The House of Representatives

Page 3 – Parliament

The structure of Parliament

Today there are two parts to Parliament – the House of Representatives (or the Lower House) and the Governor-General, but between 1854 and 1951 there was a third part, the Legislative Council (or the Upper House).

Legislative Council

The Legislative Council was made up of members who were appointed rather than elected. Its major role was to amend or revise the legislation passed in the House of Representatives.

The council was meant to be New Zealand's equivalent of the British House of Lords and play an independent and influential role. This did not happen, and the council never had too much to do. Once governments could appoint its members – a role they soon took from the governor, although he still approved the nominees – the council's independence weakened, especially when governments stacked it to suit their own purposes.

Every now and again council members bucked against the government. The big showdown came in 1891 when the council obstructed the policies of the Liberal government. Trying to stack the council backfired when the governor refused to approve the nominees; Britain finally ordered him to co-operate. From then on, there would be no chance of an independent council, but it gave governments an attractive way of rewarding loyal Members of Parliament (MPs).

Governor and Governor-General

The Governor-General (or, before 1917, the governor) summons and dissolves Parliament and assents to legislation it passes. The Governor-General also appoints the prime minister and attends the Executive Council to receive advice about government decisions. It is a convention that the Governor-General accepts the advice of a prime minister who is supported by a majority of the House.

Between 1840 and 1854 the governor, appointed from Britain, ruled New Zealand on behalf of the Queen. The settlers had little time for rule by a governor and wanted to elect their own government. After the elections in 1853, Governor George Grey angered the settlers by delaying the calling of Parliament. Grey's temporary successor, R.H. Wynyard, did not help when he refused to give power to a government formed from a majority in the House. This issue was not resolved until 1856.

After this, the House asserted itself, although the governor kept an important role in military matters and Maori policies. Things reached a head in the 1860s, especially when the spiralling costs of the wars in the North Island led the country into financial trouble. In the end, New Zealand undertook to pay for its military affairs and the governor's reserved powers over Maori affairs were removed. The governor became a largely symbolic figurehead.

Opening Parliament

Govenor arriving at Parliament by carriage

The Governor-General plays an important part in the official or state opening of Parliament. There have been changes over the years, and openings now generally occur only every three years (or after a general election). The basic format has remained largely unchanged since the first Parliament in 1854.

There is a 21-gun salute, guard of honour and trumpet fanfare to greet the arrival of the Governor-General outside Parliament. Since 1984, there has also been a significant Maori dimension, with a karanga (call for people to enter the area), a haka (ritual challenge) and a powhiri (formal welcome ceremony).

The state opening takes place in the Legislative Council Chamber, and it is a colourful affair that involves considerable ceremony and some very old traditions. The Governor-General follows Black Rod into the chamber, and then Black Rod summons the MPs from the Debating Chamber of the House of Representatives. It is part of the Westminster tradition that the Governor-General, who represents the monarch, does not enter the House, which is independent of the Crown. Black Rod knocks three times on the locked door of the debating chamber of the House, and then the MPs follow Black Rod, the Serjeant-at-Arms with the mace, and the Speaker to the Council Chamber. The Governor-General reads the Speech from the Throne, and as she or he leaves the buildings, there is usually singing and the national anthem is played.

How to cite this page

'Parliament', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 15-Jul-2014