7 Nov 2017

The Commission Opening: What to expect

10:01 am on 7 November 2017

The Commission Opening is like a pre-match warm-up where the players choose a referee and promise to follow the rules, and the Sovereign's proxies blow the whistle to begin.

Then at the State Opening there's a pre-match speech (yes, after the whistle has already blown) from the Queen's stand-in, and it's all on.

The Commission Opening has less pomp than the state one, but it's really the main event.

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Photo: RNZ

Very briefly, the Commission Opening involves three parts: (1) The sovereign proclaims a fresh new Parliament, (2) the MPs are sworn in, and (3) they elect a Speaker. Each part has its own oddities.

Commissioning a Parliament

It's called a Commission Opening because three Commissioners are sent by the Sovereign (or more usually the Sovereign's body-double, the Governor-General) to officially tell her new Parliament 'you exist'.

Parliament was summoned by the Governor-General - that's why we had an election. But it still needs the thumbs up from the top. Otherwise it could be just any old Parliament. That may sound silly, but there were once three competing popes so anything's possible.

Despite being an aspect of Parliament, the sovereign (or her representative) never enters the debating chamber - the House proper.

This is strictly MP's territory and has been sacrosanct from regal interference since Charles I of England invaded the British House of Commons to arrest five bothersome MPs. That didn't go well for him. He quite lost his head, literally.

So, the commissioners are sent in the Sovereign's stead to declare Parliament open. The commissioners are typically the Chief Justice and two other senior justices.

They come in procession from the High Court (across the road), led by the Sheriff of the High Court (yes, we have those) and are dressed this year in newly designed gowns.

Why three? Because in Britain they send three to five leaders of the House of Lords through to the Commons for this bit.

That's just how many Lord Chancellors there are. New Zealand no longer has an Upper House and has no Lord Chancellors, so the Governor General sends three senior Judiciary instead.

The Usher of the Black Rod announces their arrival to the assembled Chamber, they enter and sit at the Table while the Clerk of the House, David Wilson reads their Letters Patent from the Governor-General giving them the authority to launch the ship. Which they then launch.

Side note: The Usher of the Black Rod is also a leftover from New Zealand's Upper House.

The Upper House doesn't exist anymore, and neither does the job that Black Rod used to perform for it. The role is activated specifically for these state occasions. The person who currently holds the position is actually on the staff of Defence Headquarters.

The Commission Opening of Parliament explained.

The Commission Opening of Parliament explained. Photo: The Office of the Clerk

A Lot of Swearing

The elected MPs have been MPs since the official election results were returned. But they are not fully members of the House of Representatives until they swear fealty to the Sovereign. It sounds quite medieval but at least they don't have to bend the knee or kiss a ring.

Until Members are sworn in they can't speak or vote, so they're a fat lot of good. They can still get paid though. This requirement to swear an oath to the Queen is what has kept elected members of the Irish Republican party, Sein Fein, from taking their seats in Westminster.

So everyone swears an oath (on a holy book of their choice), or an affirmation (a promise without recourse to a higher power).

MPs can swear in Māori or English, but the current law doesn't allow Pasifika or other languages. Though, with agreement, MPs can repeat the oath in another language immediately afterwards.

What MPs cannot do is change the oath or affirmation or add any commentary (about what they think of the Queen or the Treaty of Waitangi for example). If they do so, they are ejected from the House until they agree to the official form of words. Yes, this has happened.

While all of this action occurs there is no Speaker to run the House, so the Clerk runs proceedings. Because there is no Speaker, the Mace (which symbolises the authority of the Speaker) sits underneath the chamber's Table.

Electing a Speaker

Besides giving the new Parliament the Sovereign's official go ahead, the Commissioners also advise the House that the Governor-General will turn up tomorrow to outline her reasons for summoning a Parliament (i.e. the Government's plans); and ask the House of Representatives to elect one of their number to act as a go-between with the Sovereign.

That role is called the Speaker, because they speak to the Sovereign on behalf of the House.

In reality the Sovereign seldom deals directly with her House of Representatives.

The more regular communication is between the Cabinet and the Governor-General - because together they form the Executive Council - New Zealand's executive branch of government.

But while the cabinet members are all MPs (and so it is a subset of Parliament), the Cabinet is not Parliament and does not speak for Parliament.

Even more confusingly, the House is also not strictly Parliament - though it gets called that. Parliament is a combination of the House of Representatives and the Sovereign (the Governor-General).

The Speaker

The Speaker's more typical role is as the referee and landlord of Parliament.

But if the House (rather than the executive) wants to send a message to the Sovereign, it's the Speaker who is the postman.

This role is behind the traditional reluctance of a newly elected speaker who was sometimes dragged to the chair because once upon a time being the bearer of bad news was an unenviable occupation.

In reality many speakers are keen on the role, or at least perfectly willing to perform it.

The presumptive Speaker, senior Labour MP Trevor Mallard, quit his electorate to free himself for this less political role, and dropped down the party list for the election so that he would not be elected unless the party was in a position to require him as Speaker.

The Speaker is not just some administrative functionary, they are third in line to the 'throne' in New Zealand's 'Order of Succession'. After the Governor-General and the Prime Minister (yes, before the Deputy P.M. - sorry Mr Peters).

Once elected, the new Speaker trips off to Government House to present him or herself to the Governor-General as the official orator of the House, and to reassert the House's privileges like freedom of speech in debate and free access to the Governor-General.

The confirmation of the Speaker explained.

The confirmation of the Speaker explained. Photo: The Office of the Clerk

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