New Parliament - New Challenges

New Zealand Centre for Political Research

The New Zealand Centre for Political Research is a web-based think tank that takes a research-based approach to public policy matters and encourages the free and open debate of political issues. www.nzcpr.com

New Zealand’s 51st Parliament was officially opened last week. Members were sworn in, Select Committees were formed, and the Governor General gave the Speech from the Throne. Then the wrangling began – and it was business as usual for our new Parliament!

The final election result has given us a Parliament of 121 members representing seven political parties, with 64 general electorate members, 7 Maori electorate members, and 50 list members:

  • National gained a total of 1,131,501 party votes (47.04 percent) to win 60 seats – 41 electorate seats and 19 list seats
  • Labour gained 604,535 party votes (25.13 percent) to win 32 seats – 27 electorate & 5 list
  • Greens gained 257,359 party votes (10.70 percent) to win 14 list seats
  • New Zealand First gained 208,300 party votes (8.66 percent) to win 11 list seats
  • Maori Party gained 31,849 party votes (1.32 percent) to win 2 seats – I electorate & 1 list
  • ACT gained 16,689 party votes (0.69 percent) and won 1 electorate seat
  • United Future gained 5,286 party votes (0.22 percent) and won 1 electorate seat

Parliament’s “overhang” of one seat was essentially created by United Future winning an electorate but not enough party votes to gain party representation.

Constitutionally, New Zealand’s Parliament consists of the Sovereign and the House of Representatives. The Governor-General, who represents the Queen, has a range of responsibilities including the opening and dissolving of Parliament – as well as giving the Royal assent to bills passed by the House.

The State Opening of Parliament, which is based on British Westminster tradition, took place last Monday. The Governor General must summon Parliament to meet within six weeks of a general election to test if the new Government has the confidence of the House. Three Royal Commissioners – the Chief Justice and two other senior judges – enter the Chamber of the House on the Governor-General’s behalf to read a proclamation summoning Parliament.

All elected members are required to take an oath of allegiance to the Crown before they can sit or vote in the House. The Clerk of the House, duly authorised by the Governor-General, administers the oath. Members are called in alphabetical order, and must swear an oath or make an affirmation in English or Maori using the words in the Oaths and Declarations Act 1957.

Once the newly elected members are sworn in and a Speaker elected, the membership of the Select Committees can be finalised. Since our Parliament is unicameral with only a single House (the Upper House was dissolved in 1951), select committees – which operate under the authority of the House and are required to report to the House – play a vital role. They enable Members of Parliament to carry out public scrutiny of the Government’s spending plans and the performance of Government departments, Crown entities, and State enterprises. They also provide the all-important opportunity for public involvement in the law-making process.

There are 13 subject-area select committees, with parties broadly represented in proportion to party membership in the House: Commerce; Education and Science; Finance and Expenditure; Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade; Government Administration; Health; Justice and Electoral; Law and Order; Local Government and Environment; Maori Affairs; Primary Production; Social Services; Transport and Industrial Relations.

There are also five specialist committees: Business, Officers of Parliament, Privileges, Regulations Review, and Standing Orders, as well as ad hoc committees that can be appointed for a specific purpose such as a bill or an inquiry.

The Speech from the Throne is delivered by the Governor General – on behalf of the new government – in the Legislative Council Chamber, where the former Upper House used to meet. The Governor-General’s messenger, the Usher of the Black Rod, is sent to the House of Representatives to summon members to attend. The speech sets out the government’s agenda for the next three years.

Once the speech is over, members return to the debating chamber for the 19-hour ‘Address in Reply’ debate, during which new members deliver their maiden statements. While a Government has already been formed, ‘confidence’ in the new Government must be tested in the House through the vote that takes place at the end of this debate – if the Government survives the vote, its right to govern is confirmed until that support is withdrawn or until the electoral cycle again comes to an end.

The Speech from the Throne confirmed National’s focus on returning the country to a surplus, and reducing net core Crown debt to 20 per cent of GDP by 2020. Additional spending of $1 billion will be allocated in each budget, and funding will be set aside for future tax reductions and further debt repayment.

The government’s aim is to build a more productive and competitive economy to generate more jobs and higher incomes. To this end, 350 individual initiatives have been identified in the Business Growth Agenda, including further labour market reform, more overseas trade deals, and an increase in research and development funding – rising to 1 percent of GDP by 2018.

Investment in infrastructure is a high priority for the government. In particular, the Roads of National Significance and Ultra-Fast Broadband are seen as playing a crucial role in improving the opportunity for economic growth, particularly in the regions.

Well-signalled changes to the Resource Management Act will be progressed to balance economic development with environmental protection. Petroleum and mineral exploration will continue to be encouraged to further increase the opportunity for jobs and growth.

The government remains committed to the on-going reform of social welfare, with an emphasis on child poverty and housing.

In the health sector, free doctors’ visits and prescriptions will be extended to all children under 13, there will be improvements to cancer treatment, and an expansion of hospice services.

In education, major initiatives will be introduced to improve teaching quality and school leadership, more support will be provided for special needs students, the Partnership School trial will be expanded, and early childhood education participation rates will be increased.

In law and order, the reduction of family violence and crime will be prioritised, with a strong focus on gangs and gang lifestyles. Every publicly managed prison will become a working prison by 2017.

When it comes to security issues, the Governor General explained:

“Starting next year, New Zealand will take its place on the United Nations Security Council for a two-year term. This will be a challenging time for the Security Council and New Zealand is determined to make a positive contribution and in particular to represent the perspective of small states.

“The Government is committed to a strong security and intelligence community which operates within a clear legal framework and with the security of New Zealanders at its heart. Under legislation passed last year, a review of the intelligence and security agencies, their legislation, and their oversight, will commence by 30 June 2015.

“The Government has already commenced work on a review of settings in relation to foreign terrorist fighters taking part in, or returning from, conflict zones. The rapid rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant poses international, regional and local risks which the Government will respond to in a responsible way.”

Of all the important matters raised in the Governor General’s speech, international events have created a greater urgency around issues of national security. The recent terrorist threats and violence in Canada and Australia, serve as a grim reminder that we too are at risk from radicalised citizens who want to do us harm.

I asked this week’s NZCPR Guest Commentator, Dr Ron Smith, the former Director of International Relations and Security Studies at the University of Waikato, to share his views on the terrorist threat faced by New Zealand. Dr Smith’s excellent article highlights some of the many different international protocols and conventions that guide action in these areas and outlines issues that should be considered in relation to the reform of New Zealand’s security laws:

“There can be few New Zealanders who have been following the news over the last few months, who do not know that there are persons out there, beyond our borders, who mean us ill. They have been variously described as ‘Islamic extremists’, ‘jihadists’, terrorists, ISIS militants, and, in the Middle East, they have been responsible for a positive tsunami of atrocity. Not only have they massacred captives on a large scale and engaged in public beheading of selected western journalists and humanitarian workers, they have made abundantly clear who their enemies are – and it is a long list. As we have seen, it includes (in the region) ethnic and religious groups who do not share their world view:  ancient Christian communities, Turkmen, Kurds, Shiites, Jews, moderate Sunnis. For them, the offer is conform or die.

“We may think we have some obligation to the protection of these persons. We are, after all, members of the United Nations (newly elected to the Security Council, indeed) and we are signatory to the 1948 Genocide Convention and to the statutes of the International Criminal Court. Even if we think we have no obligation of this kind, we need to notice that war has been declared on us anyway. We are infidels and as such we are an obstruction to their plan for a strict universal caliphate. Numerous spokespersons have made this plain. And they have made it quite clear what they intend to do in the furtherance of that aim. As they consolidate their local gains, they plan a world-wide campaign of terrorist atrocity. Substantial evidence of this appeared in Australia a few weeks ago, about the time of our election.

“In New Zealand, Prime Minister Key has announced a modest increase in the threat level in this context from ‘very low’ to ‘low’. This assessment is clearly based on what is known from the public domain, together with intelligence inputs from the same resources and methods as are available to the Australians. We are, after all, in the same ‘five-eyes’ cooperation agreement.  Indeed, it is plausible to suggest that this underlines the value of that long-standing arrangement.”

In his article, Dr Smith points out that to keep New Zealanders safe, a number of law changes will be necessary, including to the Terrorism Suppression Act, to enable the enhanced surveillance of potential perpetrators of atrocities to take place lawfully. There is also the problem of New Zealand citizens wanting to join Islamic extremist causes, who may want to return ‘radicalised’ and intent on committing terrorist acts here. This, of course, occurred in London last year when a British soldier, returning to his barracks from leave, was attacked and hacked to death by returning jihadists.

Without a doubt, these are complex issues – but we know from past problems with our surveillance legislation that urgent changes are needed if our law enforcement authorities are to have the capability to keep New Zealanders safe. Since the Prime Minister has already warned that the number of Kiwis wanting to fight for the Islamic State is greater than we might expect, ensuring robust laws are in place to deal, not only with external terrorist threats, but with internal ones as well, must surely be a key priority for us all.

THIS WEEK’S POLL ASKS:

In principle, do you support New Zealand joining the international effort against the Islamic State?

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