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Parliament's people

Page 6 – Staff

Parliamentary staff

Two organisations have provided services to Parliament since the mid-1980s. The Parliamentary Service is responsible for administrative arrangements, including attending to the needs of Members of Parliament (MPs) and looking after the buildings, grounds and facilities. The Office of the Clerk looks after the constitutional functions of Parliament, maintains the parliamentary record and provides services to select committees.

Clerk of the House

The Clerk of the House notes the proceedings of the House, provides procedural advice to the Speaker and MPs and is responsible for the records of Parliament. There has been a Clerk of the House since 1854. The Legislative Council had its own clerk who, by tradition, held the title of the Clerk of Parliaments. With the bulk of Parliament's work in the House of Representatives, it has been the Clerk of the House that has been the more important position through Parliament's history.

Like many other aspects of New Zealand's Parliament, the position of the clerk was inherited from the British Westminster system. Today the term clerk may suggest a junior administrative position, but that is not the case in parliamentary tradition. The clerk has a very senior and significant role, symbolised by the actual sitting position in the chamber, just below the Speaker's chair at the head of the Table of the House. From here, the clerk can advise on procedure and weighty constitutional and legal matters. Since the 1930s, legal expertise has been a necessary part of the job, and all clerks from then – bar one short-term clerk – had a legal qualification. In the early years of the House, the clerk was expected to dress very formally; for one early clerk, a black suit and scarlet stockings were part of the outfit. With the legal credentials required from the 1930s, the formal dress moved to the wig and gown of barristers, and the Clerk wears these when present in the House and on official occasions, such as the opening of Parliament.

Long-serving clerks

Most of New Zealand's Clerks of the House were in the job for many years. In fact, there have only been 12 clerks since 1854, and two of these held the job for a combined period of 52 years. Only two clerks have been short-lived. James Coates, the first Clerk of the House, was only in the role for about a month before he died; Grafton Francis Bothamley was clerk from 1945 to 1946.

Several long-serving clerks steered Parliament through important changes. Francis Campbell (1823–1911), who succeeded Coates in July 1854, held the post for a record 35 years, and he was the mainstay of Parliament in its formative decades. In 1868 he became Clerk of Parliaments. Thomas Donald Horn Hall (1885–1970), known as 'T.D.H.', was the first of the legally qualified clerks and held the position from 1930. He reorganised the Legislative Department and retired in 1945. David McGee was appointed as Clerk of the House in 1985, the year he published his standard reference work, Parliamentary practice in New Zealand. He dealt with major reforms to parliamentary procedure in the 1990s as well as managing the changes associated with the mixed member proportional representation system. McGee is regarded as a leading parliamentary Clerk in the Commonwealth.

The Legislative Department

A wide range of other positions supported the clerk. By the 1860s there was a clerk-assistant and a second clerk-assistant, followed later by a reader (who checked over all bills passed), an examiner of standing orders on private bills, a record clerk, a clerk of works for the buildings and a host of temporary or sessional clerks brought in for each session.

Between 1912 and 1985 these and other positions in Parliament were brought together into the Legislative Department, reporting to a minister in Cabinet. Running this department was a big job for the Clerk of the House who had overall charge of the library (except between 1966 and 1985), Bellamy's and Hansard as well as all the various clerks, messengers, orderlies, cleaners and temporary sessional staff – in fact, most of those who worked behind the scenes and in ceremonial duties.

Over the years, MPs raised concerns over the number of parliamentary staff and the cost of running the organisation, especially during times of economic depression, such as the 1880s, 1920s and 1930s. From the early 20th century, though, the department grew as demands for its services increased. By the 1980s it had become clear that the department was too unwieldy to continue as it was, especially without any legal definition of its functions. In 1985 its constitutional and administrative functions were separated, with the Office of the Clerk focusing on the former.

Parliament's Post Office

Parliament had to be able to communicate with people in New Zealand and around the world quickly. From the 1860s it had its own post office and a telegraph link. Postal staff and telegraph operators were employed to keep the telegraphs and letters flowing. Parliament also had its own stamp, and any letter posted from Parliament, even today, bears this stamp.

There have also been messengers, typists, police officers, cooks, gardeners, nightwatchmen, printers, waiters, shorthand reporters and librarians. There was a time when a job at Parliament was a way to give work to needy and elderly men or war veterans. People remained in these sought-after positions for many years. The Chief Messenger who joined the staff in 1862 stayed for 30 years, and this was not exceptional. Politicians often preferred it this way, for long-serving staff were experienced in the ways of Parliament. For many years women were mainly employed as cleaners.

A parliamentary dynasty

Members of the Bothamley family worked in Parliament for 80 years. It all began in 1871 when Arthur Thomas Bothamley started in the Legislative Council, becoming clerk-assistant in 1878. He was Black Rod from 1892 until 1937, the year before he died. His son Grafton Francis worked in the House as a sessional clerk from 1906 and was then employed permanently in 1913. He retired in 1946. His brother, Charles Mildmay, began as a committee clerk in 1917 and worked his way up the ladder to become the Clerk of Parliaments and of the Legislative Council until its abolition at the end of 1950.

Ceremonial positions

New Zealand's early politicians wanted Parliament to adopt and adapt the traditions of the British Parliament. In doing this, it was believed that New Zealand's Parliament would be invested with great dignity. Accordingly, a number of the ceremonial positions that are found in the British Parliament also appear in New Zealand.


The Serjeant-at-Arms (or Sergeant-at-Arms, until the 1950s) carries the mace, or the symbol of the Speaker's authority, at the official opening of Parliament and at the opening of every sitting, where she or he leads the Speaker into the House and announces the Speaker's presence.

The Serjeant initially carried a white wand instead of a mace and wore a black suit with white gloves and a white waistcoat. The first Sergeant was Philip Deck, a former sea captain, who was appointed in 1854, following the inaugural sitting of Parliament in May that year.

The tradition of the Serjeant dates back many centuries when Sergeants-at-Arms were bodyguards to the King or Queen. The mace is a stylised version of a large weapon shaped like a club. Traces of the bodyguard function can still be seen today. The Serjeant may be required to escort unruly MPs – and in the early days, some drunk ones – out of the House. On these rare occasions the role becomes more than symbolic and moves to one of enforcing the Speaker's authority.

There have been other tasks, too. In the 19th century, the Sergeant made sure that the House's snuff box was filled, for MPs were not allowed to smoke in the chamber. In 1877, the Sergeant placed George Jones, a newspaper reporter and future MP, under a mild form of House arrest after he was called to the Bar of the House following accusations in his paper about an MP. The arrest consisted of being held in a room where he was liberally supplied with refreshments and cheroots (a type of cigar) and allowed to play his violin while the House debated what action to take against him.

Lock the doors!

Just a week or so after he took up his duties in August 1854, Sergeant-at Arms Deck had to assert his position during an unruly debate. Opposition members who did not want to vote on an issue tried to flee the House in order to remove the quorum of members necessary for a vote to be taken. Someone shouted 'Lock the doors!', which Deck did, thinking that the Speaker had given him an order. As MPs chased each other around the House, clambered into the public gallery and shouted about a quorum, the Sergeant threatened to take them into custody.

The mace

The ultimate symbol of Parliament's authority is the mace. Today's mace, obtained in 1909, is modelled on the one used in the House of Commons. It is about 1.3 metres long, is made of sterling silver gilt with 18-carat gold, and is decorated with fleur de lys, and roses, harps and thistles, which symbolise the union of the British peoples. The Southern Cross and 'N.Z.' are engraved on a panel. The mace is kept in the Speaker's office when not in use; when the House is sitting, it is on the table of the chamber, and under the table when the House is in Committee of the Whole House.

New Zealand's Parliament got its first mace in 1866, which was 12 years after the first sitting. This did not stop the compilers of Parliament's records from writing it into the records from 1855 as if it did exist. This mace was a gift from a retired Speaker, Charles Clifford, because the premier was reluctant to go to the expense of purchasing one. It was destroyed by fire in 1907, and for two years, Parliament made do with a temporary mace made of polished puriri wood with gilt decorations.

Black Rod

The Legislative Council had its equivalent of the Sergeant-at-Arms, known as the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod, or Black Rod for short. The rod itself was initially just a plain black wooden staff, a little like a billiard cue, but the rod used since 1931 is more ornate. Arthur Bothamley became the first Black Rod in 1914, although he had been acting in this role since 1892. Black Rod became a ceremonial position once the Legislative Council was abolished at the end of 1950, and today, Black Rod plays an important part in the official opening of Parliament. In 1993, Bill Nathan became the first Maori Black Rod.

How to cite this page

Staff, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated