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E nga reo, e nga mana, e hine mā, e tama mā, tēnā koutou katoa. Hoatu te mana ki a ratou kua tae mai nei ki tenei whenua; kua wheturangitia i te korowai o Ranginui; kua hangaia i tēnei tikanga hoki. Distinguished orators, distinguished leaders young women and young men I greet you all. Give credit and recognition to those who came to this land; to those who have departed and merged as stars in the heavens; and to those who built this tikanga.
I specifically acknowledge: Rt Hon David Carter, Speaker of the House; Hon Nikki Kaye, Minister of Youth Affairs; and Grant Robertson, Deputy Leader of the Opposition – tēnā koutou katoa.
Thank you for inviting me to the opening of the 2013 Youth Parliament. It is an important event. And it is the significance of this gathering and your role as youth MPs that I want to address today.
First of all, let me begin by congratulating you all on your selection to the seventh Youth Parliament. To put that into context, each of the 121 youth MPs has been chosen by their Member of Parliament to represent them, and the 20 youth journalists were chosen by the Press Gallery. Some MPs used essay and speech competitions to choose their representatives, others interviewed you, and at least one MP ran a competition through Facebook.
While you are here in Wellington, in the engine room of New Zealand’s government, you should not be daunted by your role or who you represent. In this place the vote of Brooke Waterson, who represents the Prime Minister, Rt Hon John Key, has the same value as Amber Coates-Reid, who represents the Leader of the Opposition, David Shearer.
One exception to that sense of anxiety might be Simarjit Singh who represents the Mana electorate MP Kris Faafoi, who I understand is the only current MP who served as a Youth MP . Another one exception might be Andre Knops, who is representing Mr Carter. I understand Mr Carter will vacate the Chair when the House receives the select committee reports . No doubt Mr Carter will be looking to see if he can pick up any tips from you Andre that he might apply for keeping order in the House!
Seriously, you have all been given a unique opportunity to learn first-hand about New Zealand’s democratic and political process. You are at the heart of New Zealand’s supreme democratic institution, the House of Representatives.
Judges are appointed. Governors-General are appointed. Even, the Prime Minister and cabinet ministers are appointed. It is only Members of the House of Representatives that are elected by New Zealanders, and that imposes a special duty to represent New Zealanders’ interests in this place.
As Youth MPs you have the opportunity to learn about the work of an MP, to debate a bill in the House and to sit on select committees. It is also an opportunity to learn about others who work in these grounds, the lobbyists, the political advisers to parties, and the press gallery. In relation to that last grouping, you should expect to be kept on your toes by the members of the Youth Press Gallery. They will be reporting on proceedings and asking Youth MPs to justify their positions.
Being a Youth MP, however, is not confined to this place and time. Your work will continue for the rest of the year as you work with your MP in their communities. That continued participation recognises that being a MP is about more than just being here in Wellington. It is also about listening to the needs of the community, addressing community concerns and representing them back here. While the Capital maybe the engine room of our democracy, its heart and soul lies in the community, with the people who elect our MPs.
This is also a time to learn about the branches of our system of government. If you could stand on the roof of this building and look around, you would see next to it the Executive Wing - the Beehive. It is there that Cabinet meets and the policies and draft bills the Government wishes to pursue are hammered out. It is also the place where I often attend Executive Council, and Cabinet Ministers, as Executive Councillors, advise me on the use of my constitutional powers in signing regulations and giving the Royal Assent to bills passed by the House.
Across the road, are the homes of the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal, our two highest courts – a fundamental part of our constitution. While judges are appointed by me on the advice of the Attorney-General, the judiciary are independent from Parliament and the Executive. Because if Parliament decides what the law is, it is the judiciary that decides what it means, and that is an important power indeed!
If you look further around you will see at the bottom of The Terrace, the homes of both The Treasury and the Reserve Bank. They are two important agencies of the public service, which implement the laws passed by Parliament and advise the Government on options to meet its policy objectives.
I now want to turn to this chamber, where the Legislative Council once sat. The Council was New Zealand’s first legislature, and initially consisted of just three people – the Governor, the Colonial Secretary and the Colonial Treasurer. With the first election of a House of Representatives in 1853, and its first meeting the following year, the Legislative Council became the Upper House of our Parliament. Members were initially appointed for life, but that was later adjusted to a seven year term.
The two Houses, along with the Sovereign, represented by the Governor and later Governor-General, formed our Parliaments from 1854 until the Council was abolished in 1950. The Council had a colourful history, at times obstructing governments, at other times being at the forefront of social change, and many notable New Zealanders served on it.
While New Zealand is a young country by international standards, it is an “old” democracy and our country has been a world leader in voting rights. Next year marks 170 years since the elected House of Representatives met for the first time on 24 May 1854. While initially only men who owned property could vote, progressively over the next 40 years the right to vote was extended. In 1867 all Māori men could vote and in 1879 all Pākehā men could vote.
But it is events that occurred here in this room in September 1893 that set New Zealand on a new and radical path, and yet one that almost every nation in the world has followed. It was here on 8 September 1893 that two male councillors changed their positions, and voted for an Electoral Act that granted New Zealand women the right to vote in national elections – the first nation in the world to do so. It was signed into law on the 19 September by my predecessor, Governor Lord Glasgow. By all accounts it was against his better judgement, but the rules of parliamentary democracy meant he had to sign it into law.
Suffrage leader, Kate Sheppard, whose image is on our $10 note, was jubilant and very aware that this was a world first. She wrote:
“The news is being flashed far and wide and before our Earth has revolved on her axis, every civilised community within the reach of the electric wires will have received the tiding that civic freedom has been granted to the women of New Zealand. We are glad and proud to think that even in so conservative a body as the Legislative Council there is a majority of men who are guided by the principles of reason and justice … who have triumphed over prejudice, narrow-mindedness and selfishness.”
It was not until 1919 that women won the right to stand for election to the House of Representatives, and it was not until 1933 that the first woman was elected. Ironically, given its role in the suffrage campaign, it was not until 1941 that women were able to be members of the Legislative Council – the first women were appointed in 1946. Three of the 29 councillors appointed to pass the bill to abolish the Legislative Council were women. Since that time, New Zealand’s Parliament has been unicameral.
Today this place is often empty and quiet. It has, nonetheless, a place in our current practices. Neither the Governor-General nor the Queen enters the debating chamber of the House of Representatives – in line with a 300-year-old tradition. The last sovereign who entered the floor of the House of Commons in Britain ended up getting beheaded, and that has set the tone ever since - naturally it's a precedent we don't want to follow!
This room still plays an important part, in the State Openings of Parliament. The speech I delivered here on 21 December 2011 – the speech from the Throne - was written by the Government and outlined its policy proposals for its three year term. The speech also set the scene for the first debate in the House.
As a part of your Parliament you will debate an Electoral Reform Bill, with proposals to reduce the voting age to 17 years, to introduce electronic voting, to extend the term of Parliament to four years, and to make voting compulsory for all eligible voters. Significant proposals such as this may well have been foreshadowed in the Speech from the Throne. In that speech, I would have indicated the Government’s plans to introduce legislation to modernise the electoral system - to increase civic participation and to extend the government’s ability to effect a longer term outlook. The speech may have indicated a need to garner cross-party support. With that said, I want to wish you all the best for your deliberations, and we will all be interested to learn what decisions you come to.
In conclusion, you have been given a unique opportunity to learn and to show leadership. You – our rangitahi – represent our nation’s hopes and ambitions for the future. One day you will inherit this beautiful country and it will be people like yourselves who will sit in our Parliament and make decisions for the future of our nation and our democracy.
To close, I want to give credit and recognition to those who came to this land; to those who have departed and merged as stars in the heavens; and to those who built the tikanga of our democracy. In doing so, I will quote from the maiden speech of one of the first women Legislative Councillors, Mary Anderson. Her quote focuses upon her responsibility in being here, and it applies to MPs otherwise and you Youth MPs: “I do not look upon myself as a woman in this Chamber … I claim to represent the people”.
And on that note, it gives me great pleasure to declare 2013 Youth Parliament officially open. Kia ora, kia kaha, kia manawanui e huihui tātou katoa.