How Parliament works

People in Parliament

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Office of the Clerk
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Date:
4 August 2006
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Some people have specific duties in Parliament — the Governor-General, the Speaker, the Prime Minister, Ministers and other members with special roles, the Clerk of the House, the Serjeant-at-Arms, and the historical office of Usher of the Black Rod. Their titles and functions are set out here.

Sovereign / Governor-General

The Sovereign, represented in New Zealand by the Governor-General, is an essential part of Parliament and has a formal role. This includes assenting to bills passed in the House of Representatives so that they become Acts of Parliament.

After a general election the Governor-General opens Parliament by delivering the speech from the Throne. The speech from the Throne sets out the Government’s intentions for the coming term of Parliament. The Governor-General also brings a parliamentary term to an end. This is known as ’dissolution’.

The Governor-General has no part in the daily activities of the House of Representatives.

Speaker of the House

The Speaker presides over the House of Representatives. It is the Speaker’s role to apply the rules of the House (Standing Orders), and oversee procedures and the day-to-day operation of the House.

The Speaker:

  • represents the House to the Sovereign and the Governor-General
  • chairs the meetings of the House
  • makes rulings on points of procedure
  • chairs three select committees
  • acts as landlord for Parliament’s buildings
  • represents the House to other Parliaments and organisations.

Deputy and Assistant Speakers

The House appoints a Deputy Speaker from amongst its members. The Deputy Speaker may perform the Speaker’s role when the Speaker is absent.

Up to two Assistant Speakers are also appointed from amongst the members of the House. An Assistant Speaker can preside over the House when the Speaker is not in the Chamber.

The Deputy Speaker, or an Assistant Speaker, chairs committees of the whole House. Committees of the whole House mostly consider bills in detail, part by part.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister is the leader of the Government. This is largely an executive role, separate from Parliament itself.

The Prime Minister’s role in the House is to:

  • account for Government activity by replying to questions directed to the Prime Minister during question time
  • deliver the annual Prime Minister’s statement
  • lead the Government’s contribution to major debates.

Ministers

The Governor-General appoints Ministers of the Crown on the advice of the Prime Minister. Ministers of the Crown are members of the Executive Government and may also be part of Cabinet. Only members of the House of Representatives can become Ministers.

Ministers are each responsible for particular areas of public administration and / or policy, called ministerial portfolios. Ministers are politically accountable to the House for these responsibilities.

A Minister’s role in the House is to:

  • introduce bills to the House that relate to their portfolios and lead debate on those bills through later stages in the House
  • account for Government activity in their portfolios by replying to questions during question time.

Leader of the House

The Leader of the House is the Minister appointed by the Prime Minister to manage Government business in the House.

The Leader of the House:

  • moves motions for the Government that relate to House and committee procedure
  • determines the order of Government business in the House
  • has primary responsibility for the Government’s lawmaking programme.

Leader of the Opposition

The Leader of the Opposition is the member who leads the largest political party that is not part of the Government.

The Leader of the Opposition’s role in the House is to:

  • be the leader of the ‘government-in-waiting’
  • lead opposition responses in major debates.

The Leader of the Opposition sits directly opposite the Prime Minister in the debating chamber.

Whips

Whips are members of Parliament who are organisers and administrators of the members in each of the political parties in the House.

Whips:

  • prepare lists of members from their party to speak in debates
  • make sure that members of their party are in the House when needed
  • negotiate with other whips on House business
  • cast votes on behalf of their parties during a party vote.

All parliamentary political parties have people carrying out the role of whips. The Green Party prefers to call the person a musterer.

Clerk of the House

The Clerk of the House is the principal permanent officer of the House of Representatives. The Clerk is appointed by the Governor-General as an expert in parliamentary law and procedure.

The Clerk:

  • advises the Speaker and members on the rules, practices, and customs of the House
  • records the proceedings and decisions of the House
  • certifies bills ready for Royal assent
  • issues the Order Paper (order of business) for each sitting day
  • administers the oath or affirmation of allegiance for members of Parliament after a general election
  • is chief executive of the Office of the Clerk of the House of Representatives, which provides a secretariat for the House and its committees.

Serjeant-at-Arms

The Serjeant-at-Arms is a permanent officer of the House. The Serjeant-at-Arms is responsible to the Speaker for the maintaining proper standards of behaviour in the galleries and areas around the debating chamber.

At the start of each sitting day the Serjeant-at-Arms, carrying the Mace, precedes the Speaker into the Chamber and announces the Speaker’s arrival.

While the House is sitting, the Serjeant-at-Arms sits by the door of the Chamber.

Usher of the Black Rod

This office derives from the time when New Zealand’s Parliament had both an upper and a lower house. The Usher of the Black Rod then played a role in the upper house similar to that of the Serjeant-at-Arms in the lower house.

The role has been retained in New Zealand to provide the Governor-General with a messenger to communicate with the House on ceremonial occasions.

For example, when the Governor-General summons members of the House for the State opening of Parliament, the Usher of the Black Rod raps three times on the door of the debating chamber. Only then does the Speaker permit entry so that Black Rod can inform members that the Governor-General requests their attendance.

This preserves the convention of the Sovereign being prevented from entering the House — a convention that symbolises the independence of the House of Representatives.