Secret sittings of Parliament
New Zealanders are used to having open access to sittings of the House of Representatives. The House’s rules do allow it to exclude non-members from sittings, but this power is used very rarely. During World War II the public were excluded from 18 secret sessions.
The need for secret sessions became clear soon after the outbreak of war in September 1939, when Opposition members began to raise confidential war matters in the House. The Prime Minister, Peter Fraser, also felt restricted in his ability to keep the House fully aware of developments. Although the House’s use of secret sessions was not without controversy, it allowed members to discuss military matters, such as troop movements, without the risk of sensitive information being passed on to the enemy.
The first secret session was held on 5 June 1940 after considerable planning by Fraser in consultation with the Leader of the Opposition, Sidney Holland. The session began with a non-debatable motion by the Prime Minister calling for the removal of all strangers, at which point the galleries were cleared, members of the press and Hansard staff withdrew, and broadcasting was discontinued. The doors were locked, guards posted, and the roof patrolled regularly for eavesdroppers. It was decided that officials closely engaged with the war effort could attend the sitting, as could members of the Legislative Council. This procedure was followed for all the other secret sessions.
On the Speaker’s authority, a report of each session appeared in Hansard. This record contained a vague outline of proceedings, documenting the items of discussion and the names of those who contributed to the debate. These were the only authorised reports of the sessions. The Parliamentary Secret Session Emergency Regulations of 1940 made it an offence to publish a description of any of the proceedings in a newspaper or any other publication, except for an account authorised by the Speaker.
Secret sittings were conducted in a non-partisan spirit of cooperation and unity. Fraser often complained, however, that the Opposition worked cooperatively with the Government in secret session but criticised it in open session. Although Opposition members appreciated being kept informed, they complained that there were too many of the sessions, resulting in public ignorance of the war situation.
As the war improved for the Allies, the need to hold secret sessions lessened. By August 1945 it was agreed that they were no longer necessary. The regulations were revoked in 1947.