Parliamentary procedure - over 150 years of change
People might think that the New Zealand Parliament’s procedure has always been the same, but there have been plenty of changes in its more than 150 years.
Question time in the House took its present form only relatively recently.
The present-day powers of select committees are quite new, as is public access to select committee hearings.
Sittings of the House are much shorter than they used to be. In the days before urgency and closure, all-night sittings were common. Before time limits on speeches were introduced members of Parliament could speak for as long as they could last (provided they could keep going without notes as they could not read their speeches).
Going into the ‘division’ lobbies to vote is a rare exercise these days as whips give the numbers in the House.
A range of archaic practices, inherited from the Westminster system, have been eliminated. For example, MPs no longer have to be seated and put on hats to raise a point of order when a vote is taken.
Many of these changes are described in two recently published articles by the Parliamentary Historian, Dr John E Martin, now available on Parliament’s website (see related documents on this page).
The first article, ‘From talking shop to party government’ covers the 19th century.
It sets out the early Standing Orders and traces the influence of Westminster on procedure. How procedure developed as Government business increasingly took precedence over that of private members is examined. It looks at the development of ‘private’ and ‘local’ bills, the increasing prominence of Government business, and the rise of Opposition obstruction to Government business by lengthy stonewalling. In 1894 the Liberal Government limited the impact of obstruction by introducing time limits on speeches for the first time, providing greater disciplinary powers over MPs and preventing new business being taken after midnight.
The second article, ‘From legislative machine to representative forum?’ takes procedural developments into the 20th century and up to the more recent changes associated with MMP.
Political party organisation strengthened and Government business took an increasingly central place; the role of private members withered. Urgency emerged in the early years of the new century. Closure of debate, which had been discussed since the 1880s, was finally introduced in 1931. From the 1960s Parliament’s scrutiny role was enhanced with a daily question time and increased select committee powers. The reforms of the 1980s and 1990s further strengthened Parliament’s role. Select committees were reorganised, members’ bills made a reappearance and Parliament acquired stronger scrutiny powers over finance.
Further information can be found in The House: New Zealand’s House of Representatives, 1854-2004, John E Martin, published in 2004.
For parliamentary procedure today, see Parliamentary Practice in New Zealand, David McGee, third edition (2005).