Kennedy Graham

Syria – the Urgent Debate that wasn’t

by Kennedy Graham

I blogged last week about the constitutional shortcomings New Zealand faces in debating issues of foreign policy and international relations.

The Government has committed only to a ministerial statement in the House after a NZ policy-decision has been taken in response to the US request for support for a military strike against Syria. This compares with the experience in the UK whose PM recalled Parliament and respected a vote against his own Motion following an extensive debate before a decision was made.

The Government’s approach is an insult to New Zealand democracy. So on Wednesday I requested an Urgent Debate on the matter in the House. The decision belongs to the Speaker. He is bound by Standing Order 386 which specifies three criteria: timing; responsibility; importance. The Speaker declined the request. Consider his reasoning.


An Urgent Debate must focus on a ‘particular case of recent occurrence’. I argued that the use of chemical weapons in Syria on 21 August was just that. There was a global perception that chemical weapons had been used that day, and Western democracies had undertaken consideration of the issue over the previous week. New Zealand had been briefed within recent days by the US which had requested our ‘moral support’ for a military strike. The UN Secretary-General had warned that a military response against Syria could unleash more turmoil in the region. He had said the use of force is only legal with the Security Council’s approval or in self-defence.

The Speaker disagreed with my contention. The NZ Government had not yet made a decision on the request by the US Secretary of State. No case of recent occurrence had therefore occurred.


The case must involve the administrative or ministerial responsibility of the Government. I noted that the Prime Minister had said on 2 September that the NZ Government would carefully consider a request by the US Secretary of State asking whether New Zealand would provide moral support for a military intervention in Syria. (He had also indicated that New Zealand might support a strike that was unauthorised by the UN.) Clearly the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister had responsibility for the NZ response.

The Speaker, however, shifted NZ responsibility onto the external actions. There was, in his view, no Ministerial responsibility for the ‘global perception’ that chemical weapons had been used in Syria, or for the response of the US Secretary of State, or for the UN Secretary-General.


The case has to command the immediate attention of the House and the Government. I argued that the public had a right to know where the Government stood in regard to providing military, logistical or moral support to an international operation led by the United States that, according to the UN Secretary-General yesterday, would be illegal without Security Council support or a sound case for self-defence. The House would be in recess this coming week, and that was the time the UN Security Council would meet, the US would make its unilateral decision, and a New Zealand response would be required. So it required immediate attention.

The Speaker did not directly address this issue.

Reflection on Standing Order 386

This leaves New Zealand scrambling for its democratic integrity. Where the UK now has a convention that the Government may not exercise the royal prerogative to deploy force without parliamentary support, the NZ parliamentary procedure makes it impossible. No debate can be held on New Zealand’s deployment of armed force, or support of military action by another state, until the decision has been made, either to deploy or support.

That precludes any parliamentary input into an Executive decision; it allows only retroactive comment. By definition, such comment is irrelevant to the formation of policy. It relegates Parliament’s involvement to the level of media comment and academic analysis. No offence, but that is not Parliament’s role.

For the sake of our democratic integrity, Standing Order 396 needs to be changed.

Reflection on the Speaker’s Ruling of 4 Sept.

It would not be impossible for a Speaker to interpret the Standing Order liberally, for the sake of democratic debate:
1. The original public statement of the PM could be taken as a particular case of recent occurrence, rather than an anticipated final pronouncement of policy;
2. Ministerial responsibility might be taken to be responsibility for policy development that would benefit from parliamentary input;
3. He could address the question of public importance and acknowledge that the issue is sufficiently grave as to warrant the immediate attention of the House and the Government, given that the following week was a recess.

But he did not.

Published in Justice & Democracy | Parliament by Kennedy Graham on Mon, September 9th, 2013   

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