Wellington, May 10, 2019
Parliament’s current Speaker (Trevor Mallard) is turning the ancient and venerable institution on its head.
Traditionally, the Speaker’s role has been a rather conservative, sometimes passive, one to preside independently, without fear or favour over proceedings in the House, to ensure that no Member of the House acts in a way that brings Parliament into disrepute, but that every Member, regardless of how senior or junior they are, or what party they represent has a fair and reasonable opportunity to promote their views on the issues before the House.
For those reasons, Speakers of the House of Representatives normally stand aside from partisan political activities during their term, and put a reasonable perceptible distance between themselves and their own party, so they cannot be accused by anybody of any form of political bias.
Mr Mallard seems hell-bent on changing all that. He is a long serving MP, second only in seniority to the Deputy Prime Minister in the current Parliament, and, as a former Whip and Minister, has seen more than most about the management of Parliament.
Faced with a new government and a totally inexperienced Prime Minister, he seems to have taken on the role of her protector in the cut and thrust of Parliamentary debate, Question Time in particular. While his paternalistic approach towards the Prime Minister may be understandable in the circumstances, it is, at the same time, not only utterly patronising, but, worse, it is completely inappropriate and totally compromising of the presumed impartiality of the Speaker.
When his innovation of adding or subtracting the number of Supplementary Questions the various parties are entitled to during Question Time as penalties for what he considers bad behaviour is considered as well, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that Mr Mallard still sees himself to be an active player in the Parliamentary game, rather than its impartial referee.
There might less of a debate about the current Speaker’s performance if the perception was that his interventions were evenly spread between the Government and the Opposition.
But the reality is that because Parliament is the Opposition’s main platform for criticising the Government (which, conversely, by the nature of its role has many more opportunities to promote its message) it is the Opposition that always tends to feel most acutely the way it is treated by the Speaker, no matter how partial or impartial the Speaker may be.
And that puts an added pressure on the Speaker to be doubly sure that his treatment of the Opposition in the House is not just fair and reasonable, but is overtly seen to be so.
That is where Mr Mallard is failing.
Of course, given his experience, he knows full well the various games the Opposition are playing – he has played many of them himself when in Opposition – but that does not mean it is his role as the impartial referee to try and head them off from doing so, before they actually do so. Yet, time and time again, he seems too quick to intervene to cut the Opposition short, to the benefit and delight of the Government.
That is not as it should be.
Some recent shortcomings
There were examples of all of the Speaker’s shortcomings on display in the House this week. His decision to throw the Leader of the Opposition out from Question Time because he was making alleged “barnyard” noises in response to answers being given by the Prime Minister was an over-reaction.
Yes, Mr Bridges was at fault because Ministerial answers are supposed to be heard in silence (yet I seem to recall being interjected upon by Mr Mallard many times when answering questions) but his misdemeanour deserved a stern rebuke, not an expulsion.
Even worse, was the Speaker’s decision to “Name” Dr Nick Smith – whom he had just expelled – for shouting criticism of the Speaker as he left the House.
Now, I have no particular brief for Dr Smith – he can be unreasonable bordering on utterly impossible at times. (Indeed, I well recall trying to negotiate with him about the Resource Management Act, and being told he was only willing to do so if I gave him a prior commitment that whatever happened we would reach an agreement!)
Naming the MP
But his behaviour, while impulsive and silly, did not justify his being “Named.”
Being “Named” means an MP is suspended from the service of the House, initially for 24 hours, but in rising amounts if the offence is repeated, and deprived of salary and access to the House’s resources for that time.
Put into perspective, Dr Smith’s offence was akin to the serial parking offender who wrote an abusive letter to the local Council, being sent to jail for 10 years, completely over the top and out of all proportion to reality.
A major part of the Speaker’s role is to ensure the smooth running of the House, and the Parliament as a whole. That relies on co-operation from the Opposition, which in turn will be based on the confidence it has in the Speaker.
Already, the Opposition has labelled Mr Mallard a “bully,” making the prospect of serious cooperation for the balance of this Parliament quite unlikely.
The “Bully Boy”
And the blame for that can be laid fairly and squarely at Mr Mallard’s overly (and overtly) partisan door. He needs to take the lead in repairing the damage he has created so far, and assuaging the view that he is probably Parliament’s most biased Speaker in the last thirty years.
Mr Mallard revelled in being Parliament’s resident bully boy when he was in Opposition. And he was good at it. But trying to reprise the role from the Speaker’s chair to protect the Prime Minister and batter the Opposition is not acceptable. If he carries on this way, he will achieve the dubious honour of being remembered as the Speaker who brought Parliament into disrepute.
Peter Dunne was a Minister of the Crown under the Labour and National-led Coalition Governments between November 1999 and September 2017. He founded the UnitedFuture Party but disbanded it upon retirement from Parliament. He lives in Wellington.