Legislative Council Chamber, Parliament Buildings, Wellington
10.45am, Tuesday 15 August 2006
Tena koutou, tena koutou, tena koutou katoa.
(Greetings, greetings and greetings to you all)
As Speaker of the New Zealand House of Representatives and President of the New Zealand branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, it is my very real pleasure to welcome you to New Zealand.
I’d also like to welcome you to our beautiful Legislative Council Chamber. While no longer used for its original purpose - New Zealand abolished its Upper House in 1950 - it has adapted well to its new role as home to gatherings such as this, the CPA’s 28th regional conference of the Australian and Pacific regions.
Inter-parliamentary meetings enable members to meet and talk. This interchange of views under the CPA’s umbrella is something to be treasured. As recent world events graphically illustrate, parliamentary democracy is a fragile concept. Those of us lucky enough to live and work in countries which, irrespective of gender, race, religion or culture, are united by a community of interest and respect for the rule of law, individual rights and freedom, must continue to pursue and promote the positive ideals of parliamentary democracy.
The core kaupapa of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association is to preserve and promote those ideals. The CPA consists of the national, provincial, state and territorial Parliaments and Legislatures of the countries of the Commonwealth. Members of the CPA, irrespective of gender, race, religion or culture, share the Association’s mission to promote knowledge and understanding about parliamentary democracy and respect for the rule of law and individual rights and freedoms.
I’m sure these issues will be covered by our keynote speaker, former Prime Minister and now President of the NZ Law Commission Sir Geoffrey Palmer, who is to speak this afternoon on ‘stable Government and the role of Parliament’.
Parliament has a crucial role in promoting pluralistic democracy, no matter how challenging that is. The coexistence of many ideologies, religions and cultural specificities within society is the main characteristic of a pluralistic democracy. It is essential that Parliaments reflect that pluralism within the community. Every citizen must be able to see that they too can participate in the decisions that affect them. That they have access to their representatives and that they too serve in Parliament.
One of the most challenging tasks for Parliaments is the capacity to adapt and change in response to the needs of the people. In New Zealand our Parliament faced that challenge with the introduction of a new electoral system in the form of Mixed Member Proportional representation. The people voted for MMP as a way of enabling Parliament to place a check on the power of the executive. It provided for greater diversity of representation in Parliament. Since the introduction of MMP, the number of Maori in Parliament has increased to be slightly more proportionally than the number of Maori in the population. Women unfortunately are not yet proportional to their representation in the population, but we have achieved 32 percent of women Parliamentarians. There is still much work to be done. Pacific Island representatives now number four members. The Asian community is represented by just two members. And we have one Rastafarian.
MMP has also meant that the Parliament has had to adapt its Standing Orders and protocols to ensure all parties in the Parliament are heard and can effectively represent their constituents. There are currently eight parties represented in Parliament, most of them small in number. Minority government has now also become the norm in New Zealand and not the exception. This requires a more consultative and cooperative approach in Parliament if the business of government is to be transacted.
The constitutional aspects of the arrangements made in New Zealand following the election last year is something which I know Sir Geoffrey is also keen to talk about this afternoon.
In our form of parliamentary democracy, political parties are a fundamental element. They are ideological and political bodies, which play an essential role in New Zealand’s constitutional arrangements. They provide the contestability that is an indispensable part of parliamentary democracy. It is in the forums provided by the CPA that members from various political parties can come together for formal and informal discussion and debate on issues that affect us all. It is through these exchanges that we grow in understanding of each other’s perspectives on a particular issue. Such understanding is essential if conflicts are to be resolved peacefully.
Close contact between Parliamentarians working together promotes the development of intercultural and inter-religious dialogue. Conferences such as this one provide the opportunity to meet but it is important the relationships formed here are continued beyond the meeting. Here in New Zealand we have a number of parliamentary friendship groups that promote parliamentary relationships between our Parliament and the Legislatures of other countries. This is one practical way for the relationships formed here to continue.
The CPA is a unique forum for Parliamentarians from the Commonwealth. It has a special mandate to define the challenges that Parliaments face today and it gives us the chance to work together to advance our role in establishing and developing democratic values which are absolutely essential for global peace and stability.
In today’s Commonwealth, we have countries with both new and old democratic traditions. We will all benefit from understanding each other’s challenges. Effective oversight, accountability and transparency are essential elements of democracy. Their importance cannot be overestimated; indeed they are the elements that make democracy function. The lack of any one of these key components adversely affects not only the image of the Parliamentarians at both national and international levels, but also the ability of the Parliaments to function as democratic institutions.
I expect we’ll hear much about these issues over the next four days. All the big issues seem to be covered in the papers to be presented with topics ranging from ‘Influences in the Pacific’ to ‘Multi-Party Government in Fiji’, ‘Global Warming and Sea Levels’ and ‘the Recognition of Indigenous Cultures in a Parliamentary Democracy’.
I’m pleased to see however that your time in Wellington is not all work and there are opportunities to explore our national museum Te Papa and take part in tours of the city and surrounding areas.
The CPA offers us the opportunity to get together and learn about each other, our Parliaments and our processes. My hope is that this year we should build on the Commonwealth’s commitment to further cooperation among its Parliaments and Legislatures, and the promotion of parliamentary democracy.