Role of Parliament

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Parliament makes laws and holds the Government to account for its policies, actions, and spending.

Parliament consists of the Sovereign (represented in New Zealand by the Governor–General) and the House of Representatives. Both have important work to do.

The Sovereign’s role

The Sovereign’s role in Parliament is to:

  • call Parliament to meet
  • dissolve Parliament
  • grant Royal assent to bills passed in the House so that they become laws.

The House of Representatives’ role

The House’s role is to:

  • provide the Government (Executive) from amongst its members
  • make new laws and update old laws
  • represent the people
  • examine and approve Government taxes and spending
  • hold the Government to account for its policies and actions.

More detail about each of these roles follows.

Provide the Government

The House provides the Government from amongst its members.

The Government is a group known as the Executive and made up of Ministers who are responsible for running the country.

To form the Government, a party (or parties) needs the support of the majority of the House on important votes. This is called having the ‘confidence’ of the House.

A Government is formed when a single party or group of parties can show that they have the confidence of the House. This can involve making agreements among several parties. Some may join a coalition government, while others may stay outside the Government but agree to support it on confidence votes.

Make new laws

Much parliamentary business is about making new laws and amending old laws. The House examines and amends bills (proposed laws) in several formal stages. Once a bill has passed through all its parliamentary stages it becomes an Act of Parliament, forming part of New Zealand’s law.

Represent the people

Members of Parliament represent the voters of New Zealand in the House of Representatives.

Members represent the people to the House and the Government. They also represent the actions of the House and the Government to the people.

If the people do not like what their representatives do in Parliament they can vote to replace them at the next election. This is how individual voters influence the way the country is run.

Examine and approve Government taxes and spending

It is illegal for the Government to impose a tax without parliamentary authority. This authority comes from legislation agreed by Parliament.

The Government regularly requires Parliament’s approval to spend money needed to run the country. This is known as obtaining ‘supply’. It achieves this with the annual Budget (Appropriation Bill) and occasional Imprest Supply Bills. These are debated in the House and each debate offers a chance for the House to renew its confidence in the Government.

If a Government fails to obtain supply a change of Government may result or a general election. This is because without supply of funds the Government is unable to pay its bills and the House is said to have lost confidence in the Government.

Hold the Government to account

The House has several ways of holding the Government to account.

Questions

During daily question time members ask Ministers questions about how they are managing the country’s affairs. This tests the performance of individual Ministers and the Government as a whole.

Question time is usually 12 ‘questions for oral answer’ to Ministers each sitting day with opportunities for members to ask supplementary questions too.

Members can ask Ministers an unlimited number of written questions on any working day. These are known as ‘questions for written answer’.

Debates

There are several debates in which the Government’s Ministers may need to defend their policies and management of the country’s affairs.

  • Debates about spending and taxes provide the most obvious opportunities for members to challenge the Government.
  • Members may raise any issues of concern during the Wednesday general debate. If a member raises an urgent matter involving ministerial responsibility, the Speaker may decide that it needs the House’s urgent attention. If so, a debate follows.
  • The Address in Reply debate after a general election, and the Prime Minister’s annual statement to House, provide an opportunity for members to challenge the Government’s policies in several hours of debate.

Select committee inquiries

A select committee can decide to conduct an inquiry to examine the Government’s performance in a particular area.

Witnesses are asked to tell the committee their views on the subject. They often make recommendations to the committee on how performance might be improved.

The committee then considers the evidence and reports to the House, often making recommendations to the Government. The Government must respond to these recommendations, but is not bound by them.

Petitions

There is a traditional right to petition the House when there is no other legal means of setting right a personal complaint. A petition can also ask for a change in public policy or the law.

Petitions often draw attention to Government activities. Select committees consider petitions and can make recommendations in a report to the House.

International treaties

New Zealand laws are increasingly affected by international treaties relating to matters such as maritime safety, border security, and inter-country adoption.

Select committees examine many proposed international treaties and can bring any concerns to the attention of the House before the Government completes the formal treaty-making process.