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PoliticsFebruary 21, 2024

What happens at parliament when an MP dies?

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

The business of parliament came to a halt today as MPs from across the spectrum paid tribute to Efeso Collins, who died this morning.

An MP dying in office has happened before, but not for a while. The last MP to die during a parliamentary term was Labour’s Parekura Horomia in 2013; the last before him was Green co-leader Rod Donald in 2005.

Much like today, those unexpected deaths also saw the often spirited parliament debating chamber become a place of mourning as MPs grappled with the loss of a colleague and paid tribute to them. But, owing to Collins’ sudden death just hours before parliament was meant to be sitting, emotions were especially high as MPs gathered in the House today.

What happened today?

Everything played out in very quick succession once the news of Collins’ passing was confirmed by the Green Party at 10.46am. 

That news immediately triggered several things. Firstly, leader of the house Chris Bishop confirmed that parliament would be adjourned until next week. That means the removal of two sitting days – today and tomorrow – which could potentially delay the government’s legislative agenda and the execution of its 100-day plan. Parliament was meant to be under urgency, meaning extended hours for debate.

Then, leaders of all major parties paid tribute to Collins, either by addressing media directly or via social media. 

What happened in the debating chamber?

2pm on a Wednesday would normally mean question time, the typically boisterous exchange of ideas between the government and the opposition. 

Things played out very differently today. As the Herald’s Thomas Coughlan explained, while there are rules that govern how parliament should operate when a member dies unexpectedly, there are no formal guidelines in place for how mourning should take place.

As such, today saw most parliamentary pageantry ditched in favour of a solemn series of speeches from (almost all) party leaders.

James Shaw, the Green Party co-leader, spoke first. Speaking of Collins, Shaw said: “He was joyful, he was funny, he was kind, and thoughtful. He conducted himself quietly and kindly and gracefully… He worked for change not by forcing his ideas on others but by listening and seeking out ideas from others. He was a man full of empathy. Mr Speaker, Efeso Collins was a good man.”

Prime minister Christopher Luxon spoke on behalf of the coalition government, though Act’s David Seymour and NZ First’s Winston Peters shared brief statements online.

Chris Hipkins and Carmel Sepuloni spoke on behalf of Labour, then Debbie Ngarewa-Packer spoke for Te Pāti Māori.

A waiata was then sung by all MPs and the packed public gallery, followed by a Sāmoan hymn, and a minute’s silence was observed.

Collins’ seat was left empty, with a tapa cloth draped over it.


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Why does parliament shut until next Tuesday?

Convention would normally be that that the business of parliament is cancelled for just one day. In that case, the House would be sitting tomorrow as planned. However, Collins dying on a sitting day changes things slightly. In short, it would be too soon for MPs to be back debating legislation tomorrow – everyone deserves the opportunity to grieve. Parliament does not sit on a Friday or Monday, meaning next Tuesday is the best solution. This week would also be far too soon for Collins’ family to be in Wellington to hear tributes in person.

In the cases of both Donald and Horomia, they passed away outside of a parliamentary sitting period. Horomia, for example, died on April 29 and parliament gathered as planned on May 7 to acknowledge his passing, before adjourning until the following day.

Why were not all Green MPs in parliament today?

Collins was well-loved across the house and he had strong connections with a number of MPs. Soon after news of his passing was made public, members of the Green Party, including co-leader Marama Davidson, headed to Auckland to be with his family.

Will other MPs have a chance to formally pay tribute to Collins?

Yes. As Shaw explained to media, today was not the day for everyone to speak. It was simply a chance for formal recognition of Collins’ service. People will now have the opportunity to mourn in private, and parliament will gather in the coming weeks (according to speaker Gerry Brownlee) to pay further tributes.

It’s at that stage we will likely hear reflections from the likes of Marama Davidson, along with members of Act and New Zealand First that did not speak today.

What does Collins’ death mean for parliament?

The speaker will inform the house tomorrow that there is a vacant seat.

Collins was a list-only MP which means his passing does not trigger a byelection. The process of bringing up another MP allows for the next on the party list – Lawrence Xu-Nan – taking up the position should they wish. 

With James Shaw’s leaving already announced, Dunedin-based Francisco Hernandez will also enter parliament at a later date.

For now, the House will remain empty as MPs disperse to process the death of a colleague and friend.

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