Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Learning new things

Yesterday, I watched part of the Commission Opening of the 51st New Zealand Parliament. Yesterday, I also learned it’s called the Commission Opening. Never too old to learn new things—or to have an opinion about them.

The Commission Opening was held after a proclamation from the Governor General issued on October 8, summoning the Parliament to meet yesterday. The primary purpose of that day is the swearing in of Members of Parliament and the election of the Speaker.

The Governor General doesn’t attend the Commission Opening, but sends three senior judges who wear those awful old-fashioned wigs and flowing red robes. They’re led by the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod, basically a guy carrying symbolic black stick, a bit like a length of thick dowel, like for a towel rod or something. The three judges, the Royal Commission, read the Letters Patent and other formalities and declare Parliament open on the Governor General’s behalf.

The Members of Parliament—newly elected and returning—are then sworn in by the Clerk of the House. Members of Parliament can either swear an oath or they can make an affirmation, and they can do so in either English or Te Reo Māori.

The oaths, not surprisingly, end with “so help me God,” and many people assume that the people who choose the affirmation are atheists or agnostics, but making the affirmation doesn't mean they're NOT religious; it could merely mean that they believe in secular in government. In fact, the use of the oath or affirmation cuts across party and ideological lines, so I truly don’t think that in NZ the choice of one or the other means anything. I noticed that two of the candidates for Leader of the Labour Party gave the oath, and the other two gave the affirmation. Big deal.

The clerk called MPs up to the Table of the House in alphabetical order, generally in groups of three (it can be groups of up to five). However, sometimes it was one at a time because someone wanted to give the oath in Māori, or because one person wanted to give the oath or affirmation, but the next folks on the list wanted the other.

Incidentally, the option to give an affirmation wasn’t added for atheists and agnostics. It actually originated with the English Parliament’s Act of Toleration of 1689, which was introduced for Quakers, who don’t make oaths. Even so, it was a practice that was already becoming common by that time. It became customary in other countries that derived their laws from England, as New Zealand and Australia did, for example.

Both New Zealand and Australia require MPs to swear an oath/make an affirmation stating loyalty to the Queen. In NZ, they say:
"I, [name], swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Her heirs and successors, according to law. So help me God."

"I, [name], solemnly, sincerely, and truly declare and affirm that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Her heirs and successors, according to law.”
If I were an MP, I would say the affirmation, just as I did when I became a New Zealand citizen, and for exactly the same reason: “I feel it's inappropriate to make a plea to, or pledge based on, one particular religion; it has no place in a purely civic matter.” There’s nothing new about that—I’ve talked about it in one form another on this blog many times—but that particular sentiment is something I wrote 12 years ago.

Even so, and staunch secularist that I am, I nevertheless DON’T object to people choosing the oath if they prefer it. Instead, I object to the wording in both the oath and the affirmation.

The oath should be to New Zealand, or even better, to the people of New Zealand, at whose pleasure the MPs serve, and who they really work for. I’m actually not alone in that, and even rightwing blogger David Farrar has supported that, too.

I first started thinking about this when I watched an Australian citizenship ceremony on Australia Day (carried live on Sky News). Their citizenship affirmation says:
From this time forward
I pledge my loyalty to Australia and its people,
whose democratic beliefs I share,
whose rights and liberties I respect, and
whose laws I will uphold and obey.
I think that’s far better than what either country uses for their MPs oaths, and also better than New Zealand’s citizenship affirmation:
“I [name] solemnly and sincerely affirm that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Queen of New Zealand, Her heirs and successors according to the law, and that I will faithfully observe the laws of New Zealand and fulfil my duties as a New Zealand citizen.”
My problem with the wording of NZ’s Parliamentary oath is that it is only to the Queen. I think NZ’s citizenship affirmation is an improvement, but gets it backwards. I’d rather she wasn’t mentioned at all—like the Australian citizenship affirmation (an aside: The oath equivalents of the affirmations I mentioned are identical except they swear rather than affirm and add the word “God” in a phrase).

Obviously, not everyone shares my views, and not just diehard monarchists, either. For example, National Party MP Simon O’Connor thinks an oath/affirmation “only works” if it’s to a person. In a series of increasingly churlish Tweets, he said:
“Those MPs wanting a change to the oath/affirmation wording clearly do not understand the point of an oath/affirmation.”

“An oath/affirmation pretty much only works if to a person. You don’t make oaths to concepts, pieces of paper, or poetic words.”

“Queen of NZ represents all kiwis regardless of partisan politics. I guess some only want an alternative that suits their view of NZ.”
US officials swear an oath to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States of America” something that embodies concepts, is a piece of paper AND has poetic words. I don’t even think O’Connor would be silly enough to claim that US oaths don’t “work” because they’re not to a person!

Moreover, the Queen doesn’t “represent” any person, Kiwi or otherwise. Instead, she’s the symbol of our Parliamentary democracy, and it and the government formed under Parliament do things in her name, but it’s not because she “represents” individuals—that’s Parliament’s job! In fact, most of the ceremonies surrounding the opening of Parliament are meant to symbolise the independence of Parliament from the monarchy.

He’s right that she’s supposed to be above partisan politics, but that has nothing to do with anything: The question is, to whom should the members of Parliament swear their allegiance and loyalty, and I say it should be the people of New Zealand. He said to someone else that oaths “can be to anything, but their practical value is limited if there isn't someone specific to hold you to that oath.” I think that’s flat out absurd.

I also think it’s ironic that O’Connor decided to slam those who don’t see things his way as people who “only want an alternative that suits their view of NZ,” because that’s exactly what he’s doing.

This obviously gets at the whole question of republicanism (lower case r, thank you very much), about which a minority of Kiwis on either side feel very strongly, but about which the majority feels—well, if not nothing, than maybe very, very little. I’m convinced that one day New Zealand will be a republic (and so will Australia and Canada), but not any time soon. However, the whole question of form of government is irrelevant.

Regardless of whether New Zealand is a monarchy or a republic, I feel that the elected representatives in Parliament OUGHT to swear their loyalty and allegiance to the people of New Zealand. It really is as simple as that.

The State Opening of Parliament was today. I didn’t watch it. I had real-life things to do today, and, besides: I’d had enough pomp and ceremony already.

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