Parliament is New Zealand’s supreme law-making body. Its members study proposals for new laws, debate their likely consequences, and decide whether or not the proposals should become laws.
Proposed laws are introduced into Parliament as bills. When passed and given the Royal assent by the Governor-General, they become Acts. Acts can cover almost any subject, such as which crimes are punishable by prison, how much money the government is allowed to spend, and where people are allowed to fish. Acts may be public (of general importance) or private (limited to particular bodies, groups or individuals).
Parliament can delegate its law-making power to the Executive Council, Ministers, government departments, local authorities and other bodies. These subordinate bodies can then also make laws, but only within the limits decided by Parliament.
Local authorities are an important example of bodies that have delegated powers. Decisions about stray dogs in Taupo, about building new stormwater drains in Dunedin, and about which rugby league club gets to use the local football field on Saturday afternoon, are best made by local people.Parliament also delegates many powers to Ministers. These powers cover things such as motor vehicle safety regulations, setting salaries for civil servants, and appointing ambassadors to foreign countries. If the government had to ask Parliament about every day-to-day detail of running the country, Parliament would become bogged down. Only the most important issues (such as the Budget) are reserved for Parliament.
Parliament is not the only source of law. Parliament makes statute laws, which are called Acts of Parliament. The courts decide how existing laws are to be interpreted and applied. The decisions of the courts create what is called common law.
Common law is based on precedents – decisions which are used as a guide, or as an authoritative rule, in later, similar cases. Judges extend the law by applying the fundamental principles of the law to specific disputes between parties. If similar disputes occur in the future, the previous case is used as a guide. This helps to ensure that the law always treats everyone equally, without favouritism.
If Parliament disagrees with how the courts interpret its laws, it can pass new laws which clarify what it wants.
While Parliament creates many new laws every year, much of its work is to change existing laws. These can be repealed (cancelled) by a new Act, or changed by amending Acts. These developments will often be in response to changing economic or social conditions, or to cases where the law has proved to be unworkable or difficult.
Parliament is always careful to follow precise and proper procedures for making and changing laws. These ensure not only that all MPs can have a say in making laws, but also that the public can have a say too. The process by which a bill becomes an Act is shown on page 31.
Members of the public can lobby MPs and parties at any time to create or change laws. They also have the opportunity for direct input into select committees, which are a vital part of the law-making process. Their role, and how the public can have their say, is explained in detail on page 32.
Most of the time that the House sits is set aside for Government business. This means consideration of bills that the Government wants enacted.
The MPs from each party in Parliament have regular meetings of their members. Such a meeting is called a caucus. Members of each caucus discuss bills, and often decide on a common position to take. When these laws come to a vote in the House, all members of a party then usually vote the same way.
Normally, the Government will only introduce a bill if it has already consulted its members and other supporters and therefore knows it will be passed.
Occasionally, an MP will vote for or against a bill in opposition to the decision of their caucus. This is called crossing the floor. Most parties think it is embarrassing if their members cross the floor, so this is discouraged.
While it may often seem that opposition parties always oppose whatever the government proposes, this is not always so. Many Government bills deal with issues that are not controversial, and these are often passed with wide support from many parties. However, because they are not controversial, these bills seldom make news headlines.
Not all of the bills that come before the House are Government bills. Every second week that Parliament sits, time is set aside for Members’ bills. These are bills promoted by individual MPs, not by the Government.
Often, these bills are promoted by Members of the opposition parties and are opposed to Government policies. Such bills are seldom passed. However, some Member's bills deal with matters on which the Government has no policy.
Bills dealing with moral issues such as selling wine and beer on Sundays, and what kind of information should be available to adopted children about their natural parents, are usually decided by a conscience vote. This is where MPs vote according to their own conscience, and parties do not decide how their members should vote.
Find out more!
of the Clerk of the House of Representatives