New Zealand’s Parliament follows centuries-old traditions from Westminster in Britain — the ‘mother’ of parliaments in the Commonwealth. Explore the intriguing history behind the rituals and culture of Parliament today.
State Opening of Parliament
The State Opening of Parliament exemplifies the British influence on our parliamentary traditions. An impressive, formal ceremony, the Opening has changed remarkably little over time. Before the 1990s, it took place each year but now generally occurs once every 3 years, for each new Parliament. Since 1984, it has included a pōwhiri (Māori welcome).
Serjeant-at-Arms and Mace
In medieval England, the Serjeant-at-Arms was the King’s bodyguard and carried a Mace — a lethal club. As power shifted to Parliament, the position (and club) came to symbolise the authority of the House of Representatives.
In New Zealand today, the Serjeant-at-Arms carries the Mace (now an ornate gilded silver staff) into the debating chamber and keeps order there.
In Britain, the Usher of the Black Rod was the Upper House equivalent of the Serjeant-at-Arms. This ceremonial position was named after the symbol of office — an ebony (black) rod.
New Zealand’s Legislative Council (Upper House) lacked an official Usher of the Black Rod for 60 years. The position was finally recognised in 1914. In 1931, the Governor-General presented a handsome ebony rod to Parliament. Though the Council was abolished in 1951, the position of Usher of the Black Rod remains.
Until quite recently, Parliament was like an exclusive ‘gentlemen’s club’ for politicking — and socialising. Popular pastimes included drinking, smoking, sports, and games.
Socialising continues to be a big part of politics, but Parliament’s culture has changed, especially because there are now more women members.
New Zealand’s Parliament is one of the oldest continuously functioning parliaments in the world. It celebrates its anniversaries in style — 100 years since the first sitting, 100 years since moving to Wellington, 100 years since women got the vote, and 150 years of Parliament in New Zealand.