The House of Representatives comprises our elected members of Parliament — and provides our Government. With the Legislative Council, the House was one of two chambers from 1854 until 1951. Now, the House alone represents New Zealanders and makes the country’s laws.
The House of Representatives has become much more representative since its beginnings. It now includes more political parties, more women, more Māori, and people of different ages and backgrounds.
This change has resulted from a combination of factors. For example, the House has increased in size, more people have been allowed to vote and stand for election, and the electoral system has changed.
The Speaker chairs the House and is elected by fellow members of Parliament.
Today, the Speaker is impartial, but this wasn’t always the case. During Parliament’s early years, the Speaker got more involved in debates. From the 1880s, the convention of an impartial Speaker began to develop, and this strengthened in the twentieth century.
To read more about the Speaker see The Speaker in History.
The House has always been a vehicle for Governments to make laws. At the start of each session, the Government states its programme in the Speech from the Throne. During the session, it introduces bills (draft laws) and presents annual Budgets to the House for approval.
The basic process for passing laws has changed little. Now, however, most bills are reviewed by select committees — small groups of members appointed by Parliament to consider specific matters.
Individual members can also propose laws through members’ bills. Before political parties emerged in the 1890s, members’ bills were common. The disciplined ‘party system’ changed this. However, members’ bills have regained importance with the current proportional electoral system, under which individual members have a greater chance of getting support in the House.
For many years, there was no time limit for speeches in House debates. Once, a speech ran for 24 hours! The Opposition could bring Government business to a standstill by speaking on and on — a tactic called stonewalling. Some members fell asleep during such long debates.
In 1894, time limits were introduced, and from 1932, the House could end debates with a ‘closure’ motion. Today, rules about the number and length of speeches are strict, allowing the Government to push business through at a faster and more predictable pace.
Question time is when members ask questions of Ministers in the House. The Opposition has always used this time to call Governments to account. Over the years, question time has become more prominent and organised, and it is now a feature of parliamentary proceedings.
The House has always had rules to ease the process of getting business through and to control proceedings. The Speaker applies these rules. He or she decides who may speak and makes sure the proceedings are orderly.
If necessary, the Speaker can order members out of the debating chamber and punish them for bad behaviour. The Speaker also requires that members dress appropriately.
As standards have changed, the rules have changed too — but Parliament still follows many traditions that reflect its history.