The debating chamber of New Zealand's House of Representatives
The debating chamber of New Zealand's House of Representatives

Passing a motion and other Parliamentary jargon

If you were asked “that the question is that the question be now put”, or “that the part stand apart”, would you understand? If you heard someone “seek leave to pass a motion” would you crack-up giggling or throw your hands up in the air in confusion?

The issue of Parliamentary jargon was recently raised on RNZ’s The House series.

Our Parliament has been around for more than 150 years and we should be proud of our democratic history but just because someone used a term in Westminster 200 years ago it doesn’t mean we still have to use it in 2017.

Parliament is full of arcane, complex terms. A speech is called a ‘call’, an amendment to a bill is called a ‘Supplementary Order Paper’, and for something to be included, it is described as ‘standing apart’. Thanks to a rule change this year at least visitors in the public gallery are no longer called ‘strangers’.

Hundreds of thousands of Kiwis tune into the Parliamentary TV or radio channel every year and many of them must be scratching their heads when we debate cognate or omnibus bills, subordinate legislation or disallowable and subsidiary instruments. I’d wager many MPs would be confused too.
Why can’t we just use plain English? has a style guide to “make things as simple and clear as possible for our users — to make it easier for people to get things done with government”, why can’t our Parliament also?

The U.K. Parliament has looked at this issue a couple of times and reported that complex, outdated language can be a barrier to public engagement. It can intimidate people make them feel like they don’t understand. I know from personal experience it can be difficult even for MPs to follow. It’s exclusionary and unnecessary.

I’m urging our Parliament to review parliamentary language to encourage plain English, clear and understandable language. We should be encouraging more people to engage with the democratic decision making process not confusing and turning them away. Democracy misunderstood is democracy denied.

The public already think we argue too much, wouldn’t it be nice if they could understand what we were actually arguing about?