Recently, I had occasion to be present at the finals of the New Zealand Secondary Schools Debating Contest.
It took place in Parliament Buildings in Wellington, and more specifically, in the Legislative Chamber of the House of Representatives, a place no longer used for parliamentary debates since the abolition of the Upper House in 1950.
It is however used for formal occasions such as the Opening of Parliament after a General Election by the Governor-General when a speech is made from the Throne.
The room is also freely made available to community groups for their conferences and meetings, as well as for events such as the one I was watching.
There were representatives from schools all over New Zealand, at the end of contests in regions that had taken place in earlier times of the year.
The national contest is now more than 25 years old and is an enterprise that has grown each year, particularly in recent times.
As the teenage students presented their streams of thrusts and parries in arguments, on issues of the day, my mind turned to Parliament and then the Chamber itself.
So far as Parliament is concerned, it is within the precincts, that our elected representatives, in the House, or in committees, debate the concerns of the times, and adopt a resolution if there is a majority in favour the approach taken by the Government, be it a legislative or financial response that is called for.
This has been done applying the principles and precedents of the Parliamentary tradition that our country inherited from the United Kingdom.
I figured that people from most parts of the Commonwealth would feel at home in New Zealand Parliament because of similarities of approach.
There are currently more than 50 countries in the Commonwealth, a great many of them having parliamentary government like that in New Zealand.
Turning to the room itself, I observed that it comprises walls and floor and lights and seating, as might be expected, but that there were four or five reasons why the Chamber could be described as a symbol for democracy in New Zealand.
First, the walls were panelled in indigenous rimu timber, creating a significant New Zealand atmosphere with craftsmanship displayed in its making. On the floor was carpet with fleur de lys patterned carpet as is to be encountered in the mother of Parliaments in Westminster London, from where our country’s parliamentary traditions have been derived. On the walls were Crests of our country in both colonial and dominion times when the Crest contained imperial lions on each side of the shield and that more recent which has a Maori Warrior and a European woman standing on each side.
On the upper levels of the room where a public gallery was filled with an audience of more than 200 secondary students as spectators, were marble columns – whether Doric or Corinthian, I could not discern, but in each case they could be said to reflect Greek and Roman origins from where our notions of governance and democracy have also been taken.
The debating process
I thought how debates had been central to the way in which parliamentary practice had developed, and that laws were only possible after having been assented to by a majority of those present in the House and entitled to vote at the time that that process is undertaken.
I was reminded that those debates and the rule of Parliament had been operating throughout the life of the present building and in those before it ever since New Zealand first created a legislature in 1852.
The first New Zealand Parliament sat in 1854 so that this year marks the 160th anniversary. With that length of unbroken democracy, New Zealand can take its place in the minority of countries that have had representative rule functioning for so long.
It therefore seemed to me that the venue was entirely suitable for the undertaking of debates by citizens other than members of Parliament, particularly as there might be more than one or two out of the sixty or eighty participants who, after life at school, would be minded to make a career in political life in our country.
I then proceeded to begin my speech congratulating the participants referring to the room and democracy in the matter outlined above. I also offered the view that that constructive debate is a necessary part of an informed and effective democracy and that there could not be a more fitting place to hold the Championship finals.
Sir Anand Satyanand Lecture
Sir Anand Satyanand is former Governor General of New Zealand. The above article is exclusive to this publication. The annual Indian Newslink Sir Anand Satyanand Lecture will be held on Monday, July 28, 2014 at Pullman Hotel, Auckland. Auckland Regional Facilities Executive Chairman and Former Secretary General of the Commonwealth and former Deputy Prime Minister & Foreign Minister Sir Don McKinnon will be the Guest Speaker, under the theme, ‘The Challenges of Democracy confronting New Zealand.’ Member of Parliament and former Foreign Affairs & Trade Minister Hon Phil Goff will be the Master of Ceremonies. Tickets to the event, including cocktails from 630 pm to 730 pm, Black Tie Dinner and the Lecture, is priced at $140 plus GST per person (Tables seating ten persons at $1400 plus GST) are now available.
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