Page 1 – Parliament overview
Parliament is where New Zealand’s elected representatives assemble to pass laws, scrutinise the government and approve the money it requires. It is the institution through which democratic government works.
New Zealand’s Parliament evolved from the British parliamentary system. It has existed since 1854, and is one of the oldest continuously functioning parliaments in the world.
Parliament consists of the House of Representatives (an elected assembly of members of Parliament) and the sovereign – in 2011, Queen Elizabeth II. Although the sovereign is the source of all legal executive authority, in practice she or her representative in New Zealand, the governor general, acts on the advice of the government. The governor general’s role includes opening and dissolving Parliament, and giving the royal assent to bills passed by the House of Representatives.
In the early 2000s democratic elections under the mixed-member proportional representation (MMP) system return candidates who win the most votes in each local electorate, as well as candidates on party lists. Each elector has two votes: one for a local MP and one for their preferred party. Political parties are represented in Parliament in proportion to their share of party votes, often with a mix of electorate MPs and those selected from lists of candidates prepared by the parties.
In 2011 the parliamentary complex in Wellington consisted of four buildings of different ages: Bowen House on Lambton Quay (which provided additional offices for MPs from the 1980s), the ‘Beehive’ (housing the executive wing, 1970s), Parliament House (1910s) and the Parliamentary Library (1890s). In the early 1990s the older buildings were refurbished and earthquake-strengthened. The aim was to make them an ‘open house’ for the people of New Zealand, and visitor numbers leapt.
Forming a government
Following an election the majority party (with more than half of the MPs) forms a government. If there is no single majority party, parties have to negotiate to form a coalition or come to an agreement with other parties to create a majority. A government’s usual term of office is three years.
A government must be able to secure the confidence of Parliament by keeping the support of more than half of MPs. In the 19th century governments were made on the floor of the House amid fluid alliances between factions. For much of the 20th century, under the first-past-the-post electoral system, each voter had a single vote for their local MP, and the party that won a majority of seats became the government. Since the introduction of MMP in 1996, no single party has been able to command a majority in the House on its own and governments have needed coalition partners or support agreements relating to confidence and supply of public funds.