The broader context

New Zealand’s democratic system

New Zealand’s system of government is a constitutional monarchy. The head of State—the Sovereign—plays no active role in parliamentary proceedings, aside from assenting to bills, calling Parliament to meet, dissolving Parliament, and calling a general election. These functions are carried out on the advice of Ministers. In New Zealand, the Sovereign is represented by a Governor-General, who undertakes these functions.

New Zealand’s system of parliamentary democracy is based on the effective operation and interaction of its three branches of government: the legislative, executive, and judicial branches. Parliament is the supreme legislative power, and it carries out legislative, oversight, and representative functions. The executive consists of Ministers appointed from among the members of the House of Representatives.

New Zealand’s system is one of “responsible government”. The executive remains in office only if it retains the confidence (support) of the House of Representatives.

How members of Parliament are elected

Members of Parliament are elected for a 3-year term. Unless it is dissolved earlier, Parliament automatically expires at the end of the 3-year period.

Since 1996 members have been elected to New Zealand’s unicameral Parliament using a system of proportional representation known as mixed-member proportional representation. The overall number of members of each party elected to Parliament is determined by the national percentage of votes each party obtains. There are currently 63 general electorates and seven Māori electorates. These 70 members are elected on a first-past-the-post basis. To them are added further members drawn from party lists, so as to give each party its appropriate proportion of members of Parliament. The total number of members of Parliament can vary, but is based on a typical figure of 120.

Presiding officers and committees of the House

At its first meeting following a general election, the House elects one of its own members to be the Speaker. A Deputy Speaker and Assistant Speakers are also appointed by the House. The Standing Orders provide for the establishment of a comprehensive system of committees, charged with considering bills and carrying out a wide range of scrutiny functions.

The Office of the Clerk’s contribution to a functioning legislature

The House’s proceedings are governed by statute, Standing Orders, orders of the House, Speakers’ rulings, and practice. This framework of rules is designed to ensure the orderly transaction of the business of the House and its committees, and to allow the proper consideration of that business. The rules also act to protect the right of members to participate in debate and other parliamentary proceedings.

Parliament is, by definition, a forum for the resolution of diverse, strongly held, and intensely argued views. This environment demands special qualities from Parliament’s support organisations. In the case of the Office of the Clerk, these qualities relate very strongly to its core values of impartiality, expertise, integrity, and accuracy.

The proper interpretation of the rules is critical to the successful functioning of the New Zealand Parliament. It is here that the Clerk of the House plays a pivotal role. As the principal adviser to the Speaker and members, the Clerk and other staff of the Office provide independent advice on parliamentary procedure, the practices of the House, and matters of parliamentary law.

The Office of the Clerk applies its expertise to the development and maintenance of a set of rules that are consistent, transparent, and rigorous enough to withstand constant, intense challenges, yet also able to change over time to reflect the changing nature of New Zealand society. It has also established accurate systems for producing a timely and definitive record of Parliament’s decisions and proceedings, including agendas, minutes, and other papers necessary for the operation and on-going institutional “memory” of Parliament.

The staff who serve Parliament in the Office of the Clerk are required to have the integrity and impartiality to resist the sometimes powerful debates and personalities in their workplace in order to provide a high-quality secretariat service to Parliament.

In addition to the provision of secretarial services, the Office of the Clerk also applies its procedural and institutional knowledge and its legal expertise to advocate for the effectiveness of Parliament as a democratic institution. It does this on a day-to-day basis through the provision of procedural and legal advice, and it also takes a more visible role through speeches, papers, and articles. Submissions may also be made from time to time to such forums as select committees.