The visit by Australian PM, Julia Gillard, to New Zealand this week has caused some interest and intrigue. Prime Minister John Key has cited opposition to her speaking in Parliament – and identified the Green Party as opposing.
The background to this is the following. Her predecessor, Kevin Rudd, was visiting last year and had specifically requested to address the NZ Parliament, in session. I was involved in this discussion in my role as the Green Party musterer, our representative on the House Business Committee.
After considerable discussion the Green Party opposed this proposal. We did so for the following reasons:
The NZ House of Representatives, sitting in session with the mace, is the symbol of national sovereignty. No one apart from New Zealand MPs has ever been allowed to address a sitting session of Parliament, not even our own Governor-General. The reason for this is that sitting sessions of Parliaments are for New Zealand law makers to exercise their democratic powers.
The idea that we would only invite our ‘closest friends’ to address Parliament in session is problematic. Who might they be, and where might the line be drawn? Australia might be seen as no. 1. Perhaps the US would be no. 2, and the UK no. 3. Which other countries might fit in the top ten? What would be the criteria? Where could the line be drawn? Such decisions are intrinsically political, and therefore subjectively influenced by the colours of a particular Government of the day – whereas the issue must be seen as having constitutional implications independent of politics.
The Green Party position, however, pertained only to having a foreign leader address the Parliament in session. We made it clear at the time that we welcomed the proposed visit as we had with previous visits.
The US Congress formally moves out of session when they receive addresses from overseas dignitaries; our position is consistent with this.
The PM, who is effectively acting as host of a state occasion, has decided that Ms Gillard may address MPs (not the Parliament) in the debating chamber, out of session (with no Mace present, and with Dr Lockwood Smith acting as chairman of the meeting and not as Speaker). While the Legislative Council Chamber would probably have been a better choice of venue, the choice is for the PM to make, and we respect that decision.
We are looking forward to listening to the Australian PM’s address to us.
We think it is healthy to have a debate about this issue but believe such a change should not be made at the whim of a sitting government.