Brian Rudman 's Opinion

Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Should MPs put NZ first? My oath

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Hone Harawira was thrown out of Parliament after extemporising on the oath of allegiance. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Hone Harawira was thrown out of Parliament after extemporising on the oath of allegiance. Photo / Mark Mitchell

What a treasonable act by Te Tai Tokerau byelection victor Hone Harawira, to stand up in Parliament and swear an oath to honour his election pledges.

No wonder Speaker Lockwood Smith was so desperate to shuffle him out of the building. What an awful precedent that would have set. And what next might he propose. Pre-election performance reviews for each MP?

As a senior member of the party that swept into office in 2008 on a quickly broken promise to deliver $4 billion in personal tax cuts, Speaker Smith had every reason to stamp such nonsense out.

Luckily for him, Mr Harawira seems satisfied with having made his point and has indicated that next week, when Parliament returns from the school holidays, he will toe the line.

He will mumble the meaningless oath of fealty parliamentarians have to swear to an absentee English landowner to gain entry to their exclusive club then quietly take his seat.

The point remains: the parliamentary oath is a piece of ancient theatre so why not allow a bit of extemporising on the theme. Mr Harawira's promise to back his election promises was hardly incendiary.

To those who regard the commitment he made to the Treaty as vague and meaningless, it certainly has more relevance and sense than knee-bending to a foreign Queen.

As for his promise to be "honest and forthright in my efforts to advance the rights of the people of Tai Tokerau ... to help all Maori people become full and valid citizens of this land ... and to reduce the inequalities in this country," how unparliamentary is that? It's the sort of pledge every MP should have to say out loud.

The parliamentary oath has been something of an embarrassment to many MPs for years. In 2004, then Minister of Justice Phil Goff set up a review of "oaths" in general and introduced an Oaths Modernisation Bill which lingered for years on Labour's statute agenda before disappearing under the present National administration.

Mr Goff's bill combined the old pledge of "true allegiance" to the British royals with a promise to be loyal to New Zealand and to "respect its democratic values and the rights and freedoms of its people. So help me God."

Three years later, newly elected Maori Party MP Hone Harawira proposed an amendment to the still lingering bill, adding that "the person taking the oath may, at that person's discretion ... make the following statement: 'I will uphold the Treaty of Waitangi"'.

The 2004 Ministry of Justice discussion paper remarked on the absence of any commitment to New Zealand or democratic values in the existing oath. It noted that in 1994 MP Tau Henare "had crossed his fingers when he took his oath of allegiance" and later said that "his allegiance was primarily to New Zealand".

In 1999 a future Speaker, Margaret Wilson, in her maiden speech called for the oath of allegiance to the Queen to be replaced by a pledge of loyalty to the New Zealand people.

For years, republicans and Maori MPs have argued for, and insinuated into their oaths, various commitments to the Treaty.

As Mr Goff said in 2004, "whatever the constitutional theory, in practice the government's authority is derived from the people". MP Mat Robson backed him saying the oath of allegiance to the Queen was ridiculous because "nobody pays attention to it".

The discussion paper notes that the parliamentary oath dates back to the time when there was no separation between church and state and "a promise before God to be loyal to the King or Queen, anointed by God, was a very powerful undertaking".

Oaths were used by kings and queens to keep people with certain religious beliefs from public office. In Britain - and New Zealand - until 1888, "people with no religious belief were not thought competent to hold jobs or offices that required an oath". Charles Bradlaugh was elected to the British House of Commons in 1880 but refused entry because he wouldn't take the oath.

Swearing on a holy book - even the Koran is now acceptable in Wellington - is now optional; non-religious affirmations are acceptable but the object of adoration remains a symbolic leader living halfway around the globe.

For reasons best known to themselves, our leaders continue to shy away from making an open commitment to their country, their people or their election promises.

It's not that I see the parliamentary oath as having any magical qualities. A scoundrel is not suddenly going to change his spots, or choke on the spot as he makes a promise he knows he's going to break. But like a wedding ceremony, it is a symbolic gesture of commitment. It's time we heard New Zealand MPs make that pledge to their country and its people. And, if they want, to the Treaty as well.

- NZ Herald

Brian Rudman

Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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