice and Electoral Reform
- Law and Order
- Local Government and Environment
- Government Administration
- Maori Affairs
- Officers of Parliament
- Primary Production
- Social Services
- Standing Orders
- Transport and Industrial Relations
Occasionally, a special Select Committee will be created on a temporary basis. An example was the Select Committee established to study the foreshore and seabed bill.
The New Zealand Parliament does not have an upper house — unlike many other legislatures, it is unicameral rather than bicameral. It did, however, have an upper house before 1951 (the Legislative Council), and there have been occasional attempts to create a new one.
Main article: New Zealand Legislative Council.
The Legislative Council was intended to scrutinize and amend bills passed by the House of Representatives, although it could not initiate legislation or amend money bills. Despite occasional proposals for an elected Council, Members of the Legislative Council (MLCs) were appointed by the Governor, generally on the recommendation of the Prime Minister. At first, MLCs were appointed for life, but a term of seven years was introduced in 1891. It was eventually decided that the Council was having no significant impact on New Zealand's legislative process, and it ceased to exist at the beginning of 1951. At the time of its abolition, it had 54 members, including its own Speaker.
The National government of Jim Bolger proposed the establishment of an elected Senate when it came to power in 1990, thereby reinstating a bicameral system, and a Senate Bill was drafted. Senators would be elected by STV, with a number of seats being reserved for Maori, and would have powers similar to those of the old Legislative Council. The House of Representatives would continue to be elected by FPP. The intention was to include a question on a Senate in the second referendum on electoral reform. Voters would be asked, if they did not want a new voting system, whether or not they wanted a Senate. However, following objections from the Labour opposition, which derided it as a red herring, and other supporters of MMP, the Senate question was removed by the Select Committee on Electoral Reform, and the issue has not been pursued since.
Terms of Parliament
Parliament is currently in its forty-seventh term.
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