For many, the chatter about the Parliamentary Prayer is a non-event.
After all, New Zealand is a fiercely secular state, without a state religion, but with a large cultural and ethnic diversity.
So, what is the fuss about?
There are two parts to this question: whether Parliament should begin each sitting day with some sort of invocation, and second, what form should any invocation take.
To take the second part first, in a secular society, any such invocation needs to be as broadly based as possible.
In a society as increasingly diverse as ours it is arrogant bunkum to suggest, nay insist, as some of the more self-righteous do that it can only be of Judeo-Christian form. That may have been a legitimate reflection of New Zealand a generation or more ago, but it is not the case today.
In any case, it is a comparatively trivial point, as is evidenced by the total silence of the mainstream churches, who know full well when a cause is lost.
Forget too, the peripheral argument about the way the Speaker of the House has gone about proposing change.
That is frankly irrelevant – it is the prerogative of the Speaker after all, and he has chosen to exercise it, albeit a little more directly than his predecessors.
The most facile point of all is the objection that he did so in Maori. So? It is an official language of New Zealand after all, and now able to be followed by an increasing number of New Zealanders, so the suggestion that he was indulging in some sort of subterfuge is more arrant nonsense. (At least its recitation was not as laboured or painful as previous attempts by earlier Speakers to deliver the traditional prayer in Maori!)
The honest Question
So, we come back to the basic point of whether there should be a prayer at all. Most of the cultures represented in our contemporary society have some sort of invocation to commence their official proceedings, and many of us are well and used to karakia.
It is therefore not unreasonable that Parliament, an institution of custom and tradition, should have a similar procedure.
From my vantage point, I never saw the daily Parliamentary Prayer as a literal request for direct, divine intervention in the work of our Parliament (a few, invariably to be disappointed MPs did!) but more a pause for reflection about the awesome nature of the responsibilities to the country all MPs have. To that extent, that brief moment before the rigours of the daily sitting was no bad thing in my view.
The real point of the current discussion, though, is the contribution it makes to our emerging identity as a modern multi-cultural, multi-ethnic nation. Of course, the role of the Parliamentary Prayer has only a limited influence in this, but its importance is more as a symbol that our Parliament is in fact a House of Representatives.
At the very least, therefore, the daily invocation should be representative and inclusive, so I encourage the Speaker in his efforts.
A manifestly more tolerant and inclusive Parliament must just be a small step towards a more tolerant and inclusive nation – surely, a “relentlessly posidive” (as I understand how the word is now to be pronounced) goal for all of us.
Peter Dunne is a former Minister in the Labour and National Governments and Leader of the UnitedFuture Party which was recently disbanded. He lives in Christchurch.