Political Asylum by Trevor Plumbly

Pomp and Tradition in NZ’s Parliament

Today – God help me – I watched a parliamentary session on TV. It opened with a serious looking chap carting a ceremonial mace to a table, followed by a prayer invoking the assistance of the Almighty, which seemed to indicate that those involved were unsure of their ability to do the job with the talent they had. After that, petitions were presented: anyone, it seems, can petition parliament and indeed many do, to what effect God only knows. Then came democracy’s showcase: ‘Question Time’. This hour long exercise in evasion, insults and toadyism was originally intended to provide an opportunity for the opposition parties to hold government ministers to account, in essence a serious and important part of parliamentary procedure. But now it’s just a display of how supposedly intelligent adults can squander their time behaving in a manner they would punish their own children for. The ruling party can even ask itself ‘patsy’ questions: if the media reports a rise in exports, a junior back bench sycophant is sure to rise and ask the Minister for Trade if there have been any recent changes in exports. The Minister will then rise with an ill-concealed smirk and take as long as possible to attempt gloatingly to translate a miniscule movement into a major breakthrough.

Debatable Debates             

But if you think that’s a waste of time and money, try the debates. Anyone with a warped sense of humour appreciates imbeciles in the pursuit of the inevitable and there’s no better showplace for that than the debating chamber. Be it Global Warming Legislation or the Milk Bottle Retention Bill, these toyshop titans go at it hammer and tongs. But why do they bother? The Government’s got the numbers, so they already know the result; no-one’s going to jump ship, these are committed people. If a conscience vote is called for, they can be relied on to let the party be their guide; the money’s not bad, plus a few perks, so who needs aggravation? Each bill has committee stages before being passed into law, so there are lots of consultants and advisors who don’t have access to the main trough but still need feeding. It’s almost standing room only for the opening of a debate, leaders vacillate between fiery outbursts and tragedian laments in an effort to make a stone-cold certainty look like a contest. As the day wears on, the stage is surrendered to the lesser lights: back benchers are either waiting in the wings or on their way out through incompetency or misdemeanour, as a result the standard of oratory drops alarmingly, the newbies simply can’t cut the mustard and the others are either too old or too worn out to bother. Mercifully for the onlooker, the hacks don’t appear until late evening; pathos, in politics I’ve discovered, is nocturnal.

Reforms Urgently Needed

Do we really need the Westminster system? Why not recognise we’re in the 21st Century and clean things up a bit: cancel question time as it serves no real useful purpose and any value it might have had has long gone, along with public approval. Apart from providing politicians with an opportunity to strut centre stage, protracted debates seem of little use. As I’ve said, they already know the outcome, so all they need to do is vote which they could do online while spending time in their constituency with the people whose views they are presumed to represent. The petition process also needs to be tightened: a minimum of 5,000 signatures should be required before acceptance for consideration. Do we really need a Governor General? As a mainly ceremonial office, it’s a hangover from 19th Century colonialism, surely a bit out of place in a multi-cultural country such as New Zealand. If we are going to grow as a country we need to trim the redundant parts of the Westminster system, review our blind obedience to its laborious legal process and shape the best of both to better suit a young South Pacific country.


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