Wednesday, December 10, 2008

New Zealand! Pomp Ceremony and Politics.

Pictures: the Chief Justice, flanked by two judges declares Parliament open; the new Speaker the Hon. Dr Lockwood Smith; Governor General Anand Satyanand inspects a Guard of Honour; the GG escorted by dignitaries into Parliament House; Black Rod, the GG's representative summons MPs who sit behind the closed doors waiting for the GG invitation/summons!

This 8th and 9th of December were historical days in New Zealand, the State Opening of New Zealand Parliament, in Wellington...............Parliament TV channel showing viewers live events surrounding this political, historical and cultural event; the channel has gone live since the morning of Monday and is even now (evening of the 10th) telecasting a heated debate on a Finance Bill that the new National Party government is rushing thru, on the basis of a promise to the electorate that electoral promises will be fulfilled in the first 100 days in office!

I have sat glued to the channel since the morning of the 8th. What I have seen is not "pomp and circumstances" as seen for the State Opening of the British Parliament, but a series of events and ceremonies far more subdued but not any less in dignity and decorum; small is beautiful, it sure is!

The State Opening starts like this: taking a page from the hoary traditions of the British Crown, the Governor General Anand Satyanand (of Fiji Indian origin, distinguished lawyer and before this appointment the NZ Ombudsman, a position of legal watchman) sends Commissioners, the NZ Chief Justice with two senior judges, to declare open this 49th Parliament. The Governor General, representing Queen Elisabeth II, will only enter parliament after the MPs are sworn in; so the declaration opening Parliament is done on his behalf by Commissioners
(His majesty's Commissioners) , senior judges led by the Chief Justice.

The British Monarch has, since the past three centuries, entered the British Parliament only to deliver a speech, from the throne, outlining government policy of the day, the speech prepared by his Prime Minister, and this after Parliament is declared open earlier by his representatives.

What does it look like here in New Zealand? "Small," simple and dignified, as the Chief Justice
Dame Sian Elias walks down, yes walks down, with two seniormost judges, all in regal flowing red robes and white judicial wigs on their heads, their walking across to Parliament House, not in the least diminished by the lack of horse and carriage, or a limousine!! Very stately and dignified.

So this regal trio walks up the red carpeted steps of the stately building and, led by an Usher, walks past a Maori welcome greeting, very colourful, and enters the Debating Chamber of the House of Representatives, where the elected, but not yet sworn ed in, members await to hear the Order from the Governor General.

The Chief Justice, a bespectacled, somewhat frail and small lady with quiet dignity and poise, reads out the Order, and sits, along with her two judicial colleagues, at a table below the vacant Speaker's Chair whilst the Clerk of the House, also a woman, in black robe, (look at this: some time back the Prime Minister Helen Clark, the previous Governor General, Dame Cartwright, Chief Justice Dame Sian Elias....... women led NZ !!) ...........I was saying the Clerk of the House also reads out communiques and orders.........................and thats it; with the equal quiet dignity and poise, the Chief Justice and the two Justices walk out of the Chamber!

With this formal opening of Parliament, its time to swear in the MPs; again a subdued but very interesting sight as MPs take the Oath of Office with the Clerk of the House officiating; the Oath to "Queen Elisabeth II, her heirs and successors," some swearing their oath on the Bible or other holy books, their oath ending with the phrase "so help me God"- and the secularists or atheists ending the oath with the words "according to Law." I think a couple of Maori members took the oath, in the Maori language, by the Treaty of Waitangi added in by them before the oath to the Queen! A good sample of Kiwi democracy!

Members are, Christians of various denominations, mainly Anglican and Pebysterian, some Muslims and Hindus, even Sikh(!!), and ofcourse the agnostics and non-believers; and from diverse ethnic backgrounds, Kiwi European, Maori, Samoan and other Pacific Islanders, Chinese, Korean, Indians, Bangladeshi..............thus representing peoples settled here from all over the world. I love this!

Dr Lockwood Smith, an MP of many years, of a rather deceptively frail but proud bearing, his eyes always alert, with a look that seems to scrutinise everything without looking rude, a huge smile on his face and arching eyebrows, an altogether compelling personality, is, next, unanimously elected Speaker of the House; he walks up to the Speakers rostrum, stands just below his chair, seemingly reluctant to occupy this, delivers a short speech and then slowly ascends the steps to the Speaker's Chair!

The next day, 9th December, the formal State Opening of Parliament, and delivery of a speech "from the throne" outlining government policies, by the Governor General Anand Satyanand, follow British traditions. The GG arrives in a state limousine, is first greeted by a Maori cultural group, Mana Whenua with a traditional Maori welcome dance. A Maori welcome greeting, known as Haka , an ancient tribal dance.

A tri-Services Guard of Honor follows when the GG seemed very solemn and cheerful by turns; then, with an escort led by Black Rod (see picture above-Black Rod -knocks door of the Debating Chamber) the GG, accompanied by his wife Susan Satyanand, enters the "Uppper House"-the Legislative Assembly Chamber (this is now only used for delivering the government sppech "from the throne" by the Governor General, otherwise New Zealand has no Upper House)- and is ceremoniously seated on the throne........... this signifying the GG is the Queen's representative.

From traditions drawn from the British Parliament, the GG then directs Black Rod to summon the MPs................Black Rod then walks across to the Debating Chamber where the MPs sit awaiting the Governor General's request to attend on him in the "Upper House"; this "summons" is ceremoniously delivered by Black Rod who first knocks (see picture) on the closed doors of the House, demands entry, which is given reluctantly, the chamber doors are opened slowly and a further blockage of the aisle by a rod across it. Black Rod addresses the Speaker and Members that His Excellency invites them to the Upper Chamber...........the Speaker and MPs then slowly walk across to the Upper House..........all this signifying their independence from the Crown!

The Governor General and his wife, Susan, seated on gold trimmed thrones flanked by the Prime Minister John Keys and Leader of the opposition Phil Geoff, with a number of Judges and Chiefs from the Armed Services seated behind on both sides.
The speech prepared by the PM, with its main thrust on reviving the flagging NZ economy, delivered .................the GG is escorted out of the Parliament building, a short version of the British anthem by the services band ............and, as the TV commentator puts it............the GG and his wife now proceed to Governor's House for lunch!!

But far more moving, to watch and hear new first time MPs deliver their maiden speeches.........they are some extraordinary persons with many great stories and outstanding achievements, stirring tales of families who have worked very hard, parents giving their all, migrants working very hard in a new homeland, school and college in the day and working at nights, members who return from foreign countries after some outstanding work in jobs or MP declaring the colour of skin should not determine who is a New Zealander.........very stirring....... and a great confidence to see New Zealand has very outstanding people in Parliament!

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