Meeting of Parliament
Parliament is summoned by Proclamation issued by the Governor-General. The three-year life of any Parliament is divided into sessions. The length of sessions varies but a session normally starts in June and ends in November or late October. A short early session in April is sometimes called to pass special legislation or to pass an Imprest Supply Bill. The latter enables necessary supplies to be granted and the beginning of the ordinary session to be postponed so that Ministers can attend conferences or other official engagements. A session is terminated when Parliament is prorogued by Proclamation issued by the Governor-General.
Times of Sitting
The normal sitting days of the House are Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. From Tuesday to Thursday the House meets at 2.30 p.m. and continues to sit until 5.30 p.m. Business is resumed at 7.30 p.m. and continues until 10.30 p.m. On Fridays the House sits from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and from 2 p.m. to 4.30 p.m.
A quorum is constituted by 20 members including the Speaker.
Organisation and Procedure
The organisation and procedure of the House of Representatives is intelligible in terms of the functions the House is required to perform. It deliberates and criticises legislative proposals coming from the Government; it exercises a general supervision over and check on the Public Service; and it represents the hopes and grievances of the electorate to the Government. In its performance of the first of these functions Parliament is assisted by legislation conferring privileges which protect freedom of debate, and by Standing Orders which provide for the appointment of officers of the House to enforce rules of debate and of procedure on Bills.
The supremacy of Parliament and its effectiveness as a deliberative, critical assembly depend on its not being subject to interference by the other branches of Government. The privileges of Parliament enable it to perform its functions free from such interference and make it possible for Parliament to take measures against those who offend in this respect.
Privileges in New Zealand, though they are claimed by Mr Speaker ceremonially before the Governor-General at the beginning of each Parliament, rest upon statute. In the Parliamentary Privileges Act of 1865 it was provided that both Houses were to enjoy the same privileges, immunities, and powers as were then enjoyed by the British House of Commons. Privileges include a limited freedom from arrest, freedom of speech in Parliament and for publication of parliamentary proceedings, freedom of access to His Excellency by the House as a whole through Mr Speaker, and the right to demand a favourable construction on proceedings of the House. Of these the most important today is a member's absolute freedom of speech in debates.
Officers of the House
The presiding officer of the House is Mr Speaker. He is elected by a new House as soon as the members have been sworn. He maintains order in debate in the House and sees that the rules of procedure are properly followed. He is empowered to name members who are disorderly and move their suspension or he may order their withdrawal for the remainder of a sitting. In his absence, or when the House is in committee, the Chairman of Committees, who is also elected by the House, presides. The Speaker is generally non-partisan in the discharge of his duties, but his position is not as unambiguous in this respect as is the British Speaker's. He is normally opposed in his electorate. He retains his party membership and may be quite active in party affairs. The convention that a Speaker, if re-elected, remains in office in spite of a change of government, has not established itself here. There have been only three occasions in this century, in 1928, 1950, and 1961 when, following a change of government, the opportunity to re-elect the Speaker has presented itself. Only in 1928 was the previous Speaker re-elected, and the man in question, Sir Charles Statham , was an Independent. In spite of these factors and in spite of the fact that the Speaker's dignity is less carefully maintained by ceremony and pomp than in the House of Commons in England, the Speaker is impartial, but not so impartial that governments do not ensure that his powers are exercised by someone likely to cooperate in the dispatch of business. The Speaker does not take part in debates or vote while he is in the Chair, though he has a casting vote in the case of a tie. Speaker's Rulings have established that his casting vote shall be used to advance a Bill a stage further if this gives the House another opportunity to express its opinion or to preserve the status quo. Both Speaker and Chairman of Committees normally refrain from exercising a deliberative vote when not in the Chair, but narrow governmental majorities sometimes make this restraint impossible.
Rules of Debate
The rules of debate are designed to ensure that deliberation is calm and rational, not blinded by emotion and the introduction of personalities and offensive expressions. To this end members are required to address themselves to Mr Speaker and not to each other, and to rise and speak only when called upon by the Speaker or his deputy. A member may not refer to another member by name or malign or abuse him. In practice, debate in the House of Representatives is not marred by scenes of great disorder. There are, nevertheless, frequent interjections from seated members and occasional verbal battles which degenerate into acrimony before they are checked by Mr Speaker. On such occasions Mr Speaker's party affiliation is an impediment to him, particularly if the main offender is from the Opposition party.
Curtailment of Debate
The responsibility of the Government and the proper performance of Parliament's own critical function have, in spite of the small size of the House, necessitated the adoption of rules to prevent obstruction and to secure the swift passage of urgent business.
Time Limits on Speeches
These were first imposed in 1895. Before 1962 the time allowed was very generous. Each member was allowed 60 minutes on the Budget, and 30 minutes on the other major debates. Because members seemed to feel it incumbent on them to speak to the maximum of their time limit, the rule was changed in the 1962 revision of Standing Orders reducing Budget speeches to 30 minutes and other major debates to 15 or 20 minutes. Time limits on other debates were correspondingly reduced.
Urgency and Closure
Standing Orders give Government business precedence, with a few exceptions, at all sittings of the House. An urgency rule for a specific item of Government business dates from 1929. Urgency may be moved by a Minister without notice and without debate, except for a brief explanatory statement by the mover. If urgency is granted the Bill or other matter may be discussed immediately and dealt with completely at that sitting. A Bill can thus be taken through all its remaining stages, the sitting going on until they are completed, irrespective of normal hours for the close of business. Used in conjunction with the closure rule which became part of Standing Orders in 1931, this enables a very rapid dispatch of business and it has consequently not been found necessary to introduce the kangaroo or guillotine closure as in the British House of Commons. The closure rule allows any member to move “That the question be now put” and it is decided without amendment or debate. Check on the abuse of closure procedure is provided by the Speaker, who has power to refuse to put the motion.