How Parliament works

Parliamentary Practice in New Zealand

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Office of the Clerk
14 October 2010
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Chapter 4 Speaker of the House of Representatives

The Speaker

The Speaker of the House of Representatives is the highest officer elected by the House. Since the revision of the Order of Precedence in New Zealand in 1974, the Speaker is third in precedence, after only the Governor-General and the Prime Minister [1]   (who is appointed to office by the Crown not by the House). On being confirmed in office, the person who is Speaker assumes the title “Honourable” (Hon) ex officio. During the course of this book there are a great many references to specific powers and duties of the Speaker. The purpose of this chapter is to deal with the Speaker’s role from a general point of view.

Duties of the Speaker

The first task of the members of a newly elected Parliament, when they assemble for the first time following the general election, is to elect one of their number to preside over them. [2]   The person so elected represents and embodies the House in its relations with the Crown. Indeed, this is the reason for the title of “Speaker”: the need for the amorphous mass of commoners who came to Parliament to have one person who could report their opinions to the King and the Lords – who could speak for them. The Speaker was the House’s orator. In New Zealand, the Speaker still performs this formal representative function by, on behalf of the House, laying claim before the Governor-General to the House’s privileges, and by leading the members of the House into the Governor-General’s presence at the commencement of each session to hear the Governor-General deliver the Speech from the Throne giving reasons for the summoning of Parliament. The Speaker also presents to the Crown addresses that are adopted by the House, and reads messages from the Crown to the House.

The Speaker is chairperson of the Parliamentary Service Commission and has principal political responsibility for the services and facilities provided to members of Parliament. (See Chapter 3.) Many of the House’s contacts with overseas parliaments are carried on by, or in the name of, the Speaker who is president, ex officio, of the New Zealand branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and the New Zealand group of the Inter-Parliamentary Union. The Speaker announces the presence of parliamentary delegations or other distinguished visitors to the House. The Speaker also makes other formal communications to the House; for example, presenting reports to Parliament made by the officers of Parliament, and announcing and presenting any citizens’-initiated referendum petition that has been signed by at least 10 percent of registered electors. [3]   The Speaker determines which portions of the proceedings of the House are to be reported in Hansard and in what form and under what conditions the report is made. [4]   The Speaker is occasionally called upon to execute orders of the House. [5]   The Speaker also has a number of statutory duties to perform in the case of vacancies in membership of the House [6]   and the granting of exemptions to members of Parliament from attending court proceedings. [7]   The courts are enjoined to take judicial notice of the Speaker’s signature on any document issued under the Speaker’s statutory or Standing Orders powers. [8]  

However, the chief duty of the Speaker is to chair the House, presiding over its deliberations, keeping order and determining points of procedure.

Speaker’s position

The Speaker in New Zealand does not sever all links with a political party, as does the Speaker of the House of Commons. Nor is the Speaker guaranteed any continuity of office over more than one Parliament. There is no tradition of re-electing the member who served as Speaker in the preceding Parliament even if the Government changes following a general election as there is, for instance, in the United Kingdom. With two exceptions, throughout the course of the twentieth century all Speakers came from the governing, or a governing, party. [9]   The member who is elected Speaker does not thereby become a non-party member of Parliament. However, the Speaker does not play a politically partisan role and exercises restraint in the speeches or comments he or she makes outside the House. [10]   The Speaker must be prepared to assert an independence from the Government so as to ensure that the rights of all sides of the House are protected in the course of the parliamentary process. [11]  

Whether the Speaker attends weekly party caucus meetings held while the House is sitting is a matter for the Speaker to decide. Practice has differed between Speakers of different parties and between Speakers of the same party. Speakers from the National party have generally not attended caucus. [12]   On the other hand, Labour Speakers until recent years did attend caucus. [13]   However, since 1984 most Labour Speakers have not attended caucus during sitting weeks.

The Speaker’s vote is included in any party vote cast and the Speaker votes in a personal vote, though without going into the lobbies personally – the Speaker’s vote is communicated to the teller from the Speaker’s chair. As its presiding officer, the Speaker never participates in debate in the House. When the Speaker has charge of a local or private bill, another member moves the stages of the bill on the Speaker’s behalf. [14]   The Speaker may speak and vote in a committee of the whole House. Nowadays the right to speak in committee is usually exercised only when changes to the Standing Orders are under consideration or the Speaker is answering questions on the estimates of an office for which the Speaker is responsible. The Speaker may, and indeed often does, serve on select committees, such as the Officers of Parliament Committee and the Standing Orders Committee, but it would not be in keeping with the position for the Speaker to serve on a committee considering a party-politically contentious matter. Where the Speaker does chair a committee written questions relating to matters for which the Speaker has responsibility in that capacity, may be lodged. [15]  

The Speaker’s exalted position and the restraints it imposes as a consequence require members to treat the Speaker or any other temporary occupant of the Speaker’s chair with respect and deference. Members are obliged to make an acknowledgment to the chair when entering or leaving the Chamber, or when crossing the floor of the House (except while voting). [16]   The office of Speaker cannot be introduced into debate by members quoting the Speaker’s views or otherwise referring to the Speaker during the course of a speech. [17]   Nor can the Speaker be attacked, except by a direct motion of censure of which notice has been given. [18]   Any statement in the House reflecting on the Speaker either directly or indirectly is out of order; a suggestion of partiality on the part of the Speaker or any other occupant of the chair may constitute a contempt of the House. [19]   Accusations against the Speaker that reflect on the Speaker in that capacity or in respect of an office held by the Speaker ex officio (such as chairperson of the Parliamentary Service Commission) may also constitute a contempt. [20]  

The procession between the Speaker’s office and the Chamber at the commencement and conclusion of each sitting is a regular feature of each parliamentary day, with the Speaker being preceded by the Speaker’s assistant and the Serjeant-at-Arms carrying the Mace. The Speaker’s route to and from the Chamber is blocked off by messengers to allow unimpeded passage while the procession passes along it. [21]   The Speaker enters and leaves the Chamber via the Speaker’s door to the left of the chair.

The Speaker may wear a full judge’s wig, gown and tabs on formal occasions. This is a matter for the individual discretion of the occupant of the office. At the regular sittings of the House, the Speaker is less formally attired in a gown over ordinary clothing.

Administrative duties

As well as presiding over the House and chairing some select committees, the Speaker has a number of administrative duties.

The control and administration of the parliamentary precincts is vested in the Speaker on behalf of the House, whether Parliament is in session or not. [22]   The Speaker may issue trespass notices relating to the parliamentary precincts and delegate the power to do so to other persons. [23]   The Speaker has entered into a protocol with the Commissioner of Police regulating the exercise of police powers in the Parliament buildings and grounds. [24]  

The Speaker is deemed to be the “responsible Minister” for a number of offices of state. These are: the office of the Auditor-General; the Office of the Clerk of the House of Representatives; the Office of the Ombudsmen; the office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment; and the Parliamentary Service. [25]   During the House’s consideration in committee of the estimates of these offices, the Speaker occupies the Minister’s seat at the Table on the right of the chairperson, answering questions raised by members. The Speaker also attends the estimates hearings on the votes for these offices if requested by the select committee concerned. The Speaker’s role in respect of each of these offices varies, with greater involvement in the administration of the Parliamentary Service than in that of the others.

The Speaker chairs, ex officio, the Parliamentary Service Commission, [26]   a statutory committee of members which advises the Speaker on the nature of the services to be provided to members of Parliament. The commission meets approximately once each month. The Speaker determines the services to be provided by the Parliamentary Service [27]   and the travel, accommodation, attendance and communication services available to members. [28]   The administrative head of the Parliamentary Service, the General Manager, is directly responsible to the Speaker in carrying out his or her responsibilities. [29]  

The Clerk of the House, as the principal officer of the Office of the Clerk, is directly responsible to the Speaker for the management of that Office. [30]   The Controller and Auditor-General, the Chief Ombudsman and the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment also have a direct relationship with the Speaker concerning the management of their offices (known as offices of Parliament). However, in the case of the offices of Parliament and the Office of the Clerk, the Speaker does not control the discharge of the substantive duties carried out by the chief officers of those agencies. The Speaker’s role is confined to the administration and expenditure of the offices concerned, not their professional and statutory duties, for which they are responsible to the House as a whole.

In respect of the Speaker’s administrative responsibilities, the Speaker may be asked written questions. [31]   But a point of order cannot be raised relating to the Speaker’s administrative duties. A point of order must relate to a matter of order in the House and not, for example, to the administration of the building [32]   or correspondence with the Speaker as chairperson of the Parliamentary Service Commission. [33]  

Term of office

The Speaker assumes office on being confirmed by the Governor-General following the House’s choice of Speaker being reported to His Excellency or Her Excellency. [34]   (See Chapter 12 for the election of a Speaker.) The Speaker remains in office until the close of polling day at the next general election unless, by death or resignation, the office is vacated sooner. [35]   The Speaker continues to hold office as chairperson of the Parliamentary Service Commission and continues to exercise the duties as the responsible Minister of the Office of the Clerk, the Parliamentary Service and the offices of Parliament until the new Parliament first meets. [36]   The salary and allowances of the Speaker also continue to be paid until this time. [37]  

Deputy Speaker

The Speaker’s principal deputy is the Deputy Speaker. The first appointment of a Deputy Speaker by the House was made on 10 November 1992. [38]   Until that time the House had, at the commencement of each Parliament, appointed a Chairman of Committees whose chief duty was to chair the committee of the whole House. When, at the Speaker’s request or in the Speaker’s absence, the Chairman of Committees assumed the Speaker’s chair, the Chairman was known as the Deputy Speaker, but only for the period that he or she was actually chairing the House.

In 1992 this position was effectively reversed. The House now, by resolution, appoints a member to be Deputy Speaker. [39]   The Deputy Speaker is a full deputy of the Speaker for all the purposes of the Standing Orders, whether actually presiding over the House or not. Thus the Speaker’s Standing Orders’ powers can be exercised by the Deputy Speaker during an adjournment of the House or a recess of Parliament. [40]   The Deputy Speaker may also act for the Speaker in respect of the filling of any electoral vacancies that arise. [41]   When the House goes into committee, the Deputy Speaker takes the chair as chairperson.

The appointment of the Deputy Speaker is usually made on the day of the State Opening of Parliament after the House has returned to its Chamber following the delivery of the Speech from the Throne. [42]   For this purpose a notice of motion must be given on the previous sitting day and appear on the order paper. A party leader or a whip may not be appointed as Deputy Speaker. [43]   The appointment of a Deputy Speaker may be for a fixed period and a Deputy Speaker may be removed from office by resolution of the House. Otherwise the appointment continues until the dissolution or expiration of Parliament. [44]   The Deputy Speaker’s salary and allowances continue to be payable until the first meeting of the new Parliament. [45]   A vacancy in the office of Deputy Speaker is filled in the same manner as the initial appointment, that is, by resolution on notice. [46]  

Whenever the Speaker is absent at the commencement of a sitting, the Deputy Speaker takes the chair without the need for any formal communication to the House. [47]   Similarly, during the course of a sitting the Speaker and the Deputy Speaker share the task of presiding over the House. The Speaker has deliberately vacated the chair to allow the Deputy Speaker to rule on a matter in which the Speaker or the Speaker’s electorate had an interest. [48]   In the absence of the Speaker, the Deputy Speaker chairs the Parliamentary Service Commission. [49]   Where there is a vacancy in the office of Speaker, the Deputy Speaker may exercise the statutory powers of the Speaker in regard to the parliamentary precincts, the Parliamentary Service and the Office of the Clerk. [50]  

Assistant Speakers

Up to two members may be appointed by resolution of the House as Assistant Speakers. [51]   These appointments may be made on the day of the State Opening of Parliament after that of the Deputy Speaker. [52]   A party leader or a whip may not be an Assistant Speaker. [53]   Often one of the Assistant Speakers is a member of an opposition party.

Assistant Speakers are deputies of the Speaker only in respect of the sittings of the House while they are actually presiding. [54]   They cannot exercise the Speaker’s statutory powers or any powers outside the House, though they may represent the Speaker on formal occasions such as receiving foreign dignitaries. Assistant Speakers hold office for the period named in the resolution appointing them or until the dissolution or expiration of Parliament, unless they are sooner removed from office by resolution of the House. [55]   In the case of a vacancy (that is, if there are fewer than two Assistant Speakers at any one time), the House may appoint a new Assistant Speaker by resolution. [56]   A special salary has been provided for Assistant Speakers since 1996. [57]   This ceases on the dissolution or expiration of Parliament.

If the Speaker and the Deputy Speaker are absent at the commencement of a sitting, an Assistant Speaker may take the Chair. [58]   During the course of a sitting, the Speaker, the Deputy Speaker and the Assistant Speakers share the task of presiding over the House between them.

Temporary Speakers

Any presiding officer may during the course of the sitting ask another member to preside over the House as temporary Speaker. This is done without any formal communication to the House and the temporary Speaker merely replaces the Speaker or other presiding officer in the Chair. [59]   A temporary Speaker performs the duties and exercises the authority of the Speaker over the House while presiding, [60]   except that a temporary Speaker cannot accept a closure motion. [61]   A temporary Speaker cannot assume the chair at the commencement of a sitting or on the House resuming sitting following a report from the committee of the whole House. [62]  

Position of Members deputising for Speaker

While presiding over the House, the Deputy Speaker, an Assistant Speaker or a temporary Speaker is the Speaker and there can be no challenge to the validity or effectiveness of a decision taken by the House in the Speaker’s absence. Likewise, a decision of a member deputising for the Speaker cannot be appealed to the Speaker. [63]   When ruling on a matter arising in the House, a Deputy Speaker’s, an Assistant Speaker’s or a temporary Speaker’s ruling is equivalent to that of the Speaker. [64]  

The Deputy Speaker and the Assistant Speakers do participate in debates in the House, though less frequently than other members. It is a matter for their judgment as to which debates to take part in. [65]   But it is the practice for a presiding officer not to speak in a debate over which that officer has been officiating. [66]   It would be improper for a member when speaking in a debate to refer to his or her status as a presiding officer. [67]   It would also be improper for other members to do so by way of debate.


  1. New Zealand Gazette, 10 January 1974, p.5.   [back]
  2. Constitution Act 1986, s.12.   [back]
  3. Citizens Initiated Referenda Act 1993, s.21.   [back]
  4. S.O.9; see, for example, 2002, Vol.602, p.54.   [back]
  5. 1981, JHR, p.40 (House’s views on the 1981 Springbok tour to be communicated to the New Zealand Rugby Football Union).   [back]
  6. Electoral Act 1993, ss.129 and 134.   [back]
  7. Legislature Act 1908, ss.261 and 263.   [back]
  8. Evidence Amendment Act 1945, s.11A.   [back]
  9. Speaker Statham from 1923 to 1935 was, at the time of his first election, an independent, “though with some pro-government leanings” (see Scott, The New Zealand Constitution, pp.59-60); Speaker Tapsell from 1993 to 1996 was a member of the opposition Labour party.   [back]
  10. 1982, Vol.448, p.4918.   [back]
  11. See, for example, 1995, Vol.548, pp.7863-4.   [back]
  12. Freer, A Lifetime in Politics, p.144.   [back]
  13. Martin, The House – New Zealand’s House of Representatives 1854-2004, p.276.   [back]
  14. 1990, Vol.510, pp.3514-5.   [back]
  15. 2001, Vol.592, p.9701.   [back]
  16. S.O.81.   [back]
  17. 1931, Vol.227, p.595.   [back]
  18. 1970, Vol.368, p.3202.   [back]
  19. 1982, AJHR, I.6, p.11.   [back]
  20. 1996-99, AJHR, I.15C.   [back]
  21. 1982, Vol.449, p.5215.   [back]
  22. Parliamentary Service Act 2000, s.26(1).   [back]
  23. Ibid., s.26(2).   [back]
  24. Policing functions within the parliamentary precincts – An agreement between the Speaker of the House of Representatives of New Zealand and the New Zealand Commissioner of Police, June 2004.   [back]
  25. Public Finance Act 1989, s.2(1).   [back]
  26. Parliamentary Service Act 2000, s.16(1).   [back]
  27. Ibid., s.8.   [back]
  28. Civil List Act 1979, s.20A.   [back]
  29. Parliamentary Service Act 2000, s.11.   [back]
  30. Clerk of the House of Representatives Act 1988, s.16.   [back]
  31. S.O.370(2).   [back]
  32. 1990, Vol.510, pp.3858-9.   [back]
  33. 1992, Vol.532, p.13236.   [back]
  34. Constitution Act 1986, s.12.   [back]
  35. Ibid., s.13.   [back]
  36. Parliamentary Service Act 2000, s.18(3); Public Finance Act 1989, s.2(1).   [back]
  37. Civil List Act 1979, s.17.   [back]
  38. 1992, Vol.531, pp.12103-5.   [back]
  39. S.O.26.   [back]
  40. S.O.27.c   [back]
  41. Electoral Act 1993, s.3(1).   [back]
  42. S.O.14(1)(e).   [back]
  43. S.O.30.   [back]
  44. S.O.29.   [back]
  45. Civil List Act 1979, s.17.   [back]
  46. S.O.31.   [back]
  47. S.O.32.   [back]
  48. 1976, Vol.404, p.1552; 1993, Vol.535, p.15315.   [back]
  49. Parliamentary Service Act 2000, s.16(2).   [back]
  50. Ibid., s.33.   [back]
  51. S.O.28(1).   [back]
  52. S.O.14(1)(e).   [back]
  53. S.O.30.   [back]
  54. S.O.28(2).   [back]
  55. S.O.29.   [back]
  56. S.O.31.   [back]
  57. See now, Parliamentary Salaries and Allowances Determination 2004.   [back]
  58. S.O.32.   [back]
  59. S.O.33(1).   [back]
  60. S.O.33(2).   [back]
  61. S.O.137(4).   [back]
  62. 1994, Vol.542, p.3697.   [back]
  63. 1925, Vol.208, p.468; 1928, Vol.218, p.577.   [back]
  64. 1980, Vol.429, pp.379-80.   [back]
  65. 1974, Vol.395, p.5580; 1992, Vol.531, p.12131; 2001, Vol.591, p.8396.   [back]
  66. 2001, Vol.591, p.8397.   [back]
  67. Ibid., p.8398.   [back]