Wednesday, 21 December 2011 at 11 a.m.
On this occasion the Governor-General comes to Parliament House to tell the members of Parliament the Government’s reasons for bringing Parliament together to meet.
By custom, the Governor-General does not enter the House’s own Chamber (a tradition followed for more than 300 years as a reaction to an occasion when a King of England entered the Chamber of the House of Commons in an attempt to arrest some members of Parliament). The ceremony is therefore held in the Legislative Council Chamber, the chamber in which the upper house used to meet until its abolition on 1 January 1951.
The Governor-General will (after taking his seat on the Throne) send a messenger, known as Black Rod (so called because of the staff which he carries) to the House to summon members to the Council Chamber.
On reaching the House’s Chamber, the door is shut so that Black Rod must knock on the Chamber door. When he has been admitted he gives the House His Excellency’s message and the House, led by the Serjeant-at-Arms (with the Mace) and the Speaker, march in procession to the Council Chamber.
When the members have assembled in the Council Chamber, the Governor-General informs them of the Government’s reasons for calling Parliament to meet at this time. This is known as the Speech from the Throne. The Speech is a statement of the issues that the Government wishes members to consider. It usually contains a reference to important bills that the Government intends to introduce.
At the conclusion of the Speech, His Excellency presents a copy of it to the Speaker and departs. When the Vice-Regal party has left, the members follow the Speaker back to their Chamber in procession to carry on with their business.
When the House resumes, the Speaker reports the Speech from the Throne to the House. Over subsequent days the House will debate the issues set out in the Speech, in the Address in Reply debate.
The opening of New Zealand’s Parliament over the years
The state opening of Parliament, based on British Westminster tradition, provides an impressive ceremony. The precise procedure has remained remarkably similar over the years, reflecting the enduring relationship of the representative assembly to the sovereign monarch. It takes place in the Council Chamber. The Governor-General, as the representative of the sovereign, by long-honoured convention cannot enter the House of Representatives. For much of its history Parliament had a state opening for each annual session that usually ran from June or July to November each year.
It took a little while to put matters in order when Parliament first met in Auckland in May 1854. Some of the newly assembled parliamentarians would have been familiar with the pageantry and ceremony of Parliament back ‘Home’ in England, but obvious elements were missing.
They had to gather in a crude, hastily built and cramped structure more like a barn than the magnificent Palace of Westminster (the British Houses of Parliament). Some were bemused by the fact that the Upper House in which the Governor would deliver the Speech from the Throne was actually downstairs and the Lower House was above. The world seemed topsy-turvy indeed in the Antipodes! And when the Chief Justice wanted to swear in members of the House of Representatives in the Legislative Council Chamber rather than their own chamber the House collectively refused on principle.
But where was Black Rod who should knock on the door of the ‘Commons’ to summon members to the ‘Lords’? There was to be no official Black Rod for 60 years to come. The Governor’s private secretary or Aide-de-Camp filled in. A Serjeant-at-Arms – to bear the mace and precede the Speaker of the House of Representatives into the Council Chamber – was also absent. While the Serjeant-at-Arms was appointed within a few months, New Zealand’s Parliament would not have a mace until 1866.
The acting Governor arrived, was received by a guard of honour and a band playing ‘God Save the Queen’. But in an embarrassing departure from tradition the House of Representatives was not formally summoned to the Legislative Council at all. Instead members of both Houses gathered ‘higgledy piggledy’ in crowded conditions in the Legislative Council Chamber.
No matter – Parliament was underway and members were soon engrossed in the controversy over forming a government and in trying to improve their working conditions.
State openings were to become more impressive and splendid as Parliament settled in. In Auckland the Governor would be received by a guard of honour on the dusty roadway and makings of a lawn outside Parliament House, which was itself set on the fringes of the town. The salute would be fired from nearby Fort Britomart overlooking the harbour. Māori would travel to observe this new Pākehā institution: in 1860 many chiefs witnessed the occasion while in Auckland for the Kohimārama conference close by.
A feature of openings was the display of colourful finery by the assembled ladies and the armed forces – providing a strong contrast with the sombre black of the politicians. The military establishment would attend the ceremony, together with senior naval officers when a ship was in port. Reporters wrote of ‘the glitter of uniforms, scarlet and gold, blue and silver and the ladies’ costumes give glow and colour’. They would describe ‘the rustling of silken attire’ and a chamber ‘covered by crinoline’. Openings were one of the premier fashion events of the year.
Moving to Wellington
Parliament moved to Wellington in 1865. The outdoor ceremony was held on the forecourt adjacent to the main Hill Street entrance. The guard of honour assembled on the Thorndon reclamation, from where the salute would be fired at 2 pm as the flag on the tower of Government House (across the Sydney Street gully) was lowered and the Governor left for Parliament by carriage. The ceremony became the most eagerly awaited public display of the year. ‘Above all it is a free show which almost turns the missing of it into a punishable crime’ said one newspaper.
Sometimes things did not go to plan. Often there were few members in Wellington, what with the difficulties of sea travel. More than once openings had to be delayed until ships conveying members, and in one case the Governor himself, had arrived. One year the band failed to turn up and play the national anthem; and another year the Governor had to walk because the horses jibbed and refused to co-operate. On another occasion the naval aide filling in as Black Rod made a constitutional gaffe. He ‘required’ rather than ‘requested’ the presence of the House of Representatives and forgot the necessary bowing, causing constitutional consternation at least to seasoned newspaper reporters if not members, who were probably just keen to get the ceremony over with! It was not long after that a senior clerk in Parliament took over the ceremonial role.
The weather was often inclement, being the middle of winter. The state opening of 1865 – the first since Parliament shifted permanently to Wellington – took place in extremely wet weather as the Wellington Independent (27 July) described. The Wellington Rifle Volunteers marched up to Parliament absolutely soaked. Just before Governor Sir George Grey left Government House a man in livery at Parliament Buildings ‘rushed out of the door in frantic haste and commenced ringing a large bell … to warn all laggard members to take their places’. As Grey and his retinue emerged swathed in horse-cloaks a bugler sounded a call and the band began to play.
A moveable feast
From the 1870s the ceremony was held in front of the new Legislative Council Chamber at the rear of Parliament Buildings. The salute was now fired from the parliamentary tennis court adjacent to the chamber entrance. A description in the Wellington Independent, 16 June 1870, sets the scene well.
‘A glorious autumn day, the blue waters of Wellington Harbor … flashing and sparkling in the sunshine, and the streets of the Empire City thronged with gaily dressed ladies and spruce cavaliers ... Following the stream, we press onward to the Houses of Parliament [and into the Legislative Council Chamber] full to overflowing with ladies – ladies in every conceivable toilette – ladies a la cavalier – ladies a la militaire – the cry is still they come. The “Lords” are ousted from their pet corners and retire, looking disconsolate, to their seats. Truly it is an exceedingly pretty picture – the bright sunshine streaming in at the windows flecks and bars with ruddy sheen the dresses of the ladies, lighting them up with patches of light and shade, and making them resemble a parterre of flowers. The courteous officials in state attire, bearing white wands in their hands … But hark! the boom of “the red artillery” announces that his Excellency has left Government House, and in a few minutes the familiar strains of the National Anthem proclaim that he is close at hand.’
In the 1890s the outdoor part of the ceremony moved to the front. Premier ‘King Dick’ Seddon had landscaped the grounds and the Governor could enter from Molesworth Street and sweep up to the front of the buildings along the carriage drive. A few years later the grand portico entrance to the spanking new library building provided an impressive backdrop to the ceremony. When most of Parliament Buildings burnt down in December 1907, Parliament moved into Government House across the way and the ceremony took place on the carriageway and porch outside and in the cramped, temporary Legislative Council Chamber, hastily converted from a conservatory, to which few members of the public could be invited.
The modern-day ceremony
When Parliament moved into the new Parliament House from 1918 the ceremony moved to the new forecourt and main steps in front of the buildings. This had much more room for the public to witness proceedings in the spacious grounds. The salute was now fired from the Point Jerningham battery in Oriental Bay as the Governor-General left his new Government House in Newtown for Parliament. Later prominent novelist but then young reporter Iris Wilkinson (Robin Hyde) described the scene in her book Journalese (p. 35).
‘Black Rod, blue-lapelled ushers, clank of swords, the flamingo-coloured plumes of military headgear, the Governor-General entering in state, Her Excellency smiling and be-flowered, in company with the little knot of distinguished guests “on the floor of the House”, as it’s rather quaintly expressed ... It’s nicer to watch, up in the gallery, the strange resurrection of old bonnets, old ostrich plumes, old lace, which existed long before the deluge of modernity.
The procedure in the Council Chamber has remained very much the same over the years, even following the abolition of the Legislative Council itself in 1951. The outdoor part of the ceremony has been revamped from time to time. From the early 1950s until the early 1970s RNZAF jets flew overhead in formation and trumpeters played a fanfare from the balcony overlooking the main steps as the Governor-General arrived.
A bicultural dimension
From 1984 a Māori dimension was introduced alongside the traditional military reception. Other kinds of state occasions had included Maori ceremonial elements in the past. The mana whenua provide a pōwhiri for the Governor-General, comprising a haka or conch-shell welcome and a karanga by the women. Upon the Governor-General leaving there is a waiata. This bicultural approach, drawing upon past traditions and contemporary society, continues today, although a pattern has developed more recently for sessions to last the full term of the Parliament and for state openings to take place only every three years. The state opening of Parliament remains a feature of events in Wellington; a ceremony steeped in tradition and symbolism.