by Gareth Hughes
On Q&A last Sunday, Speaker David Carter raised the issue of Parliament’s opening prayer. It’s an issue that’s been debated for years – how relevant and inclusive is having a Christian prayer at the opening of Parliament for New Zealand today?
When asked about whether the Prayer was redundant and outdated, Carter replied, “You could run that argument that maybe it’s time to have a look at it but unless there was a movement from Parliament themselves, from the Members of Parliament asking me to have a look at it, I would not attempt to change a tradition without good reason.”
Here is the prayer recited every day by the Speaker:
Almighty God, humbly acknowledging our need for Thy guidance in all things, and laying aside all private and personal interests, we beseech Thee to grant that we may conduct the affairs of this House and of our country to the glory of Thy holy name, the maintenance of true religion and justice, the honour of the Queen, and the public welfare, peace, and tranquillity of New Zealand, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
Speaking in my personal capacity, I think it’s time to have a discussion around it. Like many Kiwis and MPs I am not a Christian and I don’t think the prayer reflects the rich and varied religious and spiritual life in New Zealand in 2013. To me, it’s an issue of having Parliament – the representatives of the people of New Zealand – actually reflect the people of New Zealand rather than only one religious group. We should have an inclusive ceremonial opening that all kiwis can feel comfortable with, whatever their faith.
Not all Parliaments around the world have a prayer, though most inherited the practice from growing out of Britain’s Westminster model. South Africa’s National Assembly and parts of Canada have a moment of silence for personal reflection for MPs. In Scotland, they rotate speakers of different affiliations to reflect the make-up of the census. One week they might have a Christian speaker, and another a speaker with no religious affiliations.
On Q&A, Carter said that if the issue were raised, he would probably survey MPs like the Standing Orders Committee did in 2002. He’d then use the results of that survey to guide his decision on whether or not to reform the prayer.
That’s a good start but we should be going further and asking the public about it too It’s important that New Zealanders are able to have a say on the way our Parliament starts each Parliamentary day. It is symbolic for the country, and everybody should be able to contribute to shaping that symbolism. It’s time to have a discussion about how we want our Parliamentary day to start – whether we want to reword the Prayer, ensure it reflects the many cultures and faiths in New Zealand have a moment of quiet reflection, or something else. For example, Te Reo is only used once a year, yet could easily have a place in every opening ceremony.
When the Standing Orders are reviewed every year, the Green Party always calls for the Prayer to be broadened to reflect the multi-cultural society New Zealand has become. During the 2011 Standing Orders review, we submitted the following:
“Recommendation 3 [The Prayer]
The Speaker shall convene an advisory panel of recognised authorities to advise him on ways in which the Prayer can be broadened, in conformity with Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to reflect the multi-cultural society which New Zealand has become.”
We’ll be submitting again this year too and I’ll continue to campaign for a modern, inclusive, and relevant start to the Parliamentary day.