Parliament may be seen as a system of checks and balances which attempt to enforce accountability on the Government for its spending, actions and policies.

Constitutional Monarchy

The New Zealand Parliament is a unicameral body i.e. it has only one chamber – the House of Representatives. Unlike the American, British or Australian Parliaments, it does not have a higher house equivalent to the Senate or the House of Lords. The New Zealand Legislative Council, which did fill this role, was abolished in 1950.

In addition to the House of Representatives, the New Zealand Parliament requires the participation of the Sovereign. The Sovereign, presently Queen Elizabeth II, is represented in New Zealand by the Governor-General. Technically, the Sovereign must agree to all bills before they can become law. In reality, though, this assent is always granted.

It is the legal presence of the monarch in Parliament, and the fact they she is only able to exercise power within constitutional constraints, that makes the New Zealand system of government a constitutional monarchy.

Beyond giving Royal assent to bills passed in the House of Representatives, the Sovereign may call Parliament to meet, dissolve Parliament and call an election. These functions are the limit of the Sovereign’s participation in active parliamentary work.

The House of Representatives

The House of Representatives is made up of democratically elected members. It makes laws, examines taxes and government spending, represents the people and holds the government to account.

Generally there are around 120 Members of Parliament (MPs) in the House of Representatives, serving for a maximum term of three years. Every time there is a general election or a by-election members are elected to the House of Representatives.

Responsible Government

Government, as opposed to Parliament, is that subset of House of Representative members who belong to the party that is said to have the “confidence of the house”. A party has the confidence of the house when it has a majority in the House of Representatives, or by coalition with another party or parties holds this majority, or forms agreements with other parties for support on confidence votes (for example, the budget).

In New Zealand, unlike, say, the United States, government ministers can only be drawn from among members of the House of Representatives. This gives rise to the notion of “responsible government” where ministers are deemed to be responsible to Parliament and subject to its wishes and controls.

How MMP Works

For most of the 20th Century a “first past the post” voting system was used in New Zealand to elect members to Parliament. This led to the too easy domination of Parliament by a single party and in 1996 was changed, after a referendum, to a mixed member proportional representation (MMP) system.

Under MMP each voter casts two votes: one for the party the voter wants in government (the party vote), and one for the candidate the voter wants to be the member of Parliament for their local electorate (the electorate vote).

As long as a party achieves a minimum of 5% of the party vote, the number of MPs it is allowed in Parliament is based on its share of the party vote. If it gets less than 5% of the party vote, but still wins one or more electorate seats, then it is entitled to the number of MPs which corresponds to the percentage of the party vote those electorate seats represent. If a party does not gain a minimum 5% of the party vote, and does not win at least one electorate seat, it is not entitled to any MPs.

Democracy’s Progress

The first New Zealand House of Representatives met in 1854. Since that date the parliamentary system has undergone a series of significant changes. From the introduction of “responsible government” in 1856, to the abolition of the Legislative Council in 1950 and the introduction of MMP in 1996, our Parliament has become increasingly more equitable in its role of representing New Zealanders.

Watch the National Government being sworn into Parliament here.

New Zealand Parliament – Democracy in Action, 2.5 out of 5 based on 4 ratings

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