Opening of the Youth Parliament

Opening of the Youth Parliament Wellington
26 May 1997

Honourable Members, please be seated.

At the beginning of every new Parliament, the Governor-General formally opens proceedings by delivering the Speech from the Throne. This is an occasion of some pomp and ceremony. I wear formal dress, a little like this, although this is the first time outside Government House that I have worn the insignia of the New Zealand Order of Merit, the new honour, which, with the Order of New Zealand and the Queen's Service Order and Medal, constitutes an entirely New Zealand system of honouring achievement and service. The Governor-General is Chancellor of that Order, and so is entitled to wear this splendid collar, which I thought you would like to see. Outside in the driveway, there is usually a powhiri from a Maori group, and a Guard of Honour of one or more of the Armed Services, of which I am constitutionally the Commander-in-Chief.. Inside, the members of the diplomatic corps are assembled, along with invited community representatives, and on the right of the throne are the Judges, in ceremonial robes of scarlet, with full-bottomed wigs, a reminder that the Judiciary forms one part of the threefold constitutional order; legislative, executive and judicial. There are no members of Parliament in the Chamber at first. They are waiting in the Debating Chamber, the green chamber, and the Governor-General sends Black Rod to fetch them. After an appropriate delay, to show they are not going to be pushed around, they come in, and the Speech from the Throne is delivered.

The Speech is never delivered in the Debating Chamber. This is an important constitutional reminder. It is because of the actions of a Sovereign, a direct predecessor of the Sovereign whom I represent, who one day did enter the green chamber. That was Charles the First, and he was trying to have some of the members arrested. They had displeased him, and he believed in his absolute, God-given, power. But just a few years later, in 1649, because of his views, Oliver Cromwell, backed by the English House of Commons, had the King beheaded. Monarchs, and their representatives, have ever since been excluded from the Debating Chamber, as a continuing reminder of the sovereignty of Parliament, and of the limited powers of the Sovereign. King Charles' fate is everyone's ultimate cautionary tale about unbridled power.

The Speech from the Throne is written by the Government, and it sets out, at least in outline, the Government's proposed legislative programme. My problem today, in opening this 1997 session of the Youth Parliament, is that there is no youth government; and so while I understand that you are to debate the proposition that there be parity between the minimum rate of student allowance and the corresponding unemployment benefit, I cannot outline any legislative programme.

Instead, let me say that the opening of a Youth Parliament is an important occasion, and I am delighted to be able to contribute to it: if for no other reason than that Youth Parliaments are one way that New Zealand honours the commitments it has made to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. In signing this Convention, New Zealand undertook by Articles 12 and 13 to uphold the right of young people to have a say - to have the opportunity to express their views - on matters that affect them. And as the relevant United Nations Committee noted, in its initial report on our compliance with that agreement, the convening of a Youth Parliament was a means of realising an important dimension of those Articles of the Convention.

But there is even more to the Youth Parliament than this. It is an opportunity to learn a little more than many people know, about the distribution and the exercise of power. For that is essentially what a Constitution is all about. We have a Constitution Act, but it's a very brief document. It begins by declaring, in effect, that The Queen, as Queen of New Zealand, is our Head of State, and that her powers may be exercised by the Governor-General as her representative. We are a constitutional monarchy, but the nature of that is not spelt out in the Constitution Act, but rather in a series of understandings, or conventions, that have developed over the centuries, mainly in England, where slowly the exercise of the absolute power of the sovereign was taken away and assumed by Parliament, by the elected representatives of the people. It is now a commonplace that Parliament is supreme, but that concept is reconciled with the existence of a Sovereign by leaving the nominal authority with her, but with its actual exercise, with a few exceptions, being in the hands of Parliament, or rather of the government of the day. This is achieved by the convention, in New Zealand, that the Governor-General acts in accordance with the advice of Ministers.

As the Cabinet Office Manual puts it: "The Queen Reigns ... but the government rules." There's also a Canadian formulation that some find helpful: that the Monarch possesses, or holds, all power, but does not exercise it; while the government exercises all power, but does not possess it.

When we talk about Parliament being supreme, we need to remember that the Constitution Act states that Parliament consists of the Sovereign and the House of Representatives together. This means that I must give my assent to every act of Parliament before it can become law. But the distribution of power I have talked about, means that I must give my assent. There may however be an exception to that. For not all the powers that the Sovereign once had can no longer be exercised by her personally. Some have been reserved to her to exercise at her own discretion, and not on the advice of Ministers. The most important of these reserve powers, as they are called, is the power to appoint a Prime Minister; the others are the power to dismiss a Prime Minister, the power to refuse a Prime Minister's request for a dissolution, and - perhaps - the power to refuse to assent to legislation, although that's an arguable one. Those being the Sovereign's reserve powers, they are mine as her representative.

The power to appoint a Prime Minister was given a lot of attention in the lead up to our first MMP election. I made it clear that it was my responsibility to appoint the person who could satisfy me, with information that was in the public arena, that he or she could command majority support in the House. I gave reassurances that despite the delays that were likely to result from coalition talks, the mechanisms of Government would continue to operate properly. They did, and as soon as the outcome of the coalition discussions became known, it was clear who was entitled to be appointed Prime Minister. And he was.

I began by talking about the ceremony that goes with the opening of Parliament. Ceremony is sometimes, I suspect, dismissed as being of little consequence. Yet I suggest this is a mistaken view, for ceremony is a useful way of demonstrating, in visual metaphors, the relationships that exist within the constitution. A further example here: from time to time, as Commander-in-Chief, I accept Royal Salutes from military Guards of Honour. The colours of the unit giving the Salute are always dipped while it taking place. There's a meaning to that gesture; one that in days gone by, must have been of great assurance to democrats. Because dipping the flag is a military acknowledgment of the legitimacy of state authority, of the rule of law. Here, military might is not right.

Ceremony also helps to emphasise the importance of an event. And in my office as Governor-General, I fulfil a number of ceremonial duties. For example, I receive the credentials, the formal documents of authority, of foreign ambassadors accredited to New Zealand, and I officiate at investitures, as I have in the past two weeks, when New Zealanders are recognised for their outstanding contribution to the community, in achievement or in service. Maori are often more ready to admit the need for ceremony as an aid to understanding and significance than Pakeha. Even so, I believe we all have a sense of the importance of ceremony - as the office I hold clearly demonstrates.

So I have a constitutional and a ceremonial role. But just as important is my community role. It's my job to meet people of all kinds, all round the country, to share with them their achievements or their sorrows, to sympathise and encourage and congratulate, to talk about the values we have in common, to suggest goals and aspirations. And so I am patron of scores of organisations, I host or attend functions for many of them, I present awards, open buildings, visit marae, help launch appeals and special events. And, when we have a Youth Parliament, I open that.

Which leads me on to what I believe it is appropriate for me to say to you in your Parliamentary capacity, seeing that I have no advice from responsible ministers to guide me. I'm sure that one of the things you must have on your minds, all you Youth MPs, is what you are going to say in your speeches, when it's your turn to express your views; and how you are going to respond to the speeches of others.

'Speaking out' is the usual image that comes to mind of what goes on in the Debating Chamber of New Zealand's House of Representatives. It's the picture we see in the TV clips from Parliamentary Question Time - MP "A" pressing Minister "B" about some concern or problem, perhaps; Minister "B" then rebutting effectively, or being left looking a little hopeless because the answer wasn't as effective as was intended. Or it might be a Budget address or one of the immediate responses that are so eagerly aired, from commentators inside the House and out. Most of the time, of course, the back benches are somewhat less packed than they are for Budget announcements. And those who do attend, divide their attention - some for the speaker, some for their newspapers, some for discussions with colleagues, or towards an interjection that might be converted into a sound bite.

But this customary image of the Debating Chamber - that it is only a place for people speaking - overlooks much of what should be the reality of New Zealand's Parliament. A great deal of the really valuable and I expect satisfying work is done in Committees. And in the debates themselves, what is not usually shown, and what we might, therefore, not remember, is that, hopefully, there are also people listening. Because unless this is the case, this chief institution of our sovereign nation is a place where those elected to it, spend their time talking only to themselves. Yet is a speech really a speech if its message is unheard? - if no-one listens, even when something useful is being said?

I am, as you might expect, hardly the first Governor-General to think that the need to listen is one of the keys to life, whether in the Debating Chamber or out in the wider world. My predecessor, Sir Paul Reeves, has been one of the more explicit on this subject. Sir Paul's chosen motto on his Coat of Arms is simply: Whakarongo. Whakarongo means "Listen"; "Attend"; or "Heed" . However, like all translations none of these conveys all of the associations that the word might have in its original setting - the sense that it is the listening or attending to or the heeding of others, that is important, not solely one's own views. Interestingly though, I think there is also a connotation from another meaning of the word: because whakarongo may also be rendered in English as "cause to hear." Which will only happen if you speak and argue well enough, I would think.

And that, I trust, is what is about to happen in the Green Chamber of this place, where Youth MPs will not only speak their piece about the topic to be debated, but will also hear differing, conflicting, or even opposing, views. Out of the clash of opinion, comes heat, certainly, but also some light, hopefully - the illumination that alone makes the setting of the path forward possible. That, I believe, is the essence of democracy - listening to, and allowing for, the other point of view.

Honourable Members, may you, during your coming deliberations, adhere to the highest Parliamentary ideals. May you also keep in mind that the views of your fellow Youth MPs, as well as your own, have a legitimate right to be considered. And may you then collectively decide, upon the understanding that you have together reached, upon what your recommendations should be, having regard always, to the public good.

I now declare this 1997 Youth Parliament of New Zealand, formally open.

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