9 Nov 2017

Debating the address

From The House , 6:55 pm on 9 November 2017

Two major events kick off a new Parliament - the Commission Opening and the State Opening - each of which were wrapped up within a day.

At the State Opening the Governor General Dame Patsy Reddy gave the Speech from the Throne which explains why she summoned Parliament.


Governor-General Dame Patsy Reddy at the State Opening of Parliament.

The Governor General Dame Patsy Reddy reads the Speech from the Throne. Photo: RNZ / Benedict Collins


While Dame Patsy delivers the speech, she is not the author. That privilege lies with the Government, which uses the speech to outline its legislative agenda for the parliamentary term.


So, part of the ceremony of the State Opening involves what has to be one of the most formal games of pass the parcel.


The Prime Minister passes the speech to the Governor General who reads it out and then passes it to the Speaker who takes it to the House to table it for debate.


That debate is called the Address in Reply and has less to do with figuring out where Dame Patsy lives and more about whether the House will respond to the Speech from the Throne; “address” in this case, is just a fancy word for a message to the Sovereign - (you can see where Dame Patsy lives in the video below).



So, technically the debate is about whether or not to send a nice note to the Governor General in response to her speech saying something like ‘thank you very much, we’ll think about what you said’.


But in reality the Address in Reply is the first major debate of the House in a new Parliament and can canvas a wide range of topics.


It’s also a chance for new MPs to show what they’ve got.


By tradition, the motion to have the debate is put forward by a new Government MP and it doubles as their first speech in the House - known as a maiden speech.


Being chosen to put forward the motion is a mark of distinction; another new MP from the Government Backbench is often chosen to second the motion.


For the 52nd Parliament Labour MP Tamati Coffey was chosen to move the motion that a “respectful Address be presented to Her Excellency the Governor-General in reply to Her Excellency's speech”, and Labour’s Jo Luxton seconded.



Maiden speeches are expected to focus more on the member’s individual beliefs and approach to politics than on provoking a reaction. With that in mind, it’s customary for other members to be polite.

Thirty-two new MPs will give their maiden speeches during the Address in Reply debate but it's also the first major debate of the House in this new Parliament, so the old hands use it to flex their political muscles.

The Leader of the Opposition puts forward an amendment to the motion reflecting their party’s views and responds to the Speech from the Throne.



The Prime Minister is up next and then other party leaders. Leaders of parties with six or more members get half an hour to talk. New MPs have 15 minutes for their maiden speech and everyone else gets 10 minutes.


In total 19 hours are set aside for the debate and it takes precedence over other business on the House to-do list but the debate can be paused for other things to be done, like passing legislation.


If the motion is carried then the Speaker will read a pre-written address to the House which usually thanks the Governor General for the speech and promises the House will think about what was said.


Assuming no-one objects, the Speaker will then go in person to deliver the message to the Governor General; after 19 hours of debate one would hope he knows the address.